Last updated: November 22, 2016
How Cats Use Their Ears to Communicate
I’m angry, I’m annoyed, I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it any more! I’m a human being, so what do I do? I go tense, I lower my eyebrows into a frown and I raise my voice. Sometimes I scream and throw things, and occasionally I might even hit someone. A great deal of that communication is body language, and 70% of human interaction is done that way, believe it or not. Cats react the same way. They have all sorts of non-verbal and scent communication that we may not understand, but which is instantly recognizable to every other cat on the planet! I can’t move my ears to show my feelings, so why do cats put their ears back? And just how do they do it?
The Structure of a Cat’s Ears
Cats have amazing ears! Did you know that a cat uses a couple of dozen muscles to move its ears? If the cat’s body could do what its ears can, it would be a contortionist! They really are amazing little acrobats. They can go up and down, flatten to the side, flatten to the back and they can turn round 180 degrees. They can even move one by one. (And my ears can’t even move at all! Not fair!) My cat is an ordinary moggy, but he has little ear tufts, and when I look at a lot of others, very few have them. I thought they were just for decoration, but not so. These give him an advantage, since his ears have now become even more efficient and pick up even more sound waves. (He really is a superstar!)
Things Cats Say with Their Ears
Forward Pointing Ears
If your cat is sitting with forward pointing ears the chances are you’re not in any danger of attack! He’s probably purring as well, and he’s saying: “OK, you, I’m ready to play. Just drop absolutely everything you’re doing because I’m here now!” Watch out if you’re knitting, by the way! Cats even sleep this way, with the front ear flaps alert for any noise.
Straight Up Ears
Ears up! “Attention!” This cat is on the lookout for anything that catches his eyes or ears. He’s aware of everything around him and nothing is going to get past him when his ears are in this position. Heaven help the rat, mouse or pigeon that gets in his way when he’s in this mood!
Sideways or Turned Back Ears
These are signs of a nervous or anxious cat. It’s always best to treat this position like an amber traffic light! We’re not quite at the red light but we’re getting there. Be careful of this guy, and approach with caution. He may be feeling a bit grumpy or maybe he’s had a bit too much attention and has sensory overload (I know how THAT feels!) so it’s probably a good idea to leave him alone.
Ears Back and Flattened
When the cat’s ears are back like this it means it’s feeling either very scared, very angry or both. In either case he may attack, and cats have an impressive armory of weapons! Look at those mighty fangs and take a peek at those extremely sharp claws. This little feline person may look cute and cuddly most of the time but in fighting mode he’s a different creature entirely. The ears are kept flush with the head to avoid damage from his enemy’s jaws, paws and claws! NEVER try to cuddle a cat in this mood – it could lead to your sustaining serious scratch and bite wounds which can be bad enough for antibiotics, stitches and even admission to hospital. Cat bites are also very prone to infection, since bacteria from the cat’s mouth can be trapped under the skin. ALWAYS see your doctor! You will probably also have to have a tenanus and rabies shot too. The cat won’t do too well out of this either. Yes, he was only a cat doing what cats do in a scary situation, but he will have to be vaccinated against rabies and in some cases put in quarantine for around two weeks.
What Scares Cats and Makes Them Flatten Their Ears?
Just as some of us are scared of various things (unfortunately we can’t flatten our ears against our heads) – so are cats! My cat is terrified of the vacuum cleaner, but so are most cats. It’s a big, noisy, dangerous looking thing if you’re only half a meter tall!
Another thing that scares cats is water – well, everybody knows that! Water scares them because it weighs them down and actually makes them smell bad – yes, really! Cats have not evolved to be drenched. They are designed to be groomed by a dryish raspy tongue and not doused in hot soapy water.
Cats hate their own reflections. Every time my cat looks in a mirror it’s as if an Olympic sprinter had taken him over. You would never guess that one small body could move so fast!
Balloons. To be fair, you can understand the reason for this. There you are, just playing with this nice big friendly ball, when suddenly – BANG! Well, it would frighten me out of my wits too! Flat ears in a nanosecond!
A lot of the things that make cats mad concern their creature comforts. If you leave their litter tray to become smelly it’s not only distressing for the cat, but it’s not too pleasant for you either! Flat ear time…
Cats don’t like drinking stale water that’s been sitting in its bowl for days – neither would you, right? It may not quite be flat ear territory but don’t take the chance.
Empty food bowl! Need I say more?
Loud noises that sound like other cats can be very threatening, and so can new pets. I’ve seen my own cat with all his red flags up when a stray dog came into the garden one day. Flat ears? Try invisible!
Lots of cats don’t like to be petted and stroked, and others have a time limit beyond which they will become aggressive. Just to be on the safe side, it’s always better never to risk stroking a cat’s tummy. This exposes you to all four claws and a mouthful of fangs as well as the cat’s self-preservation instincts kick in. If your cat is saying “NO!” and both ears are flat on its head, then back off.
So try to keep your cat’s ears pointing forward all the time! All you have to do is love them!