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The Link Between the Domestication of Labradors and Floppy Ears
In his book The Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication, Charles Darwin first identified what he called Domestication Syndrome. He noticed that domesticated animals all tended to be different from their wild cousins in many of the same ways.
Dogs are only one example.
Tame rabbits, sheep, goats, pigs, cows, and donkeys tend to have floppy ears than their wild counterparts. More docile temperaments, shorter (or absent) horns, and smaller teeth and jaws are also typical differences.
Darwin theorized that these changes must have a common cause. But since he was writing in the 19th century, he didn't have any way of identifying exactly what that common cause might be.
Over 140 years later, some researchers believe they found the answer. They believe floppy ears result from changes in something called neural crest cells.
Why Labrador Ears May Have Changed Over Time
Neural crest cells are a kind of embryonic cell linked to the formation of both the adrenal glands and the cartilage that makes up parts of the ears.
Breeding for weakened versions of these cells leads to animals with smaller, less active adrenal glands, which makes them less fearful of humans. It also makes them less likely to have the kind of strong ear cartilage needed to make an ear stand upright.
That's right. The same genetic change that makes animals tamer may also give them floppier ears. Researchers believe that over many generations, these traits compounded. Modern breed standards continue to reinforce the trait.
Not everyone is convinced that neural crest cells are the answer, however.
Another study argues that because the classic signs of domestication syndrome are different in different kinds of domestic animals, it's unlikely that there's one single genetic cause.
Additionally, pointy-eared modern dog breeds are not demonstrably less domesticated than those with floppy ears.
Do Floppy Ears Have Benefits?
Floppy ears can be beneficial as they make dogs appear tamer and less intimidating than dogs with upright ears. Many dogs with floppy ears are known to have the best sense of smell. However, geneticists think that floppy ears are merely a side effect of breeding for the desirable trait of tameness.
Floppy Ears and Scent Work
There's a common belief that floppy-eared dogs bred for scenting purposes--like tracking, hunting, and retrieving breeds--obtain an advantage from their ears. Bloodhounds and Basset Hounds, frequently the top-rated trackers, have ears so long they often brush the ground.
Their trainers believe this helps scoop or sweep scents into the dogs' noses. It's plausible, but I haven't been able to find any scientific studies confirming that it's true.
Lists of the best dogs for scent work often rate breeds like German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois, neither of which is known for their floppy ears, higher than Labradors, despite their soft ears.
What all these dog breeds do have, however, is an exceptional sense of smell. Maybe long ears help trap scent. However, it might also be that just like the genetic link to tameness, any connection between scenting ability and ear length is coincidental.
Floppy Ears and Human Perception
Because we associate floppy ears with tame animals, there is some evidence that people tend to find floppy-eared dogs less intimidating than dogs with upright ears.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) seems to think it's true. They announced in early 2019 that they were looking for more floppy-eared dogs for their security programs because people--especially children--find them less frightening.
What Are the Disadvantages of Floppy Ears?
Floppy ears can be disadvantageous to Labradors (or any dog with floppy ears) because they increase the risk of injury or infection. That's because floppy ears can easily get snagged on anything sharp and thus torn. Furthermore, floppy ears are also not easy to keep clean.
Floppy Ears Pose Higher Risk of Injury
Dogs with longer, floppier ears, especially if they are highly active or spend time outside unsupervised, are more likely to injure their ears than dogs whose ears are smaller or more upright. Snags on thorny brush or fence posts and fights with other animals may lead to tears in the ears.
Torn ears tend to bleed heavily since there are so many small veins in the ears. However, many such injuries can be easily treated at home and may not require a trip to the vet. If the tear is still bleeding when you discover it, press clean gauze or cotton wool soaked in cold water to the wound for a few minutes.
The pressure should stop the bleeding, and the cold will help numb any discomfort. If the bleeding continues, or if the tear is more than two inches long, you should take your dog to the vet for treatment. Otherwise, you can clean the wound with mild antiseptic and allow it to heal on its own, either bandaged or uncovered.
Monitor the injury for any sign of infection, including redness, swelling, or a foul odor. If such symptoms appear, call your vet immediately. Your dog will likely need a course of antibiotics.
Floppy Ears Lead to a Higher Risk of Infection
Dogs with floppy ears are also somewhat more prone to ear infection than dogs with upright ears. Keep the insides of your dog's ears clean and dry. This is especially challenging for those Labrador owners whose dogs love the water.
Cleaning Your Labrador's Ears
It's essential to know how the inside of your dog's ears should look and smell:
- Color: Healthy ears are usually pink, not visibly dirty, and do not have an unpleasant smell.
- Odor: If there is odor, discharge, or if your dog seems to be having ear irritation or discomfort, they probably have an infection and should see the vet.
- Note: Don't attempt to clean an infected ear, as you could make things worse.
For cleaning healthy ears, all you need is a towel, some cotton balls or gauze, and a good commercial ear cleaning solution (Amazon). Ask your vet what they recommend. Note: never use something like hydrogen peroxide--it's too harsh and can damage healthy tissue.
Ear cleaning can be messy, so you probably want to do it outside or in an easily cleaned room like the bathroom or garage.
For a guide on how to clean your Lab's ears, check out: How Often Should You Bathe Your Lab?
While we love our Labradors for far more than their floppy ears, their ears are nevertheless a fundamental part of their overall charm.
Regardless of where they come from, they are part of what makes our pets who they are. As responsible owners, it's up to us to learn how to keep them safe and healthy.