Do Floppy Ears Help Dogs Hear Better?

Introduction

There has been ongoing debate about whether floppy ears help or hinder a dog’s hearing. On one hand, some claim that the long, hanging flap of a floppy ear blocks sound waves and prevents them from reaching the ear canal as efficiently. Others argue that floppy ears actually help funnel sound waves towards the ears, improving a dog’s hearing.

This anatomical feature has become a distinctive trait in many dog breeds such as Basset Hounds, Bloodhounds and Cocker Spaniels. But does this cute, droopy look come at the cost of reduced hearing? Or could it actually aid auditory abilities? This article will examine the structure of dog ears, scientific hearing tests, the possible functions of floppy ears, and what experts conclude about this hotly contested issue.

Anatomy of Dog Ears

A dog’s ear contains three main sections that work together to capture and funnel sound waves to the inner ear:

The outer ear includes the adjustable ear flap called the pinna and the ear canal. The pinna funnels sound waves through the ear canal to the eardrum. Dogs can move and tilt their pinnae to capture sound from different directions (Source).

The middle ear contains the eardrum and small bones called the malleus, incus and stapes that transmit vibrations to the inner ear. The eardrum vibrates from incoming sound waves and transmits these vibrations across the middle ear.

The inner ear contains the cochlea and vestibular system that turn vibrations into nerve signals to the brain. The cochlea converts vibrations to nerve signals that the brain interprets as sound. The vestibular system helps maintain balance.

Together, these parts capture sound, transmit and amplify vibrations, and convert the vibrations to nerve signals sent to the brain for interpretation.

Evolution of Floppy Ears in Dogs

Floppy ears emerged as a trait in dogs through the process of domestication. As wolves began interacting with and relying on humans over thousands of years, they underwent physical changes as a result of this selection process. According to research, floppy ears developed as part of a condition called “domestication syndrome.”

One theory suggests that floppy ears enabled dogs to communicate better with humans using non-verbal cues like ear posture. Dogs with upright, pointy ears reminiscent of wolves may have appeared threatening to early humans. In contrast, floppy ears gave dogs a more approachable, juvenile look.

Neural crest cells are stem cells present during embryonic development. Changes in these cells as wolves became domesticated caused physical shifts like coat color changes and floppy ears. So floppy ears indicate dogs were selectively bred by humans for tamer temperaments. This made them better companions versus their wolf ancestors.

drawing depicting the evolution from wolf to dog with floppy ears

Studies show that across many domesticated mammals like horses, pigs, goats, and rabbits, floppy ears emerged as a shared trait. Similar neural crest cell changes conveyed a friendly appearance to humans. So floppy ears became fixed through domestication due to their social function in communicating amiability.

Hearing Tests on Dogs

Several studies have tested the hearing sensitivity of dogs with erect versus floppy ears. In one study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (source), researchers tested the hearing of 12 dogs with erect ears and 12 dogs with pendulous (floppy) ears. They played a range of tones and measured the minimum volume each dog could detect at different frequencies.

The study found that dogs with erect ears were able to hear lower frequency sounds at a lower volume than dogs with pendulous ears. However, at higher frequencies above 4 kHz, there was no significant difference in hearing sensitivity. The researchers concluded that erect ears may provide an advantage for detecting low frequency sounds, but do not necessarily improve overall hearing sensitivity.

Another study published in Veterinary Dermatology (source) tested hearing in Cocker Spaniels, which commonly have long floppy ears. They compared Cocker Spaniels to German Shepherd Dogs and found no significant difference in their sensitivity to sound stimuli. This suggests that at least for Cocker Spaniels, their floppy pinnae do not impair their hearing ability.

While some studies have shown minor differences, the overall conclusion is that floppy ears do not significantly impact a dog’s ability to hear. Proper ear care and cleaning are likely much more important for maintaining good canine hearing than just ear shape alone.

Theories on the Purpose of Floppy Ears

There are several theories as to why some dogs evolved to have floppy ears while wolves have pointed ears. Some of the main theories include:

Protection – Floppy ears may help protect dogs’ ear canals from debris, dirt, and moisture while hunting through underbrush. The floppiness helps debris fall out of the ear rather than getting stuck inside the ear canal. This theory suggests floppy ears evolved as an adaptation for hunting dogs running through thick vegetation.1

Communication – Floppy ears may help dogs communicate, as they can move their ears more expressively. Pointed wolf ears are less mobile. The extra movement of floppy ears could allow dogs to better convey emotions and strengthen connections with humans.2

Cuteness – Floppy ears make dogs appear more juvenile and “cute” to humans. This could have helped early dogs connect with humans and get selected for breeding. The “cute” appearance of floppy ears may have been an unintentional byproduct of other evolutionary changes.3

Impact on Hunting Dogs

hound dog with long floppy ears running through brush
Many experts believe floppy ears evolved in certain dog breeds to improve their ability to hunt and locate prey by hearing. According to [1], dog breeds bred for hunting often have ears that flop over like hound dogs. This is thought to help funnel sound waves towards their ears so they can better pick up faint sounds from distant prey.

Research discussed on Reddit [2] suggests curved, upright ears in pointy-eared dogs allow them to “hear better” than floppy-eared dogs. The structure of erect ears helps sound waves enter the ear canal more efficiently. So for tasks like tracking prey, pointy ears may provide an advantage.

However, some argue that the effect of floppy ears on hearing ability is minimal [3]. Floppy ears may flap around and cause disturbances, but likely do not significantly impair hearing. So while floppy ears may help direct sounds, they do not necessarily give hunting dogs superior hearing overall.

In summary, floppy ears may provide minor hearing benefits to hunting dogs by funneling sounds towards the ear canal. But the overall impact on prey detection seems small. Pointy, erect ears have their own acoustic advantages as well.

[1] https://www.healthextension.com/blogs/blog/floppy-ears-vs-erect-ears-in-dogs-what-s-the-difference

[2] https://www.reddit.com/r/askscience/comments/1b28jy/do_pointy_eared_dogs_hear_better_than_floppy/

[3] https://wagwalking.com/sense/can-dogs-with-floppy-ears-hear-as-well

Risk of Ear Infections

One of the biggest health risks associated with dogs with floppy ears is a higher susceptibility to ear infections. Floppy ears trap moisture and debris inside the ear canal, creating the perfect environment for bacteria and yeast to grow. The floppiness also compromises airflow and makes it harder for the ears to dry out.1 According to veterinarians, dogs with very long, pendulous ears like Cocker Spaniels, Bassett Hounds, and Bloodhounds are most prone to chronic ear infections.2 Signs of an ear infection include head shaking, scratching or rubbing the ears, odor or discharge from the ears, and redness or swelling of the ear canal. If left untreated, chronic ear infections can lead to permanent damage of the ear canal and even hearing loss.3 Keeping floppy ears clean and dry is important to prevent infections.

Owner Perspectives

veterinarian examining the infected ear of a floppy eared dog

Many dog owners have observed differences in their own dogs with floppy vs erect ears. According to one owner’s anecdote on Quora, their dogs with floppy ears seem to hear high pitched noises less clearly than their dogs with erect ears. The owner noticed their dog with erect ears would immediately respond to noises like the doorbell or whistles, while their floppy eared dog was much slower to react (1).

Other owners report that their dogs with floppy ears are more prone to ear infections, likely due to poor airflow and moisture getting trapped in the ear canal. Floppy ears can also get dirty more easily with food, dirt, and debris getting stuck inside the ear folds (2). Owners of floppy eared dogs recommend regularly cleaning the ears to avoid infection.

While the floppiness of a dog’s ears may not directly impact their hearing ability, many owners perceive differences in how alert their dogs are to sounds. This could be influenced by factors like ear carriage, breed, and individual temperament. More research is still needed to make definitive conclusions.

Sources:

(1) https://www.quora.com/Do-dogs-with-long-floppy-ears-hear-as-well-as-dogs-with-pointy-ears

(2) https://wagwalking.com/sense/can-dogs-with-floppy-ears-hear-as-well

The Verdict

Based on the evidence, it appears that while floppy ears may not drastically improve a dog’s hearing, they likely provide some auditory benefits compared to fully erect ears. Studies have shown floppy-eared dogs can localize sounds and hear certain frequencies better. The ear flap shape seems to direct sound waves into the ear canal more efficiently. However, the advantages are relatively minor, and a dog’s hearing abilities have more to do with the size and anatomy of their inner ear. Pointy-eared dogs like German Shepherds can still hear quite well. For hunting dogs, floppy ears may help collect scent particles and funnel smells towards the nose. But they can also become tangled in brush or provide less protection from foxtails. In the end, a dog’s floppy ears are likely more attributed to the domestication process and human preferences than major improvements in hearing capacity.

chart comparing erect and floppy dog ears

References

University of Cambridge. (2018). Why Do Dogs Have Floppy Ears? PsychHub.

Coile, D.C. (2019). Why Dogs Have Floppy Ears: The Surprising Ways Dogs Hear. Dogster.

Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University (2011). Why Do Some Dogs Have Floppy Ears? Science360.

Lamm, D. (2019). Why Do Dogs Have Floppy Ears? PetMD.

Braccini, S. (2011). “Factors that Affect How Well Dogs Hear.” School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University.

American Kennel Club. (2019). Why Do Some Dogs Have Floppy Ears? AKC.

The Humane Society of the United States. (2021). The Scoop on Floppy Ears in Dogs.

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