Why Do Cats Tilt Their Heads?

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Cats have earned themselves a reputation for being independent pets. But they are also full of quirks and often show endearing behaviors. One example of this is the head tilt.

Quick Overview

01

Cats may tilt their heads occasionally to hear sounds better or because they have learned it leads to a positive reaction from their owners.

02

A persistent head tilt may be the sign of a concerning medical condition called vestibular disease.

03

Cats with vestibular disease may display a head tilt, incoordination, loss of balance, and difficulty walking.

 

You will likely have seen your own cat do this or seen photos of other cats on social media—head to one side, ears pricked up, eyes bright. So why do cats tilt their heads? Read on to find out why, and when this delightful pose changes from being cute to concerning.

1. To Show Their Curiosity

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When presented with something new or interesting, cats tilt their head as an an expression of curiosity.

Cats are very curious creatures by nature. Tilting their head can simply be a way to express their interest as they figure out what is going on around them. For example, they may do this when something catches their eye on the TV or when you bring out some tasty food. It’s not entirely clear why they do this, but it seems to just be an expression of their curiosity, as opposed to a way to hear or see better.

2. To Hear Better And Locate Sounds

Cats might tilt their heads to better hear where certain sounds are coming from.

Cats have one of the most impressive hearing ranges out of all mammals. Their ears are far superior to ours and can pick up on many more sounds than we can. A cat’s hearing is optimized for detecting prey and keeping them safe from predators.

The outer ear catches and amplifies sound waves before sending them down the ear canal. The ears have many individual muscles that allow them to move rapidly and independently of each other to detect sounds, much like satellite dishes. In addition to this, tilting their head may help cats hear better and focus on the sound they are analyzing.

Cats pinpoint where a sound is coming from by comparing how the sound arrives at both ears. Because their ears are side by side, your cat is much better at sensing whether a sound is coming from the side or the front. What they have more difficulty with is whether it is coming from above or below them. By tilting their head, they can get a better sense of the noises coming from all around them.

Also Read: 12 Cat Breeds With Adorable Big Ears

3. To Get Your Attention

Cats learn to repeat behaviors that get a positive response from you, and head tilts often do just that.

Cats respond well to positive reinforcement, which is when you offer a reward for good behavior. When you see your cat tilt their head, you might give them lots of praise and treats, or reach over to scratch them behind the ear. Eventually, cats realize that when they tilt their head to the side, they can expect to receive lots of positive attention. This will then encourage them to perform this behavior more often for you!

Also Read: The 13 Most Affectionate Cat Breeds That Love to Cuddle

When Does A Head Tilt Become A Cause For Concern?

A head tilt is not always harmless—it’s sometimes a sign of a medical problem.

An occasional head tilt, done for the above reasons, is certainly very cute to see. However, if the head tilt is persistent and there are other symptoms, we start to worry about underlying medical disorders.

Vestibular Disease

A head tilt is a common symptom of vestibular disease. The vestibular system is found in the inner ear and is responsible for maintaining a sense of balance and movement. It helps the body with orientation and its sense of direction.

Also Read: Cat Ear Infection: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

What Are The Symptoms Of Vestibular Disease?

Cats with vestibular disease may display incoordination, loss of balance, or difficultly walking.

As well as the head tilt, signs of vestibular disease include:

What Are The Causes Of Vestibular Disease?

Vestibular disease can be caused by many different things, including inner ear infections or head trauma.

  • Inner/middle ear infection caused by bacteria, fungi, ear mite infestations, or foreign bodies like grass seeds
  • Inflammatory polyps, which are benign (non-cancerous) fleshy lumps that can grow in the middle ear and ear canal
  • Toxicity associated with the use of some antibiotics and ear cleaning with certain antiseptics
  • Head trauma
  • Cancer, including tumors of the inner/middle ear and brain tumors
  • Meningoencephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain and membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord
  • Congenital (it is thought to be an inherited condition in Siamese and Burmese cats)
  • Thiamine deficiency, something that’s commonly seen in cats that are fed a fish-only diet
  • Idiopathic vestibular disease, which is diagnosed when no specific cause is identified

How Is Vestibular Disease Diagnosed?

Cats with suspected vestibular disease require a neurological exam and workup from the veterinarian.

Your veterinarian will take a thorough medical history and perform a full physical examination. The exam will include a neurological exam and the use of an otoscope to look down your cat’s ears.

Based on their findings, they may recommend some of the following diagnostic tests:

  • X-rays of the head/skull
  • CT scan (computed tomography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
  • Blood tests and urinalysis
  • Ear culture and sensitivity (ear swab to identify bacterial/fungal cause and best medication choice)
  • Analysis of spinal fluid
  • Infectious disease testing on blood/spinal fluid

Also Read: How To Get A Cat Into A Carrier: 6 Steps For Success

How Is Vestibular Disease Treated?

Treatment for vestibular disease depends on the cause, but may include medications or surgery.

Treatment for vestibular disease is dependent on the underlying cause. Your veterinarian will explain your cat’s individual treatment plan. Bacterial and fungal ear infections are treated with antibiotics and antifungals.

Inflammatory polyps can be surgically removed but have a 30 to 40% chance of reappearing. For cases of idiopathic vestibular disease, there is no specific treatment. Anti-nausea medications may be given to prevent vomiting and help improve the appetite.

Also Read: Systemic Fungal Infections In Cats: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

What Is The Prognosis For Vestibular Disease?

The sooner you seek treatment, the better the outcome will be for a cat with vestibular disease.

Again, the likely outcomes depend on the cause and your veterinarian will discuss this with you when they have reached a diagnosis. Unfortunately, the prognosis is poorer with more serious conditions, such as brain inflammation and cancer.

The recovery rate for ear infections is generally good and treatment may last six to eight weeks. Idiopathic cases tend to start improving within a few days and we expect them to be back to their normal selves within two to three weeks.

Also Read: Do Cats Have Good Hearing?

Summary

An occasional head tilt is adorable and nothing to worry about, but if a head tilt persists, contact your vet.

So now you know that when your cat tilts their head, it can simply be a charming behavior that shows off their curious nature and gets your attention. It can also help them locate sounds and focus their hearing better. In these cases, there is nothing to worry about. Their heads will quickly return to their normal position and no unusual signs are seen.

However, if the head tilt doesn’t go away and there are other concerning symptoms, your cat is most likely suffering from vestibular disease. Your veterinarian should be contacted as soon as possible so that the underlying cause can be identified and treated.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do cats tilt their heads when you talk to them?

We know that cats can have selective hearing. So if you are lucky enough to find your cat listening to you with their head tilted, it shows that they are interested in what you have to say. They may have picked up on some unfamiliar words or a different tone that you have spoken in. You’ve caught their attention!

Why does my cat tilt their head when I eat?

If your cat is sitting close by with their head tilted and eyes fixated while you eat, it is very likely they are interested in your tasty food and hoping you will offer some to them.

Why does my cat tilt their head when they eat?

Cats can only move their jaws up and down, and not side to side like we can. You might notice your cat tilting their head occasionally when they are eating, especially if the food is larger in size. This allows them to use their back teeth more effectively and is considered normal behavior.

However, if the head tilt occurs more frequently while they are eating, it can be a sign of dental disease. Cats commonly suffer from a very painful condition called tooth resorption. This occurs when parts of the tooth are broken down and absorbed.

Some other symptoms of oral pain include:

Using one side of the mouth to eat
Food dropping out of the mouth
Smelly breath (halitosis)
Drooling
Preference for wet food over dry

Cats can hide pain very well and symptoms may be subtle. Your cat’s teeth will be checked as part of a physical examination during yearly wellness checkups. But if you have any concerns at all that your cat has difficulty eating, then it is important to get in touch with your veterinarian earlier.

View Sources

Atkinson, T. (2018). Practical Feline Behaviour. Oxfordshire, UK: CAB International

Fraser, A. (2012). Feline Behaviour and Welfare. Oxfordshire, UK: CAB International.

Lowrie, M. (2012). Vestibular Disease: Diseases Causing Vestibular Signs. Compendium: Continuing Education for Veterinarians, 34(7).

Rossmeisl J. H., Jr (2010). Vestibular disease in dogs and cats. The Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 40(1), 81–100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cvsm.2009.09.007

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About Dr. Joanna Woodnutt, MRCVS

Dr. Joanna Woodnutt (MRCVS) is a small animal veterinarian and writer who is passionate about helping owners to learn more about their pets in order to improve animal welfare. She loves to write and wants to empower owners to make the best decisions for their pets by giving them all the information they need. In her spare time, she takes consultations on the small island of Guernsey.

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