Cat Ear Positions

Here are four basic cat ear positions – an aspect of cat body language. We should know the language as it helps us understand our cat’s feelings, thoughts and behavior.

The four ear positions come from Jackson Galaxy’s book Catification (written in conjunction with Kate Benjamin). However, you’ll see these cat ear positions discussed all over the internet. The internet has been a wonderful educational source for cat guardians. Times have changed. Cat caretakers are far more savvy regarding cat behavior than they used to be about ten years ago leading to better cat caretaking.

Ears Forward

Cat Ear Positions - Ears Forward
Cat Ear Positions – Ears Forward

This is the neutral, relaxed state for ears. She feels confident, relaxed and calmly alert, ready for action if it comes her way – yes, play. Cats are fairly alert all the time when awake and when asleep their ears prick up and swivel instinctively and quickly.

What should you do? Nothing.

Ears Up

Cat Ear Positions - Ears Up
Cat Ear Positions – Ears Up

This is a more alert/active state. Perhaps it is one up form the ears forward position – and alert mode. The cat is attending to sound. You can see the ears swivelled slightly to the left and right. If the sound is in front of the cat the ears will be pricked up and forward facing; the ears and eyes will be directed at the same spot but that is not always the case. A cat’s ears are constantly moving out of the neutral, ears-forward-position. Something is happening in the cat’s environment.

What should you do? You might figure out what makes your cat alert.

Ears Back

Cat Ear Positions - Ears Back
Cat Ear Positions – Ears Back

Jackson says that ears back is a sign that your cat is feeling nervous, perhaps irritated and anxious. The picture certainly supports this observation. The backs of the ears face forward. It signals “ready for trouble”. I would add that this position need not necessarily be accompanied by anxiety in which case the facial expression would be different to the one shown in the picture. Cats can move their ears very adroitly because they have 32 muscles to move the ear flap; far more than for the human. A cat might simply be listening to you or something behind him. Rather than turn their head cats can take notice of activity by turning their ears instead. Cats can “see” with sound and smell.

Savannah cat ears back
Savannah cat ears back showing ear flap ocelli and concerned expression.
This is the most tricky of ear positions to interpret. For wild cats, when the back of the ears face forward the ocelli (‘eye’ spots on the ear flap) faces the opponent which is meant to intimidate as the ear back position is adopted pre-fight (see picture).

What should you do? (a) if the behavior is directed at you, back off, stay away and reconsider your behavior in relation to your cat and the environment in general or (b) if the behavior is directed at another cat or animal, I’d intervene and stop an impending fight if that looks likely. Fights cause injury such as puncture wounds causing abscesses. These require veterinary treatment.

Ears Flat

Cat Ear Positions - Ears Flat
Cat Ear Positions – Ears Flat

I think we have all seen this position and know it well. Each ear is flat against the head. In the picture the cat’s ears are on the way to being flat. This signals that the cat is in defensive/aggressive mode, scared perhaps, angry and ready to fight. The head looks more rounded. It is a defensive appearance. The ears will be protected during a fight.

What should you do? Figure out the cause. If intervention is required for your cat’s welfare, safely remove the cause.

Cats sometimes twitch their ears when nervous or apprehensive. This should not be mistaken for an ear twitch because the ear is irritated for whatever reason. For example, something is brushing against it or there is irritation inside the ear – ear mites perhaps.

Photos (all modified to make them uniform looking):

  1. Ears forward: Cat is Gray. Photographer is McCulloch
  2. Ears up: Cat is Farel. Photographer is Fardo.D
  3. Ears back: Cat is Misty. Photographer is Matt
  4. Ears flat: Cat is Zuki. Photographer is Audrey

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2 thoughts on “Cat Ear Positions”

    • Well.. ears pointed back when the cat is relaxed may well simply mean that he is listening to something behind him. Down and back usually means aggression pending fight. But there are blurred boundaries between these positions so it is hard to read them sometimes. Thanks for commenting.


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