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Cat ‘Airplane Ears’: Vets Reveal the 4 Reasons Cats Flatten Their Ears

Plus, adorable videos of cats going airplane mode!

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Nope, it’s just your cat. But when your furry friend puts their ears back, you’d be forgiven for confusing them with an airplane. Even if you haven’t heard the phrase “airplane ears,” you’ve likely observed it. When a kitty gets the zoomies or suddenly seems extremely focused on something, they’ll often move their ears so that they lay flat and to the side — much like the wings of an airplane. Cat airplane ears are undeniably cute, but what do they mean? Like many cat behaviors, they can seem just as confusing as they are adorable. Read on to learn all about this weird but wonderful ear movement.

Why cat ears are so special

Cat ears are truly amazing things. Cats have 32 muscles in each ear, which allows them to rotate their ears 180 degrees. “This helps them to pinpoint the source of sounds and to hear better in noisy environments,” says Dr. Alex Crow, a veterinarian and contributor to Pet Health Guru. They’re like built in antennas!

The real name for airplane ears

Brown tabby cat with airplane ears
Airplane ears in actionGetty

Airplane ears is an undeniably adorable descriptor, but Dr. Crow says there’s a scientific name for the phenomenon. The official name for pushed-back cat ears is “cutaneous marginal pouch flattening” (CMPF). This is also sometimes colloquially referred to as ear flattening.

Wondering what the heck cutaneous marginal pouch flattening means? Dr. Crow explains: “The cutaneous marginal pouch (CMP) is a fold of skin that runs along the outer edge of a cat’s ear. It is thought to help to amplify and direct sound waves into the ear canal.” When a cat is a particular mood, they may flatten their CMPs against their heads, he says. “This helps to protect their ears from damage and also makes them appear smaller and less threatening.”

Airplane ears are seen in both domestic cats and wild cats. In the wild, cats put their ears back as a protective measure when they see a predator. The closer their ears are to their heads, the better they camouflage themselves.

The meaning of cat airplane ears

“When a cat sports airplane ears, it’s often a visual clue into their emotional landscape,” says Dr. Sabrina Kong, a veterinarian who writes for the petcare site We Love Doodles. Ear flattening can indicate playfulness, suspicion and other moods. “Feline communication extends beyond just purring and meowing,” Dr. Kong says emphatically. “Observing and understanding these small gestures can significantly enrich our bond with our cats.”

There are four main reasons your cat might do airplane ears, says Dr. Crow. Here’s what they may be trying to tell you:

1. “Let’s play!”

Airplane ears and zoomies often go hand-in-hand (or is it paw-in-paw?). “Sometimes, cats may do airplane ears when they are playing,” says Dr. Crow. “This is usually accompanied by other playful behaviors, such as chasing after a toy or pouncing.”

2. “I’m feeling a bit scared.”

When a cat is feeling threatened or anxious, their ears will flatten against their head in a defensive posture, explains Dr. Crow. This protective behavior “helps to protect their ears from being damaged in a fight.”

3. “I’m trying to assess the situation.”

Cat’s ears can act as scanners that warn them of danger. “If a cat is unsure about something, they may also do airplane ears. This is because they are trying to take in as much information as possible about their surroundings,” says Dr. Crow.

4. “Watch out — I’m annoyed!”

Anyone who has a cat knows that felines can be frequently annoyed. Cats often show annoyance through hissing, biting and scratching, and airplane ears can also come into play here. Dr. Crow notes that cats may do airplane ears when they’re upset by something like a loud noise or another cat getting into their space.

When to be concerned about cat airplane ears

Gray tabby cat with ears pulled back to look like airplane

Typically, airplane ears aren’t something to worry about, but if your cat starts putting their ears back way more often than usual, you might want to get them checked out, especially if they’re doing this in conjunction with other odd behaviors. “If your cat is also showing other signs of stress or anxiety, such as hiding, hissing, or scratching, then you should consult with a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical conditions,” says Dr. Crow.

4 cute videos of cat airplane ears

Ready to see some airplane ears in action? These kitties are happy to demonstrate!

1. What was that noise?!

It’s safe to say this kitty is probably more of a classical music fan!

2. Nothing to see here!

When your cat thinks she is being super stealth…

3. Ready for takeoff!

Bruce is all set to fly the feline-friendly skies!

4. “Orange” you glad?

No need to be shy, Wally — you’re a real pro at this!

Click through to learn about more quirky cat behaviors:

Why Cats Make Biscuits — Vets Reveal the Cute Reasons Behind Their Need to Knead

Why Do Cats Loaf? Vet Experts Reveal the Sweet Reason Behind This Cute Behavior

Why Do Cats Headbutt — Vets Reveal 4 Things They May Be Trying to Tell You

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