Cat’s expressive eyes and mobile ears

The body language of a cat’s eyes and ears are worth a quick discussion and I am reliant on personal experience and that of the vet Dr Bruce Fogle in his book Complete Cat Care.

Eyes

As is typical of other animals, dilated pupils indicate excitement or enervation because the cat is fearful or feeling aggressive due to the environmental circumstances. The pupils dilate to allow more light to impinge in the retina which allows the cat to see better and make more accurate decisions about the danger.

135-fold change in area between constricted and dilated states. One of 3 reasons for the vertical domestic cat eye pupil.
135-fold change in area between constricted and dilated states. One of 3 reasons for the vertical domestic cat eye pupil. Image: MikeB based on Pixabay image (contracted pupil) and image in public domain.
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When Dr Fogle examines cats, they usually have dilated pupils as they are in a potentially hazardous environment. That’s how the vet’s clinic feels to a cat!

He says that ‘smaller pupils usually indicate confidence but also confident anger’. My thoughts on this assessment is that the more confident a cat is, the less likely they will be to feel frightened which dampens the need for the pupils to dilate to see better.

This is quite a good way to assess the personality of cat. There are two major personality categories: confident and timid. I guess that the more timid a cat, the more likely that they’ll have dilated pupils when stressed.

Averting their gaze – looking away – is a method to avoid or resolve conflict. This sounds like a human trait.

Then, of course, there is the well-known slow blink which cat people regard as a sign of love but is more precisely indicative of being relaxed and reassured by the person opposite. It is also a body language which disengages the stare from a cat opposite. It breaks the mutual stare which destresses the situation.

If a cat adds a yawn to the slow blink, it boosts the ‘no aggro’ message to others.

They (the experts) say that if a human slow blinks to their cat they’ll slow blink back; not so sure about that. The more successful way to get a slow feline blink is to talk to your cat very sweetly and in melodious tones when she is near by looking at you. Your demeanour and the sounds you make will reassure her and she’ll feel all fuzzy inside and slow blink instinctively (maybe)!


Mobile ears

Cat’s ears are very mobile and expressive because there are 32 individual muscles operating them! To be more precise I am referring to the ear flaps. In scientific language they are called ‘pinnae’ (the plural of ‘pinna’).

Cat Ear Positions - Ears Flat
Cat Ear Positions – Ears Flat. Click the image for a page on ear positions.

The ear flaps gather in sound which is why it is important for them to be directed towards the sound. That’s the origin of their mobility but evolution has dictated that the pinna are also good messengers of mood. And each pinna can move independently of the other as is evident when you watch your cat pick up a sound from a source to one side of them. The ear flap on that side is directed towards the sound.

Cats can isolate prey with great accuracy at a distance by sound alone. Pinnae can move through 180 degrees as well as rise and lower.

Here are some ear flap positions associated with certain body language signals:

  • Pinnae are forward but held back slightly meaning that the cat is content and relaxed
  • Pinnae are forward with no tilt which means that the cat is listening intently
  • Pinnae are slightly back and slightly flattened indicating that the cat is anxious
  • More flattened – cat is fearful
  • Flattened and to the sides – fearful and aggressive
  • One ear flap flattened and the other not – ambivalence about fear. This may also indicate a cat picking up sound on one side while being generally fearful or unsure about whether to be scared or not.

Of course, these body language signals are read in conjunction with other forms of body language to take in the entire signalling.

Crab walk cat
Crab walk cat. I added the yellow lines to highlight the flattened ears, the heightened arched and fluffed tail. The flattened ears protects them the rest make her look larger. Image: MikeB

For example, the submissive cat crouches to appear small and unthreatening while the aggressive cat straightens their hind legs and makes their hair stand up along the spine, all of which is designed to make them appear larger and more dangerous to the ‘hostile’. The pinna are flattened to protect them.

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