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What Does a Cat Signal With Its Ears?

Dolly and her alert ears

Cats are extraordinary creatures and you can tell a lot about how a cat is feeling just by looking at its body and its body language. Even by just observing your cat’s ears, you can deduce quite a bit of information as their ears are so expressive. Cats’ ears are remarkable. They have 20-30 muscles controlling their movement and they can turn 180 degrees and move independently of each other too. Cats’ ears can scan around them like radars for any sounds. Cats’ ears will also adopt postures which reflects the emotional mood of a cat and be a form of communication and signal to each other and to us humans if we know what to look for. You can read more about a cat’s body language here.


Cats’ ears will manoeuvre and change direction when a cat is listening to sounds coming from different sources and directions. Some cats have tufts of hair which are longer hairs on the tips of their ears. These additional hairs act as senses to detect sound vibrations around them and are common in wild cats to help with hunting and defending themselves. Some domestic cats will have these small tufts on their ears although they are not as developed as on wild cats.

Five ear signals

There are five basic ear signals that are conveyed through a cat’s ears to signal their moods:

  • relaxed
  • alert
  • agitated
  • defensive
  • aggressive

I’m feeling relaxed

In the relaxed state a cat may be just sitting or resting and the apertures of their ears (the part which is the opening of their ear canal) will point slightly outward and forward. In this state, the cat is able to listen for sounds of interest and monitor sounds around him over a long range. Watch next time your cat is relaxed or sleepy and moves and turns his ears when you enter the room.

I’m alert

When a cat becomes interested in something, his ears will switch into alert mode. This is when the resting cat stares at its focus of interest and fully erects and pricks up his ears. The ear apertures are pointed forward towards the point of interest by rotating the ears. The cat can also maintain its focus by maintaining his gaze whilst rotating his ears if he ears something else in the background. Watch when you cat spots something and stares at it intensely, his ears will be pricked up and tall.

I’m feeling agitated

When a cat is agitated the cat will nervously twitch his ears. A cat will be agitated when it is frustrated or in a state of conflict (you can also watch his tail twitching from side to side when a cat is in a state of conflict).

I’m feeling defensive

When a cat is in defensive mode against an aggressor, its ears will be in a fully flattened position. Cleverly, when a cat flattens its ears it is making itself less visible to an attacker and its head will therefor form a more rounded outline. The ears are pressed tightly against the head to protect the ears in a fight. Our cat Leo is in numerous fights with a local cat that invades his territory. His left ear was slightly torn at the tip during a fight.

I’m feeling aggressive

When a cat is aggressive and ready to defend itself in a scrap, the ears are rotated so that the backs of the ears are forward but not flattened against the head. A cat that is hostile to  but not frightened will display this ear posture to an aggressor. This ear posture signals that the cat is between alert and defensive mode and prepared for a fight, as the ears are rotated with the back showing but not flattened to the head.  In effect, the cat is signalling to its aggressor that he is in an aggressive mode, not frightened and will attack if the aggressor attacks.

If you see your cat with the aggressive and defensive ear signals, do not pick them up as they may lash out because they are in these states. Best to spray them with water to break up an impending fight.

Medical issues

Your cat’s ears can also communicate to you that there is an underlying medical issue affecting your cat. If a cat’s ears remain in the same position over a period of time, such as continually twitching or horizontal, and the emotions don’t match then take your cat to your vet to get him checked out. For instance a cat’s ears twitching may be due to an allergy.