Hard to believe, but your cat’s ears contain over two dozen muscles, enabling them to do an Exorcist-like 180-degree swivel forward, backward, up and down. Although they pan around like radar dishes scanning for sounds, they’re not just for hearing.
Like the telltale tail, the ears are a vital part of the cat’s body language, and proper interpretation can help you better understand Fluffy’s moods and in some cases, keep you safe from injury.
Normally, a relaxed cat’s ears will point slightly to the side and slightly forward as shown in Figure 1 above. This indicates contentment and sense of well-being. She’s neither fearful nor aggressive.
When your cat is alert and something has captured her interest, her ears will assume a straight-up orientation, and a forward posture as in Figure 2. She’ll usually greet you with ears erect, offering a friendly greeting.
If your cat’s ears are twitching, she’s agitated and nervous, as shown in Figure 3. This might be a cue to offer her reassurance and a safe embrace. Persistent twitching could be a sign of a medical problem.
A cat’s ears moving from a forward posture to a backward posture indicates increased aggression. A cat’s ears moving from an upright position to a full horizontal position indicates increased fear, annoyance, or submissiveness — a warning for you to leave her alone. If you notice that your cat’s ear are maintaining a horizontal orientation on a regular basis, she could have an ear infection or ear mites, and a trip to the vet is warranted.
When the ears flatten against the head in a defensive position as in Figure 4, your cat is frightened and may attack. She instinctively keeps her ears flat against her head in attack mode to protect her ears from claws and teeth during a fight.
Ears that are pointing backward somewhere between the “alert” and “defensive” positions indicate an aggressive cat who may attack.
Understanding when a cat might attack can save you from injury. When the ears are back (the telltale sign of aggression), you should never try to touch or pick up a cat because you’re at high risk of being bitten or scratched — injuries that could require hospitalization.
The cat’s ears are also able to move independently of one another. When they’re in different positions, the cat is ambivalent and unsure of how to respond. She’s likely to withdraw to assess the situation. As she does so, her ears may shift as they interpret stimuli and consider how to react.
When you understand both a cat’s “tail language” and “ear language,” you’re well-equipped to interpret what even the least vocal feline is trying to say.