Most people are familiar with the amazing things a dog’s nose knows. After all, with their 300 million scent receptors, dogs’ noses can sniff out missing people, bombs, and even cancer.
A dog’s ears are similarly impressive, while also being one of their most endearing and expressive physical traits.
By some measures, a dog’s sense of hearing is much more sensitive than a human’s. Dogs can hear high-pitched sounds that are beyond our auditory ability. Our vocalizations usually fall within the 100 to 8000 Hertz (Hz) range; we generally can’t hear sounds above 23,000 Hz. Dogs can hear sounds as high as 45,000 to 65,000 Hz.
Dogs can also hear sounds too soft for us to pick up—it’s why your dog can seem clairvoyant at times, sitting up to look at the door long before anyone has a chance to knock. In lower frequencies, dogs can hear sounds up to 15 decibels softer than we can hear. In higher frequencies, above 12,000 Hz, dogs’ ears outperform ours by a much wider margin. They can also hear sounds that are four times farther away than we can—that means what our ears can hear at 20 feet, our dogs can hear from 80 feet away.
Dogs are also good at picking out specific sounds, one in particular—their name. A recent study showed that dogs can pick up their name through loud background noise, even when it was spoken by an unfamiliar voice through a loudspeaker. This means they were picking up the name itself, not the tone of a particular person’s voice, or body language. The study showed that trained dogs, like service dogs and search-and-rescue dogs, were better at this task.
The mechanics of dogs’ ears
Canine ears are controlled by a group of about 18 muscles which allow dogs to tilt and rotate them to capture sounds more effectively, making their hearing even more acute.
The inside of dogs’ ears are shaped differently than human ears. Their ear canals are L-shaped and much deeper than ours. This shape is better to funnel sound to the eardrum—hence the sharper hearing (however, it also makes it more difficult for debris to get out of the ear).
And of course, the outside of dogs’ ears are gloriously different too—we’re talking about those gorgeous, soft flaps, or pinnae.
Types of Dog Ears
There’s a wide variety of pinna shapes and sizes. Most common among them are:
Bat: Bat ears are fully upright, very large in proportion to the head and spread out like a V. Examples of breeds with bat ears include the Cardigan Welsh Corgi, and Chihuahua.
Blunt: Also called round-tipped ears, this ear stands fully upright with rounded edges on the top. Breeds with blunt ears include the French Bulldog and Chow Chow.
Button: Button ears are upright at the base, but the top half of the ears fold over. Examples of breeds with button ears include the Airedale and Jack Russell Terrier.
Drop: This ear type hangs completely down. Drop ears are also called pendant ears (or in layman’s terms, floppy ears). The Basset Hound and Cocker Spaniel have them.
Prick: Also termed erect ears, prick ears stand fully upright. Examples of breeds with prick ears include the German Shepherd and Siberian Husky.
Rose: Rose ears are erect at the base and folded slightly back. Breeds with drop ears include the Greyhound and Bulldog.
Semi-prick: Semi-prick ears are mostly upright, but the tips fold over. This ear type may also be called cocked or tipped. Examples of breeds with drop ears include the Collie and Shetland Sheepdog.
In general, dogs with large, upright ears tend to have better hearing than dogs with small ears that fold over. This is because large, erect ears can more easily capture sounds and direct them into the ear canal, much like a satellite dish captures radio waves.
That head tilting thing
Speaking of capturing sounds, one of the most endearing moves in the dog playbook is the head-tilt, which seems to signal a dog trying to hear or understand us better.
There are different theories as to why dogs tilt their heads; one straightforward idea is that it allows one ear to hear slightly better. Other experts posit that the tilt is just a “what gives?” expression, like a human frown or shrug. But at least one expert has advanced the theory that the head tilt is more about seeing better.
Stanley Coren, PhD., Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of multiple books on dog behavior including The Intelligence of Dogs wrote in Psychology Today that dogs’ muzzles block some of their vision, and can in some cases reduce their ability to see the mouth of a person talking to them. “We know that dogs continually scan our faces for information and to read our emotional state,” he writes. “Hence it is likely that one reason why dogs may tilt their heads when we talk to them is because they want to see our faces better, to compensate for the way in which their muzzles obscure part of their vision.” He conducted his own study, asking 582 dog owners how often their dogs tilt their heads, and found that 71% of the owners of dogs with more pronounced muzzles reported that their dogs often tilted their heads when spoken to, and only 52% of the owners brachycephalic dogs (who have flatter faces), reported that their dogs often tilted their heads.
If you notice that your dog is tilting their head constantly, when they’re not responding to the expected stimulus for this action, you may want to consult your veterinarian as it can indicate ear problems.
How to look after a dog’s ears
If your dog’s ears look and smell normal, you can largely leave them alone. “If you are lucky enough to have a dog with healthy ears all you have to do is monitor them every week or so, and if you notice a little dirt or wax build up, wipe it away with a tissue dampened with an ear cleaner designed for dogs,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM.
It’s important to seek your vet’s advice before going in for any sort of cleaning, because if the ear is damaged, you can create bigger problems with misguided cleaning efforts. If you’re cleared to proceed, cleaning your dog’s ears can be simple when you use the correct supplies and techniques. If you’ve never cleaned a dog’s ears before and are nervous, you can also ask your veterinarian for a demonstration.
The biggest thing to keep in mind when cleaning your dog’s ears is never to stick anything down into the ear canal. This includes Q-tips. The rule of thumb is to only clean as far as you can see. If you think your dog needs a deeper ear cleaning that you can provide, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.
First, gather your supplies: cotton balls or gauze squares, and a pet-safe ear cleaner—be sure to use a veterinary product, as some over-the-counter ear medications have ingredients that aren’t good for canine ears, like witch hazel and hydrogen peroxide. Ear cleaning can sometimes be messy. You can try cleaning your dog’s ears during his bath or simply wrap a large towel around his neck before getting started.
Lift one ear flap and squirt in a little ear cleaner, allowing it to drip into the ear canal. Very gently massage at the base of your dog’s ear for a minute or so, then stand back and allow your dog to shake their head. Lift the ear flap again and gently wipe inside the ear with your cotton ball or a piece of gauze. Continue wiping until your cotton balls remain clean.
Another veterinarian-approved method is to soak a cotton ball with the cleaner and then gently clean around and within the opening to the ear canal. As you clean, the liquid will tend to squeegee into the ear canal. This is a less direct way of cleaning, which avoids squeezing the liquid directly into the ear canal which can be painful if there’s sensitivity due to an infection. Do not use water to clean your dog’s ears as this can predispose them to, or worsen, an ear infection.
If you notice that your dog’s ears look red and inflamed, if they have a lot of waxy buildup, or if they smell bad, it’s time to schedule a veterinary visit. Healthy dog ears should not have an odor—especially not a foul odor.
Dog ear diseases and disorders
The following are some of the most common ear issues seen in dogs. “If your dog has been diagnosed with an ear problem, follow your veterinarian’s instructions regarding ear care,” Dr. Coates says.
Deafness: Dogs can be born deaf (called congenital deafness), or they can become deaf later, due to a degenerative disease, an injury to the ear, severe or untreated ear infections, drug toxicity, noise trauma, middle ear effusion (or build-up of fluid), or simply old age. If your dog is exhibiting unusual symptoms like being unresponsive to their name being called or to normal sounds that they’d typically respond to, excessive barking that’s not related to an obvious cause, or excessive shaking or tilting of their head, consult your veterinarian to check your dog’s hearing. If hearing loss is suspected they may use the brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) test to diagnose the issue.
Ear infections: Infections in the ears are usually due to an overgrowth of yeast and bacteria present in the ears. It’s often assumed that dogs with drop ears are more prone to developing ear infections than dogs with prick or semi-prick ears. The idea is that ears that are floppy and folded over don’t get much air flow, which can trap moisture inside the ear canal. In this warm, moist environment, bacteria and/or yeast can flourish, causing an infection. However, in noting that breeds like Cocker Spaniels are predisposed to infections due to a greater density of a certain kind of sweat gland and other factors, the AVMA says that the data “suggests the risk of (ear infections) in pedigreed dogs must be considered on a breed-by-breed basis, and that grouping study samples by ear shape (e.g., pendulous or erect) may not be justified.”
Some breeds like Poodles and Bichons Frises have hair growing inside their ear canal. This hair—especially if it’s thick—can further contribute to a moist and warm environment that’s ideal for an infection to take hold. Opinion differs on this matter but some vets advise that you don’t pluck any ear hair unless the pet is routinely getting ear infections. Removing the hair CAN help with treatment as it is easier to remove debris that carries bacteria and yeast, as well as allowing for better penetration of medications.
Other causes of ear infections include ear mites and water entering the ear canal.
Chronic ear infections are also a common secondary sign of allergies in dogs.
Signs to look out for include frequent head shaking, scratching at the ears or rubbing the face on carpet, and discharge and/or an odor coming from the ear canal. It’s a good idea to make a habit of smelling your dog’s ears (yep, it’s weird, but it could help you stay on top of their ear health). If you have a puppy, all the better, so you can get used to what their ears should smell like, and notice when any unusual odors pop up.
Ear mites: Ear mites are troublesome parasites that live inside the ears. Dogs with ear mites often scratch at their head and ears, and have abnormal dark-looking ear discharge. Luckily, ear mites are relatively easy to treat—a deep ear cleaning and some medications prescribed by your veterinarian usually clear up infections quickly.
In addition to watching out for signs of infection or other ear ailments, be sure to look out for your dog’s amazing hearing and general ear wellness. Try to avoid sudden, loud, or high-pitched noises, make sure your dog has a quiet place to go during loud events, avoid subjecting them to two loud noise sources at once (a TV blaring in one corner, and music in another)—and, of course, stroke them regularly.
This article was vetted by vets.
Deepti Johar, DVM;
Danielle Woolf, DVM.