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Examining and Caring for Your Pet’s Ears

Have you ever wondered why your pet can hear sounds that you can’t? It’s true that dogs and cats have much more sensitive hearing than we do. Keep reading to learn more about your pet’s ears, how they work, and how to spot early signs of trouble.

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The Outer Ear of Cats and Dogs

The outer ear includes the pinna or ear flap, (which is made of cartilage and covered by skin and fur) and the ear canal. The shape of the pinna allows the ear to capture sound waves and send them through the ear canal to the eardrum.

A fun ear fact in dogs and cats is that they can wiggle or move their ears separately from each other. The sizes and shapes of the dog pinnae vary by breed and range from small to large and standing upright as well as flopping over. Cats' pinnae usually stand up naturally; however, a few breeds have ears that fold over such as Scottish Folds, American Curl, Highlander Cat, and Ukrainian Levkoy.

The ear canal of the dog is shaped like the letter “L” and is made up of the vertical and horizontal ear canal. Dogs and cats' ear canals are much deeper than ours, allowing them to hear about 4 times better than people, including higher frequency sounds humans cannot hear. Interestingly, cats’ range of hearing includes frequencies above and below what people can hear. Not only can cats hear better than people but (and don’t tell the dogs), cats hear better than most dogs.

The Middle Ear of Cats and Dogs

The middle ear contains the eardrum and 3 tiny bones (often called the hammer, anvil, and stirrup). It also has 2 muscles, an oval window, and the eustachian tube (a small tube that links the middle ear with the back of the nose which allows air into the middle ear).

The Inner Ear of Cats and Dogs

The inner ear consists of the cochlea (the part of the ear that functions to hear) and the vestibular system (known as the organ of balance). The fluid-filled semicircular canals found within the inner ear help maintain balance. Cats have highly developed semicircular canals allowing for improved agility and an excellent sense of balance.

Physical Exam of the Ear

Ear infections and other ear problems are often seen in dogs, and less frequently in cats. Part of a routine veterinary checkup includes examining your pet’s ears. Be sure to let your vet know if your pet has a history of previous ear infections or other ear problems.

Examining the ear begins with looking at the outer ears for any signs of inflammation, injury due to trauma, swelling, discharge, increased ear wax, or hair loss. Using an instrument called an otoscope, the vet will be able to view and assess the ear canal and eardrum.

Some dog breeds like poodles have excessive hair that needs to be plucked so that the eardrum can be seen clearly. If your pet has excessive ear wax, it will need to be cleaned out to visualize the eardrum.

If your vet sees any signs of infection, samples may be taken from the ears and tests can be done to figure out the cause and send home the right treatment.

Read about ear problems and infections in dogs and cats by clicking on the following links:

Common Ear Problems in Dogs

Common Ear Problems in Cats

Swelling of the Ear (Aural Hematoma) in Cats and Dogs

Ear Mites in Cats

If your vet suspects or sees an obvious tumor or growth involving the ear, other diagnostic tests such as x-rays, neurologic tests, tissue biopsy, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and tests to evaluate hearing may be recommended.

How do dogs and cats use their ears?

Dogs and cats have a much better ability to hear different sound frequencies and move their ears than we do. Why? Dogs control their ears using up to 18 muscles while cats use up to 30 muscles. These additional muscles allow dogs and cats to better position their ears to localize a sound, hear it more accurately and from a distance.

The shape of some breed’s ears allows them to amplify the sound. They use their exceptional ability to hear as a protective measure as well as alerting them to food sources. Dogs can be trained using a clicking device that they can hear and allows precise training. Cats' highly sensitive hearing explains how they can hear you open the cabinet where you keep their food even if they’re sound asleep upstairs on the other side of the house.

Pets also use their ears to convey how they’re feeling such as happiness, fear, anger/aggression, submission, and more.

Learn how to safely clean your dog's ears and prevent infection by clicking on the following link:

How to Clean Your Dog’s Ears

Signs Your Pet May Have an Ear Infection or Problem

  • Sensitive when being gently petted, or shies away from being petting on the head
  • Shaking head
  • Scratching at their ears/head area, may vocalize is severe pain
  • Discharge from the ear(s)
  • Hair loss in and around the pinnae/ear
  • Swelling of the pinnae/ear
  • Abnormal odor from the ear(s)
  • Not responding to the owner, seems to be deaf

Have more questions about your pet’s ears?

Schedule a video consult to speak to one of our vets.

FirstVet is the #1 online video veterinary service.

FirstVet offers video calls with experienced veterinarians for just $35. You can get a consultation within minutes by downloading the FirstVet app for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. Over 500,000 users trust FirstVet to care for their animals.

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