Why Do A Cat’s Ears Twitch?


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I usually see my cats twitch their ears as I call their name, or when they sit by the window, but there are moments when I struggle to interpret the meaning of their twitchy ears.

Is the feline ear-twitching random?

Or are cats really just spies sent by a feline alien force from outer space?

Why do a cat’s ears twitch? Cats rotate their ears to catch noise, from possible prey or predators. As part of their body language, ear twitching can happen when a cat is alert, defensive, or curious. Excessive ear twitching can be a sign of injury, ear infection, or ear mites.

If you’re curious to get a detailed inside scoop as to why your cat is twitching their ears, and how to read their ear language then we got you covered!

Let’s go!

Reason 1: To Finetune Hearing

The ability to precisely hear sounds, and the direction they’re coming from, is a critical part of your cat’s survival. Not only for tracking down prey, but also for staying safe. Remember your cat is not just a predator, but also prey for larger animals and so it’s critical that they’re always aware of their surroundings.

When cats twitch their ears, they’re able to pinpoint where the sound is coming from and get their ears in the perfect position to hear it. This is a lot more impressive then it might sound at first and cats can move each ear independently and rotate them 180 degrees, thanks to their 32 ear muscles. To put it in perspective, humans only have 6 muscles in their ear!

The part of the ear we see move and twitch is the outer ear, which includes the pinna, where you see the tufts of hair poke out and is made of cartilage, and of course the ear canal. The shape of the feline ear is perfectly designed to catch sounds from a distance and the twitching helps them detect the source and the direction it’s coming from. It’s valuable to mothers that want to keep their kittens safe from getting lost, and it can help them determine the size of potential prey by the sound they’re making.

If you find yourself suddenly feeling jealous of your cat’s amazing ability to spy on someone else with a single twitch of their ear then you should know that we also have to an extent similar twitching capabilities. According to research done by the Saarland University, we too perk up our ears when we hear an interesting sound!

Reason 2: To Communicate

Since I’m sure most of the cat parents out there spend a generous amount of time admiring their fur babies, (or at least I hope so!) then seeing them twitch their ear hasn’t gone unnoticed. Even when they’re asleep or sitting with their paws tucked in and their eyes closed, ear twitching is easily triggered by a sound we’re most likely are unable to detect, but even by our own clumsy trotting.

While detecting sounds is an important function of the feline ear, twitching can also be another tool for communicating their mood and feelings towards their environment!

Mikel Delgado, a cat-behavior expert at the University of California, Davis, explains that the body language of a cat includes their tail and ear position. So, just like the wag of their tail can tell you a lot about a cat’s emotional state, our brilliant feline companions can also use their ears, by moving them, and twitching them to let other cats, animals, and of course humans know whether they’re approachable, in a playful mood or simply in need of their own personal space.

For example, if you’re interacting with your kitty and they suddenly bite you, their overall body posture, eyes, tail, and of course ears had most likely already given you the warning sign that they had enough. But if you’re a new cat parent or you weren’t aware that feline body language can be decoded then you most likely pushed them too far, and your furry friend had to use other means to get their message across.

When a cat’s ears are in a natural position, meaning they’re usually standing straight up, pointing a bit forwards and perhaps to the side, then they’re relaxed and in a state of neutrality. As your kitty becomes worried, or uncomfortable they will move their ears slightly sideways, and if they become more stressed then they will rotate their ears backward, pushing them flat against their head. Twitching can also be observed in such situations as your kitty tries to find other possible sounds that might mean danger, and if everything is clear they will most likely run away from you!

You might wonder if all cats use their ears to communicate, even the ones that have tiny and folded ears, well this cute Scottish Fold called Tondo is here to answer your question!

 

Reason 3: Ear Infection

Seeing your kitty twitch and move his ears is perfectly normal, but if the twitching becomes excessive, followed by intense head shaking, and scratching it could be a sign of an ear infection. You see the ear canal of your feline companion is deeper and more tapered than the human’s and while it means that they can hear better, the buildup of dirt and wax is more common. And as much as our cats try to stay on top of self-grooming, the ear overall and the ear canal are difficult areas to clean, leading to inflammation and secondary infection.

Thankfully ear infections are not as common in cats as they are in floppy-eared dogs, but they can still happen. That’s why checking your cat’s ears is very important, and I usually do that during their weekly grooming sessions. I take a few moments to check their ears as best I can and look for any redness or irritation.

Ear mites are the most common cause of an ear infection, but they can also promote the development of a secondary infection. So, even if the ear mites are gone, the infection will still need to be addressed. Yeast, bacteria, and fungi can also be a leading cause of ear infections in cats as well as allergies, and intrusion of a foreign object.

That being inside, ear infections are relatively rare in cats, in large part because their erect ears are always open and get good airflow.

Reason 4: Ear Mites

As I mentioned above, ear mites are the common cause of ear disease and infection in cats are. I know the idea of insects in your cat’s ear might sound like a horror story, but you won’t have much luck detecting them in any case, since they’re hardly visible to the human eye.

While you can’t see ear mites with your naked eye, instead a microscope is required, they usually look like coffee grounds inside your cat’s ears. Your cat will most likely react to ear mites by twitching their ears, and excessive scratching as well as the classic shaking of the head will follow.

In some cases, you might detect some hair loss outside the ear from excessive scratching. Make sure to also check your cat’s twitching ears for dark waxy or crusty discharge. A crusted rash around or inside the ear could also be an indicator of ear mites.

If you see any of these signs, or your cat’s ears just seem to be bothering them, it’s time to call your veterinarian.

Reason 5: Injuries or Itching

Another common reason your cat might twitch his ears is from uncomfortable itching caused by injuries. These ear injuries could be the result of excessive scratching due to ear mites, fleas, ticks, or an ear infection, but it could also be an actual catfight injury.

Cats that are allowed outside, especially male cats, can get into fights to prove that they are the kings of a certain territory, or during the mating season if they’re unneutered/unspayed. It’s also possible that your kitty’s ears got caught in a thorny bush, or from insect stings.

When noticing your cat scratching his ears, take a moment to look for any inflamed skin or wounds. Cats usually deal with pain and discomfort in that area not by simply scratching or twitching their ears, but by grooming or even overgrooming a certain area that was hurt, which in turn can cause more hair loss, pain, irritation, and infection.

It’s also possible that your cat will feel itchy because of a hematoma that has formed in the ear. According to Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM, “hematoma is a localized mass of blood that is confined within an organ or tissue.” An aural hematoma is a large blood blister that develops in your cat’s ear flap. This usually happens because your cat scratches that area or shakes their head, and as Ryan Llera explains, “excessive or violent shaking causes one or more blood vessels to break, resulting in bleeding into the space between the ear cartilage and skin on the inner surface of the ear.

It will typically be very clear when your cat has a hematoma and it’s hard to miss the large blood-filled mass. But it’s always best to consult your veterinarian if you notice anything unusual.

Reason 6: Ear Polyps

Finally, among the possible health factors that could lead your kitty to twitch their ears excessively, it’s important that we’ve mentioned the ear canal tumors. Debbie Stoewen DVM, MSW, RSW, PhD, explains that canal tumors, “are abnormal growths that can develop from any part of the ear canal (the skin, the glands of the skin that produce earwax and oil, and the underlying connective tissues, muscles, and bones).”

These tumors can be benign in which case they do not spread, or malignant (cancerous) and can spread to the surrounding areas. One of the most common types of ear growth that are found in cats are the nasopharyngeal polyps. While it’s a benign mass, it can grow and expand towards the tube that connects the middle ear to the back of the throat.

This means that polyps could make breathing more difficult, and you might notice your cat producing a snorting sound as they breathe. Additionally, infections could be more common if your kitty has polyps or a tumor due to the blockage it creates. Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, states that “if the polyp has extended into the ear, signs may include pawing at the ear, head shaking, head tilt, or discharge from the ear.

What triggers the formation of tumors and polyps isn’t exactly clear, but some support that it could be due to environmental factors, genetics, or hereditary, as well as chronic inflammation could play a role. That’s why yearly check-ups are important, not only to treat but also to prevent the development of ear polyps, by tending in time any injuries or ear infections.

All About Your Cat’s Hearing Sense

It always makes me happy to hear about the amazing feline capabilities, and I even find myself looking at my two fluffballs with pride and wonder. Our cats’ excellent hearing is one of those natural skills that I believe is worth mentioning when it comes to ear twitching because it could help us understand how these beautiful creatures experience the world around them.

Let’s take the hearing range of the domestic cat for example. A study done on two cats in an effort to understand the upper and lower limits of their hearing showed that the range extends from 48Hz to 85kHz making it “the broadest hearing ranges among mammals.” 

Those numbers alone might not seem too staggering, but if you compare them to the human hearing range which is about 20 Hz to 20 kHz, then the difference is quite significant. Let’s not forget that dogs have always been praised for their keen hearing, but it seems that they’re not the only ones who can hear a dog whistle!

The ear itself is an organ of hearing and of balance, consisting of the outer, middle, and inner ear as explained by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, Ph.D. The inner ear includes the cochlea, the organ of hearing, and the vestibular system which is responsible for the balance. This complex structure is highly developed in cats, which serves them in their agility and excellent sense of balance.

All this information, basically tells us that cats will twitch their ear to make sure they’re safe, that they’re always aware of what is happening around them, and of course when a can of delicious food and treats is being opened!

How To Deal With Excessive Ear Twitching In Cats

I know that we all lead busy lives and things can slip from us now and again, but keeping an eye on our cats and their well-being should always be our priority. Finding them twitch or smoothly rotate their ears around to hear the surrounding sounds, or to tell us how they feel is completely normal. But as with everything excessive, too much twitching can be a sign of an underlying medical condition.

So, the best way you can deal with your cat’s excessive ear twitching and scratching is by taking them to the vet. From the ear flap to the eardrum a professional will be able to visually inspect their ears using an otoscope, and detect any signs of inflammation, they will easily spot any trauma or swelling, ear mites, or a simple case of excessive ear wax.

The most important piece of advice I can give you as the owner of a kitty that has extremely sensitive ears, don’t skip the regular visits. The reason why regular visits are so important doesn’t only lie in treating an infection, but treating as early as possible before it becomes severe and chronic. If your kitty’s ears are left untreated the closing of the ear canal is possible and not only will it cause more pain and frustration but in some cases hearing loss, and even the loss of balance!

So, no matter how stressful the visit to the vet might seem to you, it’s a worthwhile long-term investment!

How Cats Communicate Through Ear Movement

By living with your feline companion, you’ll in time learn to read their body language and the subtle signs that show us how they feel. You might even develop your own unique communication as John Bradshaw, the director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in England, supports by saying “many cats and their owners gradually develop an individual “language” that they both understand but that is not shared by other cats or owners.”

But for new owners, this might be a learning curve during which one needs to be observant and ear movement and ear twitching can tell you quite a few things about your kitty.

Neutral Position

Cats use their amazing hearing to survive in the wild, thanks to their ability to catch higher frequencies, but there’s more to their ears than simply hearing. A cat that’s relaxed will have an overall loose body posture and they’ll keep their ears standing upright, slightly tilted to the side.

Of course, your kitty might change the ear position in a matter of seconds, they will twitch them if they hear an interesting sound, and noise can be enough to change their emotional state!

Straight Up And Forward

An alert kitty, that is usually playing or hunting will be more concentrated on their toy or prey, and their ear position, upright and facing forward, will mimic that full-body attentiveness. By pointing the external ear flap towards the source of the interesting sound, they’ll be able to gather as much information about the situation, prey, or predator as possible. 

Of course, they will still twitch their ears now and again to have a complete awareness of their surroundings.

I usually notice that when I see my cat preparing to attack his brother or another toy mouse. He’ll lay low, pupils dilated, and ears, whiskers will be facing towards his victim, but as soon as I make a sound one or both of his ears will momentarily twitch in my direction before he finally makes the deadly dash. He especially loves doing this in his cat tree since it has some fake leaves for him to hide in!

Low and Sideways

Since a lot of cats are easily stressed or frightened, you may notice your cat rotating their ears to the side and keeping them low. This could be a momentary fright that lasts for just a second and then their back to their confident self.

Even after 8 years of living with the same cats, every time I decide to vacuum, I still see their body tense, their eyes grow wide, their ears move low and sideways like the wings of a plane until finally, they run under the bed with their tail tucked tightly behind their behind legs.

So, much for keeping their house clean, am I right?

Low and Facing Out

I think we’ve all seen cats when they’re not in the best of moods, with their anger or defensive fear written all over their bodies and twitching ears. In these situations, one cat might be lying down in a defensive stance with their ears low and facing out or their body is curved, hair standing upright, as if ready to attack you.

If you’ve ever noticed such a cat retreating then you’ve probably seen their lowered ears twitch, as they search for another source of danger!

Low And Flat

The final form of an angry cat, that’s not ready to retreat is the classic laying down position, slightly rolled over to one side. It takes a lot to get a calm house cat to this state, but unfortunately, it can happen if there is an unexpected trigger, which can be the sound of another stray cat outside, or as I’ve mentioned above the evil vacuum.

It’s important to remember, that in order to have a clear picture of how our cat is feeling, ear movement isn’t enough, but for some cats ears will be the first to tell us, or to other cats that they’re, content, angry, or afraid.

Why Do A Cat’s Ears Twitch When You Touch Them?

By now we’ve established the fact that a cat’s ears can tell us a lot about how they’re feeling, so how can we translate the specific ear twitching that’s triggered by our touch?

The most simple answer would be that it’s a clear sign they don’t like it when we touch that area.

A cat’s ears are a very important body part that helps them catch prey so they don’t starve and run away from predators so they won’t be eaten. When touching such a sensitive area you will most likely be met with the same reaction if you were to touch their tail, which is not a happy one!

Cats are always listening to their surroundings, even when they’re relaxed, so by touching their ears we’re also getting in the way of their natural spying instincts. The only time you’re allowed to touch your cat’s ears is when you want to examine them, otherwise, you’ll be met by the flattened ears of an angry cat, that just had enough!

Why Do A Cat’s Ears Twitch While They’re Sleeping?

The first question you need to ask when you see your kitty twitch their ears is whether they’re actually asleep or they’re simply relaxing with their eyes closed, and taking in all the sounds around them. In that case of course they’ll twitch their ears, to detect new sounds or get a better signal from the meows of the cat across the street.

But if they’re truly asleep then the ear movement has nothing to do with the external sounds. A study done by William Dement M.D. showed that cats during lengthy intervals of normal sleep would twitch their limbs, and ears in the early stages of sleep, and in the later phase, they would stay more still.

In 1959, French neuroscientist Michel Jouvet and his team conducted a study on several cats and found that cats were seeing images during REM, which means that they were most likely dreaming. That’s why when you see your kitty twitch their ears in their sleep they’re probably seeing themselves run through dense forests, basking under the Egyptian sun, or they’re hunting!

Do Deaf Cats Twitch Their Ears?

While most cats rely on their hearing to stay safe, some kitties have lost their hearing or were born deaf as a result of a genetic disorder or untreated infection, medical condition, and old age.

Deafness is also commonly found in cats with white fur and blue eyes, more precisely, researchers have found that “only 17 to 22 percent of white cats with non-blue eyes are born deaf. The percentage rises to 40 percent if the cat has one blue eye, while upwards of 65 to 85 percent of all-white cats with both eyes blue are deaf.”

As with humans, there can be different stages of deafness where a cat is deaf in one ear or they’re partially deaf where the sound becomes muffled as it enters the inner ear, in these cases cats will of course twitch their ears by following any sound they can hear, no matter how low.

It can be difficult to identify a deaf cat, especially one that lives in a multi-cat household since according to Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM, “a deaf cat will tend to look to the hearing cat for visual clues about what is going on.”

One thing is certain, deaf cats are far more visual, but they should still twitch their ears in order to communicate their feelings to us and to other cats. That movement could be easily triggered by the sensation of touch or the vibrations they can feel coming through the floor when we’re walking for example, so in this case, definitely don’t tread lightly!

Closing Thoughts

I knew there was more to ear twitching than meets the eye, and I’m once again impressed at how intricately our feline companions are built in order to survive and thrive!

Twitching means that they’re listening, they’re communicating their feelings or they warn us of infections!

But between us cat owners, I’m still not convinced that all this ear twitching isn’t a secret kitty ploy, so they can spy on us and humanity overall! I mean wouldn’t you do the same if you had supper hearing abilities?

Let us know your theories, and whether your kitty responds when you call them by their name, or they simply twitch their ears in a nonchalant response?

Marina Titova

Marina was cat-struck 8 years ago. It was early autumn when Dante, her grey cat, found her and adopted her. They’ve been inseparable ever since. Dante has been a great cat-teacher and BetterWithCats.net seemed like the perfect place to share his cat-knowledge.

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