Ask a Behaviorist
Share this image

How Cats’ Ears Help Them Communicate and Survive

Cats use their ears to tell us -- and other cats -- about their moods and intentions. Here's how.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Mar 25th 2016


Cat’s ears are little masterpieces of delicate engineering. With 32 muscles in each, they’re multifunctional and do more than catch sounds. Ears, in conjunction with other subtle and overt body language, communicate the individual’s moods and intentions. Even the colors and patterns of ears have a function — some felines have markings on the backs of their ears that help increase their odds of escaping predators.

Cat ears express emotions and intentions

Cat ears express emotions and intentions. A cat looks at the camera by Shutterstock

Facts about cats’ ears

Ears are like little radar dishes. Each moves independently of the other. They can swivel 180 degrees, and they move up and down. Watch your kitty while she sleeps. You’ll note that even while napping, her ears move, tracking noises. Her hearing is so acute she can easily pick up the slight rustling of a treat bag being opened at the other end of the house.

Cats’ range of hearing far surpasses that of humans. Although both species have a similar range for the low sounds, kitties can hear much higher-pitched noises — necessary for little hunters who rely on their ears to find squeaking rodents. Additionally, cats are much better at discriminating between tones and pitches than humans. Because their ears swivel, they are able to pinpoint the sources and locations of the subtlest of sounds. Their hearing is ideal for hunting as well as for identifying threats and friends.

Even while they nap, cats track sounds with their ears

Even while they nap, cats track sounds with their ears. A cat sleeps by Shutterstock

Markings that mimic

Some species of wild cats have markings, called ocelli, on the backs of their ears. The contrasting colors and patterns resemble eyes, helping the felines survive in a rough environment. Mimicking eyes of larger animals, they often deceive predators into thinking the cats are large and threatening and should be avoided. Seen from behind, ocelli are also like little flags, signaling the feline’s intentions to other animals. Wild cats aren’t the only ones who have them. Although not as intense and showy as wild cats, some domestic cats, such as Savannahs and Bengals, have ocelli on their ears.

Some cats such as Brodie Lee, a Savannah have ocelli on their ears

Some cats such as Brodie Lee, a Savannah, have ocelli on their ears. Photo by Laura Lawson

Moods and intentions

Ears are perfect little communication devices — their positions and movements are reliable indicators of how felines are feeling as well as their intentions. Although obvious to cats, their meanings are often not understood by people.

Here are five ear positions, along with their meanings, that will help you understand how your cat feels:

1. Curious
Kitties who are curious about something or someone will hold their ears up and focused forward.

Something has caught this cat’s attention

Something has caught this cat’s attention. A gray cat listens by Shutterstock

2. Neutral and relaxed
Next time your special kitty is relaxing check out her ears. Most likely, they are pointed up and slightly angled out from the sides of her head. Often they will swivel independently in order to identify and pinpoint the origin of a compelling noise.

Relaxed cat

A cat relaxes by Shutterstock

3. Nervous, anxious, and fearful
When cats become nervous, they swivel each ear to help identify and determine the seriousness of the threat. Their ears will also move backward and, depending on the degree of anxiety, start to flatten toward the back of the head. Anxiety can escalate into fear. Fearful kitties will lower and flatten their ears.

Fearful cat

A fearful cat hides by Shutterstock

4. On the offensive
Cat fights are terrible to see and hear. One way to recognize the aggressor is by the positions of the ears — they are twisted so that the backs of the ears are seen from the front. Depending on the intensity of the aggression, they sometimes angle out at varying degrees from the sides of the head.

The cat to the left is the aggressor. Note the back of his ears are turned so they are seen from the front.

The cat on the left is the aggressor. Note that the backs of his ears are turned so they are seen from the front. Offensive fighter by Shutterstock

5. On the defensive
Cats who are facing an offensively aggressive feline sometimes flatten their ears while holding them to the sides of the head. Another defensive position is to lay them flat against the back of the head. This flattened position minimizes ears from being damaged from the opponent’s teeth and claws. Kitties who display their ears folded sideways and down would rather avoid the situation but, if cornered and out of options, will fight.

The cat on the right would prefer not to fight

The cat on the right would prefer not to fight. Two cats face off by Shutterstock

Although ears are strong mood barometers, they don’t work alone — the whole cat tells the story. Ears along with whiskers, eyes, fur, vocalizations, and body positions help you understand your cat’s feelings and intentions.

Please follow Marilyn on Facebook!

Do you have a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian.