Cats are emotive creatures. They are expert communicators and use various tactics to ‘speak’ to both humans and animals. Besides body language and vocalizations, cats convey what they’re thinking and feeling through their ears. Each position of the ears has a different, universal meaning that you can use to ascertain your cat’s mood.
Cats can swivel their ears up to 180 degrees and adopt many different ear positions. A cat with its ears facing forwards is happy, relaxed, and content. If a cat’s ears point straight up, it is alert and curious about what’s going on around it. Ears turned back or sideways indicates that a cat is feeling scared or anxious. Cats with their ears low and facing out are likely to be feeling unwell. And if a cat has one ear folded or down, it’s feeling confused and unsure of what to make of its situation.
So, if you’re looking to understand what your cat is thinking and feeling, starting at the top is with its ears the best way to go. Coupled with their posture and body language, the ears are useful for understanding exactly what their cats want and need.
Table of Contents:
Cat Ear Positions And What They Mean
Cats have 32 muscles in each ear. To put it into context, this is 5 times the amount that humans have. These muscles help cats hear high-frequency sounds and enable them to swivel their ears 180 degrees, giving them a wide range of motion.
Understanding what each ear position means can begin to figure out what your cat is trying to tell you. These are the most common explanations for a cat’s ear positions:
Ears Faced Forward
Ears facing forwards is also known as the neutral position. If your cat’s ears are doing this, it feels relaxed, content, and playful. When your cat displays its ears in this position, it’s in its most friendly mood and the time when you are most likely to get away with picking your pet up and cuddling it.
Some cats won’t allow this, even if they are in a good mood. Whether a cat allows you to touch it or not is down to your cat’s personality. For example, if your cat has never enjoyed being picked up, its happy, positive attitude won’t change this. Instead, focus on playing with your cat in the way it enjoys, using its favorite toys to entice it to have some fun.
Even if your cat is relaxing in its favorite spot, you’ll find your cat’s ears will always twitch as it stokes out its surroundings. At the very least, the ears will remain alert. They may also swivel continuously as your cat tracks the noises it hears.
Ears Straight Up
A cat with its ears straight up is alert and interested in what’s going on in its surroundings. With its ears in this position, a cat will try to find out what is happening in its immediate vicinity by listening to the unique and unfamiliar noises and working out what they are.
Curious cats who are interested in something they’ve seen might swivel their ears from side to side to home in on the noise. Cats that enjoy watching birds out of the window are most likely to adopt this ear position, as are guard cats or felines who regularly patrol the house.
Cats have excellent hearing, so even if humans can’t hear what a cat can hear, it’s worth heeding a cat’s warning in case of intruders or other dangers that need checking out. Otherwise, your cat is simply enjoying itself by watching the world go by.
Ears Turned Back or Sideways
A cat with its ears in a backward or sideways position is feeling scared or anxious. As a result, the cat may become aggressive as it tries to deal with its fear. You’ll be able to tell for sure by looking at its pupils. Cats with large, black pupils and back or sideways ears are feeling fearful and preparing to either fight or flee.
Often, pinned back ears will be accompanied by a crouched body posture and excessive vocalization. Scared cats might also swipe or scratch as a human tries to get close.
Giving a nervous cat plenty of space to calm down is wise. If a cat feels smothered, it may lash out with aggressive behavior. This can surprise many cat owners if their cats are usually calm and peaceful.
Turning out the light and giving your pet access to small hiding spaces is wise. Doing this gives your pet a chance to escape and calm down in its own time, without pressure or fear.
Ears Low And Facing Out
A cat with its ears in this position may not be feeling well. As described in Sage Journals, cats are descendants of solitary animals, where hiding illness is vital for survival. Therefore, domestic cats display few signs of disease, pain, and distress.
Luckily for cat owners, felines who keep their ears low and facing outwards are giving away that they are unwell – albeit unwittingly. To be sure, pay close attention to your cat’s overall behavior and attitude for any apparent changes or signs of distress. If your cat hides away or refuses to eat, health issues are almost certainly to blame.
Don’t panic, though. Many cats suffer from common health issues from time to time, including bad tummies or mild sickness. This is normal, and your cat needs time to heal. However, if the problem persists, seek professional help.
One Ear Down
If your cat has one ear folded down or its two ears are doing different things altogether, your cat feels confused or unsure. Your pet might be trying to focus on more than one thing, or it may be trying to decide what it thinks of the situation it is in, particularly if it’s experiencing something new.
If you’ve recently moved home or introduced a new pet to the home, this ear position is typical. Once your pet has made up its mind, its ears will prick up and become more alert.
However, more simply, your cat might be placing one ear down because it is injured or suffers from an ear infection. Bacterial and yeast infections are the most common. A cat will fold one ear down because of discomfort to prevent humans from getting near the ear canal.
While technically not a position, a cat’s twitching ears indicate that your cat is agitated. Because of their excellent hearing, they may be picking up on something that you are not. Twitching allows cats to capture the surrounding noise they hear by manipulating their ears into the prime shape.
Hissing and pouncing will likely follow the ear twitching as your cat adopts aggressive behaviors. These behaviors are usually a reaction to feeling scared of something.
Similarly, if your cat’s ears twitch and fold flat against the head, it is unhappy. Reassuring your cat or providing it with some space will encourage it to feel comfortable once again. Cats will lash out if they feel threatened, so you must be careful not to get hurt.
Twitching can also be a reaction to ear mites, cuts, stings, or polyps. Though, these are fairly noticeable and can be ruled out upon closer inspection.
Main Functions of the Ear
As described by the MSD Veterinary Manual, the ear is both an organ of hearing and balance. It consists of the outer, middle, and inner ear.
The outer ear consists of the ear canal and the pinna. The pinna is the part of the ear that sticks out. It’s made of cartilage and is covered in skin, fur, and hair. Its primary function is to capture sound waves and funnel them into the eardrum through the ear canal. Interestingly, the pinna on their ear can move independently of each other.
A cat’s ear canal appears deep in the ear and is prone to dirt and wax build-up. The ear canal is an effective funnel for driving sound into the eardrum.
The middle ear consists of the eardrum and the hammer, anvil, and stirrup. These are three tiny bones that are contained in an air-filled chamber. Inside the middle part of the ear are two muscles; the oval window, and the eustachian tube. This tube connects the middle ear with the back of the nose, allowing air to enter.
The inner ear is the most complex of the three. It includes the cochlea, which is known as the hearing organ, and the vestibular system. This is the organ of balance.
For a cat to maintain its balance, the inner ear’s semi-circular canals are filled with fluid. These canals give a cat excellent agility and balance skills.
Other Forms of Cat Communication
Of course, it’s not just their ears that cats communicate with. Cats use various methods to communicate with humans and other animals, including sounds, posture, and body language. Some are human-specific, while others are universal to all creatures.
These forms of communication are necessary to cats, who rely on them to survive in the wild and protect themselves from harm. It also allows animals to bond with their human owners and alert them to fulfill their basic needs if they’re not being met.
Once you begin to understand how cats communicate, it’s easy to see what they want and need. These are the most common that cats use:
A cat’s body shape and posture offer many insights into what your cat is feeling. A happy cat will stand in a relaxed body posture with its tail slightly curved at the tip. The ears will adopt a neutral position, and its mouth will remain closed.
Similarly, a cat that lays down with its belly exposed is also showing its contentedness. It doesn’t sense any nearby dangers and knows you are not a threat. Cats with their stomachs exposed are vulnerable and don’t adopt this position unless they are confident you will not cause it any harm.
A worried cat will adopt a crouched position. Its muscles will be tense, and its tail will be tucked tightly into the body, safely away from danger. A nervous cat will position its ears sideways, and its pupils will dilate.
In this position, your cat is getting ready to run away from danger, so it will hold its body tight to enable a quick reaction. Many scared cats will tuck themselves away in spots that no-one else can reach and won’t reappear until the danger subsides.
An angry cat will adopt two clear positions. The first position will be to lay down flat to the floor, with its ears flattened, and pupils dilated. The rail will be held tightly to the body, and it will appear tense and rigid. The mouth will be open with teeth bared to warn dangers off.
The second position is a standing one, with the cat’s back arched. Its hairs will stand on end, and the front paw will be slightly raised from the ground, ready to swipe. Again, the ears will be lowered, and the cat will show its teeth as a warning.
Cats have an impressive arsenal of sounds in their repertoire. The most common is meowing. Interestingly, this sound is used to communicate with humans, not other cats. Meowing indicates that a cat wants something, like food, attention, or access to the outdoors. But cats also meow to greet humans or ask them not to leave home again, for example.
Another common cat vocalization is the purr. This familiar throaty rumble is a sign that a cat is happy and content. Cats most often purr when being stroked or are about to receive a tasty treat.
Although purring can also sometimes signify that a cat is unwell, it’s tough to tell the difference between the two types of purrs. However, a purr because of illness is usually accompanied by behavioral signs, like a lack of appetite and lethargy, making it easier to spot.
Chirps and trills are sweet sounds that are more commonly used in cat to cat communication. Mother cats trill at their kittens to encourage them to follow her or behave. These noises also highlight when a cat is happy or excited about something.
Some cats chatter when they look out of the window. This is a sign of predatory excitement after a cat spots a bird or other prey animal. It also indicates a stress level that your cat cannot get outside to hunt the animals down.
Finally, hissing and yowling are both signs of distress. A cat making these sounds feels threatened or uncomfortable and makes these sounds to encourage unwanted parties to back off.
Shy cats will hiss more often than outgoing cats and may even hiss at their owners if they’ve had a difficult upbringing. In some cats, this behavior may never go away and is part of their personality.
The eyes are the windows to the soul, so they say. And when it comes to a cat’s eyes, this an accurate assumption. A cat’s eyes will often betray what it is thinking and feeling. Far from being large and cute, the eyes hold many clues to understanding both a cat’s mood and its next move.
The famous slow blink shows affection and relaxation. Cats will blink slowly at their owners to show that they trust you and don’t see you as a threat. Blinking is also a useful bonding tool that either you or your pet can initiate.
The next time you see your cat, wink at them with one eye and see if your pet does it back. If it does, it is completely content in your presence.
On the other hand, dilated pupils indicate that your cat feels stimulated and is in a playful mood. Now’s the perfect time to play with your cat and have some fun with its favorite toys. Be careful, though; when your cat is in this mood, there’s a strong chance that your pet could accidentally bite or scratch you as it becomes over-excited.
Constricted pupils, when your cat’s eyes form vertical slits, indicate that your cat’s about to ambush another animal – whether that be unfortunate prey, another pet in the household, or you. Smaller pupils allow your cat to see a sharper image, giving it increased seeing power.
It’s important to know that both constricted and dilated pupils can also be a sign that your cat is unwell or in pain.
The ears are powerful communicators and often give away a cat’s real thoughts, even if they try to hide them. Monitoring a cat’s pupils, posture, and behavior alongside its ear position will help you get a better insight into your cat’s personality.