If you’re a cat owner, you’re probably accustomed to your cat communicating with you (or with other pets) through meows, hisses, growls, or other vocalizations. But what about the many ways cats use nonverbal cues? What can they tell us about our cat’s mood or even health?
In a world where the slightest sound can mean danger or a juicy meal, cats have developed an intricate system of nonverbal cues to help them communicate. Using their posture, eyes, ears, and tail, a cat can convey much about its mood, and what it’s likely to do next.
Let’s take a look at how cats’ ear movements and positions can help us understand feline behavior.
The ears tell the story
In the feline world, silence is often essential. Cats are fundamentally hunters that rely on stealth to capture prey. Similarly, a cat’s ears are an essential tool used in hunting, play, and communication with other cats in their family or colony.
Here are some common feline ear postures and what they mean.
Ears forward = curiosity. When a cat is curious, they want to gather as much information about its surroundings as possible. By pointing their ears forward, they create an ideal ear shape for capturing sound. Even when resting, cats can often remain alert to sounds, pivoting an ear to capture some subtle noise in the environment.
“Airplane ears” = uneasiness/uncertainty. Cats, like humans, are not always comfortable with uncertainty. An unsure cat may flatten its ears out to the sides like airplane wings. This behavior may indicate that the cat is attempting to buffer any loud noises that may follow. Also, “airplane ears”, or cat ears that point sideways, indicate that a cat is not in an approachable mood. Airplane ears can also serve as a warning to other cats in the home that something is amiss and to back off.
Flicking ears = irritation.As we know, cats can become irritated quickly and often for reasons unapparent to their people. Persistent ear flicking is a sign of feline annoyance. This can escalate into a threat response (hissing, crying) if the annoyance persists.
Ears back & down = anger/fear.When a cat feels threatened, they take on a fighting posture. The ears are back and pressed flat to the head. This protects the delicate skin of the ear in the event of a brawl. It also sends a very strong fight-or-run message to other cats.
Ear problems - when to see the vet
Ear posture can also be an indicator of a medical problem. Consult your vet if you notice:
Your cat persistently flicking or scratching at one ear.
Small scabs or dried blood in the ear (a possible sign of ear mites or other parasites).
Your cat reacts with pain sensitivity when its ears are touched.
Signs of hearing loss (your cat’s inability to respond to sound cues could be an early sign of hearing loss.
A check of your cat’s ears should also be part of any well-animal evaluation. Cat’s ears should be kept clean, and though most cats do this for themselves, you can assist by gently removing dirt and debris from the outer ear. As with humans: do not place a cotton swab deep in the ear canal as this could be harmful to your pet.
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Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.