The Reasons Why Your Cat Holds its Ears Back

Cats have interesting body language that uses everything from their tail to their whiskers. But cats’ ears seem to have a life of their own, moving up down, sideways, and back. Here is what it means when your cat moves its ears back

A cat with its ears back is exhibiting signs of fear, aggression, and anxiety. It is probably afraid of another pet or person in the home, may be in an unfamiliar environment, and is feeling anxious. If your cat is holding its ears back, it is best not to approach. Instead, look forthe trigger.

This article will explore why your cat holds its ears back and conditions that may prevent this movement. Some people refer to held-back ears as “airplane ears.”


1. It Is Scared

When your cat is in danger, it will show signs of stress. One of these signs is pulled-back ears.

If your cat senses danger, it will begin by retreating to hide. But if the offending object, person, or animal advances towards it, then its ears will noticeably pull back, exposing the top of its head.

The good news is that if you remove the trigger, your cat will go back to being its easy-going self.


2. It is Listening to a Sound behind it

Cats have an acute sense of hearing. Although cats and humans have a similar range of hearing on the low-pitched sounds, your feline can hear higher-pitched sounds of even up to 64kHz.

Did you know that 64kHz is an octave higher than canines? It is 1.6 octaves higher than humans can hear.

So, when your cat hears a sound behind it, it will turn its ears backward even without turning its head. The acute hearing allows your cat to keep an ear out for predators coming from all corners.

A cat’s ears can rotate 18 degrees to locate and pinpoint even the slightest sound.


3. Your cat is feeling Aggressive

When your cat is feeling threatened, it will react with aggression. Putting its ears back indicates that your cat is angry, and it is ready to pounce and attack.

However, cats prefer to walk away from situations that make them feel aggressive. If the trigger making it mad keeps poking at your feline, it will react with airplane ears, a raised back, curled tail, and exposed claws.


4. It is Feeling Grumpy

A grumpy cat is probably irritated by something that you or another pet in your home is doing. It could be your cat doesn’t like how you are scratching it. Or maybe you introduced a new cat into the home, and your cat doesn’t want to share the space.

Once again, look for the trigger and address it. For example, if it is a new pet you brought into your home, revisit the introduction process over and over until your cat is comfortable.

When your cat’s ears lie flat against its head, it is no longer content to be passive or avoid the offending trigger. It is ready to fight.


5. Your Cat is Yawning

When your cat yawns, its ears move back as a reflex action. The ears are connected to the face by muscles. So, when the mouth moves, the ripple effect moves the ears.


How Cat’s Move Their Ears Backwards

Cats can naturally rotate their ears 180 degrees, and each can move independently. That allows them to ascertain which direction sounds come from.

Your feline has complete control over its ear movements, according to Dr. George Strain. He is a neuroscientist from the School of Veterinary Medicine at Louisiana State University.

A cat’s ears work as a radar unit. The pinna (the outer part of the ear) is shaped like a cone to help it capture sound waves and funnel them into the ear canal. The ear canal is deeper and tapered than a human being’s, allowing your cat to hear even the slightest sounds.

As a result, the pinna turns backward to capture the sound.

Think of it like your cat is concentrating on the sound and where it is coming from.

Muscles make up two-thirds of a cat’s ear, and they can make the pinna move 180 degrees. These muscles facilitate ear movement so that your kitty can hold its ears back.


Anatomy of A Cat’s Ear

A cat’s ear consists of the following, beginning from the outer ear inwards:

  • The outer ear (ear flap, also known as the pinna)
  • The ear canal (A long stretch between the outer ear and the inner ear)
  • The eardrum (A thin flap of skin that vibrates when a sound hits it
  • The middle ear (The section closest to the back of the cat’s nose)
  • The inner ear (The area above the middle ear)


Ear Conditions that Can Prevent Your Cat’s Ears From Moving Back

i) Ear infection

Ear infections cause your cat’s ear canal to become painful so that even a slight movement by its pinna results in pain. The ears become red, irritated, and sensitive to the touch.

You will notice the cat keeps shaking its head when it is suffering from an ear infection.

It’s ears may also produce an offensive odor, including a black, orange, or yellow discharge.

The good news is that an ear infection can be treated using antibiotics, and once the infection clears out, a cat’s ears can go back to moving healthily.

It is essential to note that since each ear can move independently if one ear is infected, the other one can continue moving normally without being affected.

Look out for any flinching on the part of your cat when you reach for its ears.

Feline ear infections are caused by bacteria and yeast overgrowth.

These infections can be outer or inner ear oriented. Outer infections occur on the pinna, while inner infections occur in the middle and inner parts of the ear.

Middle and inner ear infections mean that the disease that started at the outer part of the ear has moved inward. They could also be a result of the infection-causing bacteria moving into your cat’s eustachian tube, which connects the back of the nose and the middle ear.

Ensure you take your cat to the vet for ear infection treatment. Home remedies will not work on infections. A vet will know how to treat the infection and also how to flush out mites.


ii) Mange, Which Is Caused by a Mite Infestation

Another cause is ear mite infestation. To determine whether your cat has a mite infestation, you should check for black specks in your cat’s ears that look like coffee grounds. Go ahead and remove some of them and place them against a dark background. Mites will appear white and move about.

Mites cause mange, a very uncomfortable condition for your cat around its head and ears. Mite infestation by a specific mite called Notoedres cati can cause your kitty to scratch until they self-mutilate. The skin in the affected area tends to become thick, crusty, and scaly, making ear movement painful and uncomfortable.

Mange, if left untreated, can result in systemic illness in your cat, which in severe cases may even become fatal.

But with an appropriate treatment plan, the vet can get the mites under control and prescribe effective medication to treat your cat.


iii) Ear Polyps

These are also known as Nasopharyngeal polyps. They are benign, smooth, pink, inflammatory, and pedunculated growths made of connective tissue.

Polyps occur from the external to the internal parts of the ear, causing pain and itching. Because the affected ear is painful, your cat may not be able to move its pinna around as it normally would.

Unfortunately, these polyps can lacerate and cause internal bleeding in the ear. They can also result in ear discharge.

Polyps are visible when you look at the inside of the ear canal, although they can vary in location. To diagnose the extent of the polyps, the vet will recommend a CT scan or an X-Ray.

Polyps are removable at a veterinary practice. Your cat will go under general anesthesia, and the polyps are removed with avulsion or traction. That means they will be twisted, then torn or pulled out.

It may not be possible to remove the entire polyp, meaning that it will grow back again. In such cases, the vet may opt for bulla osteotomy. This is an operation where the vet creates an opening in the middle of the ear cavity by making an incision into the tympanic bulla. The tympanic bulla is the circular section of the skull right behind the ear.

From the incision, the vet can remove the source of the polyp, ensuring it doesn’t recur again.

The good news is that polyps are not a common occurrence. However, if your cat has too many ear infections in a short time, the vet will ascertain whether polyps are the problem.

It is essential to mention that ear polyps are not malignant. They are benign, meaning they do not spread to other tissues (metastasize).

However, they can grow down the eustachian tube blocking the cavity at the back of your cat’s mouth. Alternatively, they may expand through the eardrum and into the ear canal, growing both in and out of the ear.


iv) Dermatophytosis Infection Caused by Ringworm

This is a ringworm infection that affects the pinna. It does not affect the inner part of the ear. Dermatophytosis affects the hairy part of the pinna, and it is more common in young kittens.

You will experience this condition with Persians and Himalayan breeds. Your cat will experience hair loss on the affected area and redness on the flap accompanied by pain.

As the condition advances, there is crusting and flaking of the skin.

The pain and crusting make it hard for the cat to comfortably move its ears back.

Fortunately, dermatophytosis is curable and although it is contagious. If you see signs of this condition in your home, it is best to take all your feline companions to the vet for a checkup.


v) Allergies Making Ears Itchy, Red, and Inflamed

Your cat may have an allergic reaction to something it ate, or that is in the environment. For example, it could be allergic to pollen, dust, insect bites, medication, and ingredients in its food.

These allergies can cause your feline’s ears to become red, itchy, and inflamed. As a result, it can’t move its ears back because of the discomfort in the ears.

Unfortunately, the allergies do not just affect the ear. They also affect other parts of the body simultaneously so that your cat is uncomfortable from head to tail. Your cat may be experiencing irritation and discomfort in the groin areas, under the armpits, and feet, among other places.


vi) Foreign Objects Attached to Their Ear

A foreign body lodged into your cat’s ear may be the cause of the limited range of movement in your feline. If your cat goes outdoors often, always inspect its ears for any foreign bodies that may have accidentally gotten into the canal.

You can attempt to remove the object with a tweezer or your fingers. But do not force it if you feel any resistance. Instead, take your cat to the vet, where it will be sedated and the foreign object safely removed.


vii) Trauma or Infections Caused by an Injury

Injuries to the ear can limit the range of motion since your cat feels pain even with the slightest movement.

The neck and ear region are more prone to sustaining injuries when cats get into brawls with each other. The injuries range from puncture wounds from bites to lacerations from claws. These wounds are likely to get infected, or at the very least, they are painful.

That may make it hard for your cat to move its ears in any direction until the wounds heal.

Some are self-inflicted injuries caused by over scratching. Both self and outside-inflicted injuries may result in an abscess or hematoma.


What to Expect When Your Cat has Ear Problems

  • Head shaking
  • Head tilting
  • Lethargy
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Abnormal pupil size with one being larger than the other
  • Abnormal eye movement
  • Poor hearing
  • Difficulty walking and loss of balance
  • A swollen third eyelid (the nictating membrane in the corner of the cat’s eye. It is covered by the conjunctiva)



Your cat’s ears move back to signify they are in discomfort, aggression, anxiety, and fear.

Cat ears should be mobile. That means the pinna should be able to move 180 degrees comfortably without causing your kitty any pain.

When your cat can’t move its ears in this way, it means there may be a problem with its ears. Taking them to a vet can rule out any issues and address any concerns that exist.

Writer: Mercy Nandika Amatieku

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