An angry cat growling, hissing or hiding.
An angry cat growling, hissing or hiding. Photography ©points | Thinkstock.

Cats With Their Ears Back — What It Means in Cat Language

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Ears are essential for communication across the animal kingdom. We hear words, sounds and inflections that let us quickly size up any situation. For people, they’re mostly static — except for that one uncle who can wiggle them. But cats use their ears in ways that put human parlor tricks to shame. In addition to being able to rotate them independently to 180 degrees, they also hear at higher frequencies and can pinpoint a squeak at five times the distance of people. Beyond their hearing powers, cats’ ears are also beacons for information. So, cats with their ears back have an important message. Let’s learn what cats with their ears back mean and how you can use this information to interact with your kitties.

Are your cat’s ears pinned back or airplane ears?

Airplane ears in cats usually just signal curiosity.
Airplane ears in cats aren’t at the same level as pinned-back ears. Photography ©~UserGI15633745 | Thinkstock.

Cats evolved to maximize their survival. While they are often considered hunters, they are also prey animals. Being able to hear prey and predators is key to staying alive. That’s where the engineering of a cat’s magnificent ears takes center stage. Cat ears rotate toward sound. Cats point their ear canals in the direction of your voice or a suspicious rustling. Their ears also signify their moods. Ears up and forward means that they’re alert. Ears that point sideways, aka “airplane” ears, indicate that they’re getting nervous or anxious. You’ll probably notice your cat making airplane ears when experiencing something foreign.

Cats with their ears back in a pinned position, however, are sending a different message. Author Dr. Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, Diplomate — American College of Veterinary Behaviorists James Law Professor of Behavior Medicine, emeritus, says, “The more fearful a cat is, the flatter the cats ears will get. Most cat aggression is rooted in fear.”

Cat ears pinned back signal aggression on the rise

For cats with their ears back, while the stimulus may spring from fear, it often turns to aggression. In addition to paying attention to the cat’s flat-back ears, monitor his pupils. “You can tell how scared a cat is by his pupils — the more afraid a cat is, the larger his pupils will become. However, an offensively aggressive cat will not have large pupils. And a cat moving his head side to side with ears turned back is in a very aggressive state.”

Dr. Margaret Gruen, PhD, North Carolina State University, College of Veterinary Medicine, says, “Often, when aggression is escalating, pinned-back ears will be accompanied by other [things], including body posture and vocalizations consistent with aggression. The cats are trying to tell us something, we just need to be willing to listen.”

A good way to tell the difference between “airplane” ears and pinned-back cat ears is by whether or not you can see the opening of the ear canals. “If you can’t see the opening of the ears, your cats ears are pinned or flattened back in fear or aggression,” says Dr. Houpt.

How to handle cats with their ears pinned back

A kitten hissing with his ears flattened back.
Cats with their ears back like this signal aggression and fear — watch out! Photography ©Ornitolog82 | Thinkstock.

Dr. Houpt indicates that most cat aggression is toward other cats. A trip out of your cat’s comfort zone, like an appointment at the veterinarian, can result in cats with their ears pinned back. It’s helpful to speak cat when calming an aggressive feline, and to fully assess the situation.

If you find your cat displaying pinned-back ears, proceed with caution. “Putting an upside-down laundry basket over the cat is a good way to quickly contain him,” says Dr. Houpt. She explains that you can then gently push the cat into another room, where he has the opportunity to quietly settle down. This fast maneuver can help prevent a cat attack. Dr. Hoput recommends checking on the cat every hour. While checking on the cat, offer him food. You’ll know he’s feeling better when he takes the food.

Since triggers, like going to the veterinarian, may create aggressive cats with pinned-back ears, conditioning the cat to the process leading up to the trigger is helpful. If your cat becomes aggressive during vet visits, Dr. Marty Becker, DVM, suggests leaving the cat carrier out and rewarding your cat when he goes in it. Leave a bowl of his favorite food in there with the door open — letting your cat know the carrier is nothing to be afraid of is important. Dr. Becker also recommends taking the cat on practice runs to the vet’s office, where the cat gets more treats with each journey. Again, alleviating the fear that leads to aggression is the ultimate solution to avoiding flattened ears and ruffled fur.

Prick up your own ears

Living with cats means taking the time to understand your cat’s intentions and emotions. Your kitty’s ears are windows into his world, so paying close attention to them is crucial. Cats with their ears pinned back, without showing their ear canal openings, is a surefire signal that it’s time to proceed with caution. Recognizing what your cat’s ears are telling you will help you handle your cat properly.

Thumbnail: Photography by ©points | Thinkstock.

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15 thoughts on “Cats With Their Ears Back — What It Means in Cat Language”

  1. I disagree!! My kitten LOVES to have her head rubbed. She purrs, and pushes against my palm AND she holds her ears back flat against her head to make it easier for me to get all the good spots.

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  11. Ruth Littlefield

    Roxanne – my 6 year old Tuxedo cat gets very aggressive and lashes out at me generally when I brush her. She will be enjoying the brushing and in the flash of a second she will be attacking me. Her pupils become real big, her ears lay back flat, her face becomes evil looking and her teeth and nails dig into my skin (my legs and arms) drawing blood! It’s as if she has turned into The Devil! After much blood loss, too many battle scars and trying so many ways to try to diffuse the situation, I finally found the only way to get my kitty (cat) to stop. I use a spray bottle of water and give just a squirt or two and it’s over! (I know Jackson Galaxy does not approve of this method, but it’s not harmful). Anyway, within seconds she is back at my side head bunting me, with pure love in her eyes.

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  13. My usually sweet cat can become very aggressive in an instant and strike out and bite me on an arm or leg. Sometimes even when he chooses to sit on my lap. The bite can be deep and on one occasion caused cellulitis. When I see his pupils dilate and his tail swish, I will make him get off of my bed or I will cover my arms and legs to avoid a strike. This many times will deescalate the situation. If I try to distract him with a toy he is usually too far gone to respond to play.

    1. Ruth Littlefield

      Roxanne – my 6 year old Tuxedo cat gets very aggressive and lashes out at me generally when I brush her. She will be enjoying the brushing and in the flash of a second she will be attacking me. Her pupils become real big, her ears lay back flat, her face becomes evil looking and her teeth and nails dig into my skin (my legs and arms) drawing blood! It’s as if she has turned into The Devil! After much blood loss, too many battle scars and trying so many ways to try to diffuse the situation, I finally found the only way to get my kitty (cat) to stop. I use a spray bottle of water and give just a squirt or two and it’s over! (I know Jackson Galaxy does not approve of this method, but it’s not harmful). Anyway, within she is back at my side head bunting me, with pure love in her eyes.

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