Ear popping is a familiar, though not exactly pleasant, sensation for those of us who travel by air, hike in the mountains, or embark on road trips across areas of differing elevations. And if your dog has ever traveled along with you, you may have wondered whether his ears are also prone to popping when experiencing a change in altitude.
Well, the simple answer to this question is: yes, dogs (and other animals) DO experience ear popping with a change in altitude. But what's the biology behind this rather curious sensation? Read on to find out.
Popping Under Pressure
In general, a dog's sense of hearing is far more sensitive than a human's. While we can detect sounds between 20 hertz to 12,000-20,000 hertz (depending on age), dogs can hear somewhere between 40 to a whopping 60,000 hertz (also depending on their age). This is why they can hear the ultra high-pitched sounds of dog whistles which are between 16,000 and 22,000 hertz, and we (thankfully!) can't.
Even though dogs' ears can pick up more frequencies than we can, the way that their ears work (that is, their ears' biological structure) isn't all that different from ours. Both dogs and humans have a middle ear and a tube (called the 'Eustachian' tube) that leads down to the throat. When a person or animal experiences a change in air pressure, their Eustachian tube should widen to equalize the pressure within the middle ear. Before this happens, you'll have that uncomfortable feeling of fullness in the ear and muffled hearing — which the widening (characterized by popping) eventually relieves.
Sometimes, we can help the popping along by yawning, swallowing, or pinching our nostrils shut and attempting to blow through our nose — all of which cause the Eustachian muscles to contract. You can also help your dog by giving him a chew treat during altitude changes, as the licking and swallowing will help relieve pressure in his ears as well.
Altitude Illness Alert!
However, just as dogs' ears are more sensitive to sound than ours, many dogs' ears can also be extremely sensitive to elevation changes. Vets recommend that we gradually expose our dogs to changes in elevation, allowing their ears adequate time to become accustomed to air pressure changes. Dogs, like humans, are also prone to suffering from altitude sickness, the symptoms of which include rapid breathing, panting, dry cough, drooling, pale gums, and refusing to walk. If you notice these symptoms, the dog should be taken to a lower altitude as soon as possible, given an oxygen mask (if available), and then immediately brought to the vet for care.