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What Does a Cat Signal with Its Ears?

A cat's ears are expressive because they are very mobile. They are mobile because there are many muscles to control the earflap. A cat's ears can change direction so the ears can pick up sound from different sources and they can also be placed into different postures. Each posture is a reflection of the emotional state of the cat.

There are 5 basic ear signals which are related to the following moods: relaxed, agitated, defensive, alert and aggressive.

RELAXED

When a cat is relaxed the cat's ears point forward. They also point slightly outward. The cat quietly listens and quickly picks up interesting sounds over a large frequency range. A cat's hearing range is wider than ours and can pick up much higher frequencies.

ALERT

When a cat picks up an interesting sound, the position of the ears indicate an alert mode. The cat stares at the point of interest and the ears become fully erect. The ears rotate slightly so that they point directly forwards. As long as the cat looks towards the interesting sound the ears remain pricked up. If while the cat is focused on this particular sound, another sound is emitted somewhere else one of the cat's ears will turn and face that sound. Only the ear points towards the new sound as the cat remains looking at the original interesting sound. Sometimes a cat will listen behind him by swiveling his ears to the rear (actually half to the rear) while looking ahead. This is commonplace in fact.

AGITATED

An agitated cat will be suffering from frustration, apprehension and might be in a state of emotional conflict.  The cat's ears will demonstrate a nervous twitch. A particular wild cats species called the caracal has the longest ear tufts of all the cats and the tufts is black. These tufts will move more than the ear itself and are used as a means of communication or to provide signals to other cats. The Maine Coon has, for a domestic cat, the longest tufts of hair at the end of its ears of all the domestic cats.

Another purebred cat that has more than the usual amount of visibility in respect of its ear tufts, is the Abyssinian.

Ear damaged in fight


DEFENSIVE

A defensive cat displays flattened ears. The cat's ears are pressed tightly against the head. This protects the ears if a fight starts. There are many photographs on the Internet of stray and feral cats with torn ears from fights so you can see why a cat has developed a method to minimise damage to them.

When viewed from the side, the flattened and ears are almost invisible and the head has a more rounded profile. The well-known cat breed the Scottish Fold has ears that are permanently folded down against its head which gives the appearance that the cat is permanently in a defensive mode.

AGGRESSIVE

An aggressive cat has a special ear posture. The cat's ears are rotated but not fully flattened. This posture allows the back of the earflaps to be visible to the opposite cat. This is a position which indicates to the opposite cat that the cat is ready for action and trouble. It is a preliminary behaviour and a signal that the cat is ready to fight. The signal can be made more pronounced and obvious in the species of wild cats because on the back of the earflaps they often have white or light coloured fur in the shape of a filled circle or similar shape. This makes the rotated ear even more visible than usual.

The position of the cat's ear under these circumstances is a warning to the opposite cat. The ears are not signalling that the cat is defensive. The cat is signalling that its ears are ready to be flattened into a defensive position in preparation for a fight; hence that this position is a signal that the fight will imminently start.

You will see the light coloured hair referred to above on the back of the ear flaps of wild cat hybrid domestic cats because their wild cat parents have those spots. The ear spots are called “ocelli". In the wildcat hybrid the spots are not as bright as they are on his or her wildcat parent's ears.

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