Cats do some adorable things like purring, nuzzling, and tilting their heads. Why do they do the things they do, and is there always a reason?
Cats tilt their heads when they hear odd sounds or when you talk to them. It’s not known for sure why cats do this, but they are likely trying to locate the sound. A cat’s head tilt might also be the feline equivalent of furrowing your brow when you’re trying to figure something out.
While there are currently no concrete answers to why cats tilt their heads, there are a few educated guesses. We’ll discuss these and the possible disease that prolonged head-tilting may signify.
When Do Cats Tilts Their Heads?
Observing when cats tilt their heads points us to why they might be doing so. Cats tilt their heads when they hear a new or odd sound, when their owners speak to them, and when they see something intriguing or curious. Cats may also tilt their heads when watching you cook, eat, or open a noisy wrapper.
These head tilts’ timing gives us hints as to why they are happening, though no one knows for sure. We’ll explore the following possibilities below.
Your Cat Is Trying To Hear You Better
Just like when your cat swivels its ears around, it might be tilting its head to try to hear better. If an odd sound is happening far away, it’s likely that your cat is curious and inquisitive and is trying to analyze the noise. In this case, the head slants will often be accompanied by ear flicks and turns. Think of your feline’s ears like a satellite, and it is adjusting its position to get the best signal.
If you speak to your cat and its head is moving, it could also be trying to hear you better. Perhaps you are using a different tone than you usually do, or maybe saying new words. Cats understand when they are being spoken to, and if you are having your evening chat with your cat while you prep their dinner, they may tilt their head to try and hear you better.
Your Cat Is Trying To Locate the Sound
There is evidence to show that cats tilt their heads to analyze where a sound is coming from. While cats have incredible abilities to hear and locate noises, they are more attuned to whether a sound is coming from either side of them or in front of them. Something they may have trouble with is locating whether a sound is coming from below or above them. It is thought that tilting their heads helps to decipher where a sound is coming from in a vertical sense.
Take the barn owl, for instance. Their hearing range is more limited than a cat’s, but they have a similar ability to pinpoint where sounds are coming from. However, the owl can determine whether the noise is above or below them because their ear openings are asymmetrical, i.e., one is higher on the head than the other.
In said barn owl, the right ear opening is lower than the left, so if a sound comes from above, it will be louder in the left ear. Your cat may be mimicking this function by tilting its head to better determine whether the sound is coming from below or above.
Your Cat Is Trying To See You Better
One study out of British Columbia theorized that dogs and cats tilt their head to remove their nose from their field of vision. To get a better picture of this, you can perform a simple experiment.
- Hold one hand in a fist and raise it to your face, holding your thumb and forefinger against your nose.
- Next, look at a photograph of a person at face height. With your hand in this position, it will be difficult to see the person’s mouth.
- Now try keeping your hand there, but tilt your head to the side. Suddenly, you can see the person’s entire face. Since the mouth is a highly expressive part of the human face, seeing it is beneficial to the animal.
This rudimentary simulation shows what having a snout is like. Of course, cats have a much shallower snout than the average dog, but even if you hold up two fingers instead of your whole hand, you can see how the head tilt makes a difference.
Your Cat Is Expressing Curiosity
Another common theory for feline head-tilts is that they are expressing curiosity. Much like how we furrow our brows or bite our lips, your cat may be involuntarily showing its contemplation. Because cats often tilt their heads when new things occur or odd sounds happen, this theory makes sense.
Your Cat Is Trying To Please You
The question, “why do cats tilt their heads” is similar to asking “why do dogs smile,” and the answers could be equally related. Studies have shown that dogs smile to please their owners. While the original reason for a smile may be some sort of submissive act, owners reinforce the behavior by cooing and fussing over the dog every time they smile. The dog then learns that “smiling” gets them attention and possibly treats.
Your cat could have learned the same thing with head tilts. While she may have originally been trying to hear or see you better, she might have learned from your reaction that you enjoy her head tilts, especially if you reward her with food.
Cats are notorious for ignoring us, and many have convinced us that they can’t understand their names when they definitely can, so it’s not a stretch to think they would use their adorable head tilt against us.
Your Cat Is Unwell
If your cat seems to be tilting its head for a prolonged amount of time, then it could be a sign of something negative. According to PetMD, “If a cat is tilting its head frequently to either side of the body (away from its orientation with the trunk and limbs), this is an indication that the cat feels imbalanced. The cat may even struggle to retain a balanced posture and fall.”
This imbalance can be a sign of Idiopathic vestibular disease, which attacks the feline’s inner ear. In short, it is a serious ear infection. The inner ear controls balance and gives the cat a sense of the world. It tells them which way is up and where they are situated in a given space.
If your cat develops Idiopathic vestibular disease, it may experience the following side effects:
- Head tilting to either side for prolonged periods
- Stumbling or running into things
- Distraction or lack of concentration
- Nausea and vomiting
- Ear scratching
- Smelly discharge from the ear canal
- Head shaking
- Falling over or falling off of things
Keep an eye on your kitten if they begin tilting their head much more than normal; it could be the sign of an infection or illness.
No one knows why cats tilt their heads, but there are a few believable theories within the scientific community.
Some believe that the animal is trying to see around their snout, which may be blocking part of their peripheral vision. Some believe that the cat is creating an asymmetrical hearing pattern that will allow them to determine whether the sound is coming from above or below. Lastly, some others believe that your cat has simply learned you think it’s cute when they tilt their head, and they’re playing to your preference.
- PetMD: Do Dogs Smile? The Science Behind the Looks We Get From a Happy Dog
- Psychology Today: Why Dogs May Tilt Their Heads When You Talk to Them
- University of Toledo: Hearing Range of the Domestic Cat
- PetCareRX: Understanding Cats: How Felines View Our Words and Actions
- PetMD: Head Tilt, Disorientation in Cats
- National Geographic: Cats Know Their Names