Our cats rely very heavily on body language to communicate with each other. Eyes, tails, ears, overall body posture and positions provide an almost continuous, subtle, moment-to-moment conversation. Vocalizations are important, of course, but they often occur in situations that can be equated to “shouting” because the quieter body signals are not sufficient. Cats naturally assume that we understand their body signals – and often we do. However, we miss A LOT of subtle body communication and avoidable problems sometimes result.
Your cat’s ears are a great example. The external ear, or ‘pinna’ is designed to gather and funnel sound down into the ear canal. By simply observing which direction your cat’s ears are facing, you can tell what your cat is interested in at the moment. Changing ear position indicates that there may be something of concern that is not right in front of the cat. If they aren’t turning their head to look, that likely means there is something in front of them that is also of concern or interest. If your cat is feeling the need to focus on more than one thing, you could interpret that the situation is mildly, or maybe even very stressful.
The ears also figure prominently into a cat’s use of facial expression to communicate. They function sort of like an extension of the eyebrow area. Perked up ears, facing forward and accompanied with a forward gaze usually indicates alert interest. A relaxed cat will have mainly upward ears facing forward, or very slightly “half” back. If one or both ear openings begin to swivel to the side, downward or back – something is up. This could indicate the cat is fearful, conflicted, apprehensive or deferring to another (as in the photo above). Other signals from the eyes, tail, whiskers and overall posture will help fill out the communication. Completely flattened ears, fully back, flattened to the head indicate a pretty unmistakably unhappy cat. These ears are often accompanied by hissing and/or growling. Sometimes lowered or flattened ears indicate pain or discomfort as well. Take a look at the ears of the cats pictured here. Both are relaxed, but the kitty on the right has one ear swiveled slightly down and sideways – he wasn’t feeling well.
As a general rule, if you can clearly see the openings of a cat’s ears, things are going pretty well. If the ears are positioned so that you can’t see the openings, the cat is concerned about something. It could be a little unfamiliar noise outside. It could be a major stressor, or it could be you. If the cat changes its ear position in response to something you did – approaching or petting, for example – that is a good early warning signal that the cat doesn’t fully appreciate it. You will gain a cat’s trust and win her friendship much more easily if you show her that you’re listening with your eyes and responding as she talks to you with her ears!