What does a notched ear on a cat mean?
There are several reasons why a cat might appear to have a notch missing from one or both of their ears:
- They belong to a breed with curled or folded ears
- Their ear has been damaged in a fight
- Part of their ear has been amputated to treat a disease
- Or they have been treated in a trap-neuter-release program
Cats With Naturally Odd Shaped Ears
Does that cat in the distance look like both of their ears have the tips missing?
Look again – they might just be folded over or curled back.
The pinna (plural pinnae) is the visible bit of a cat’s ear – the bit which stands out from the head.
In American Curl cats, the pinnae curl backwards at the top. And on Scottish and Highland Fold cats they fold forwards at the top.
In both cases these unusual ears are caused by a genetic mutation.
The mutation started in a single individual, and breeders carefully propagated it so that it occurs in the whole pedigree.
At first glance, it gives the impression of their ears having a notch missing from the top – especially if you haven’t seen it before.
How to spot it:
Notched Cats Ears Caused By Damage In A Fight
The next reason a cat might have a notched ear is if they have been fighting and sustained an injury.
Cats fight to claim and defend territory, and when a tom cat makes an unwanted amorous advance on a female.
During fights, one cat may take a notch out of the other’s ear with their teeth, or claws.
When this happens, unfortunately the wound cannot usually be stitched or reconstructed.
A vet will normally clean the wound, and advise their owner to let it heal in its own time. The missing notch will remain as a legacy of their past misadventures!
How to spot it:
Cat Ear Notches Caused By Amputation
Occasionally a cat may need to have part of their ear amputated due to disease.
An example of this is if sun damage causes cancerous tumors on the skin of the ear.
This is most likely to be a problem for hairless cats. And cats with very fine, short hair, which leaves the skin exposed to sun damage.
A vet will often recommend removing most or all of the pinna, to make sure a wide margin is achieved around the tumor and it can’t spread further.
The best way to protect against this is to limit your cat’s exposure to intense sunshine.
How to spot it:
The TNR Ear Notch
Finally, a free-roaming or feral cat might have a notch missing from their ear to show that they have been neutered as part of a trap-neuter-release (TNR) program.
Non-profits run TNR programs to control the size of feral cats populations, and reduce antisocial behaviors related to mating, such as noisy fights.
Adult feral cats are caught in humane traps, neutered by a licensed vet, and then released again.
They are released because adult feral cats don’t adapt well to living with people, and can’t easily be rehomed.
Whilst under general anesthetic for the spay or neuter procedure, the vet clips a bit from one ear, cleans the wound, and administers a long-lasting antibiotic.
How to spot it:
- The notch is neat – either a straight line across the top of one ear, or a triangle from the side of the ear like in the pictures accompanying this article.
Pros And Cons Of The Feral Cat Ear Notch
Neutering feral cats and notching their ear to clearly identify them seems like an honorable endeavor, but it’s actually a pretty controversial practice.
On the one hand:
- It prevents feral populations getting bigger.
- The TNR ear notch tells animal control officers that a cat is fixed, so they don’t try to capture it again unnecessarily.
- A long term study of a large TNR population in Florida found reduced overall population size and a decrease in retroviral disease prevalence.
But on the other hand:
- Free roaming cats are still an invasive species which upset native ecosystems.
- Once released, TNR cats are still a reservoir for disease, which they can transmit to pets cats.
- And they kill hundreds of millions of birds in the USA every year, making a substantial contribution to bird population decline.
So, TNR schemes remain controversial. The most recent school of thought is that they have a role to place, but they are not enough by themselves.
More effort is also needed to achieve suitable adoptions, and deliver community education.
Why Do Some Cats Have Notched Ears? Summary
So, we’ve seen that cats’ ears may have the appearance of being notched, but on closer inspection they are actually complete, but folded or curled.
And when part of the ear is definitely missing, it can be a battle scar from a fight, the result of surgery to remove cancerous cells, or a signal to show that they are a neutered feral cat.
If your cat has a notched ear, do let us know why in the comments box down below!
References & Further Reading
Cavanagh & Bell. Veterinary Medical Guide To Dog and Cat Breeds. CRC Press. 2012.
Crawford et al. A Case of Letting the Cat out of The Bag—Why Trap-Neuter-Return Is Not an Ethical Solution for Stray Cat (Felis catus) Management. Animals. 2019.
International Cat Care. Ear Problems In Cats. 2018.
Kreisler et al. Decrease in Population and Increase in Welfare of Community Cats in a Twenty-Three Year Trap-Neuter-Return Program in Key Largo, FL: The ORCAT Program. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. 2019.
Longcore et al. Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return. Conservation Biology. 2009.
Scarf. Solar (actinic) dermatoses in the dog and cat. Companion Animal. 2017.
Winter. Trap-neuter-release programs: the reality and the impacts. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004.