Why do cats like earwax

Why do cats like earwax

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Why do cats like earwax so much? A possible neurological answer

A team of Canadian researchers is on the case

Cats, it seems, can’t get enough of the stuff. The researchers point to the many benefits offered by ears and the fact that these appendages don’t smell. From a physiological perspective, the benefits are obvious: ears are cool and moist. Cat ears, though, were previously thought to serve mainly sensory functions. The first-ever recordings from the cochlea, the human equivalent to a cat’s ear, proved that the primary function of the ear is to help cats hear better.

In an attempt to explain why this is so, a team of researchers from McGill University in Montreal has now found that earwax could actually be the key to our feline friends’ success in finding these benefits. A group led by neuroscientist and professor Jean-Philippe Leblanc of McGill’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory is attempting to find out.

“One of the basic functions of the ear is to hear,” Leblanc told The Dodo. “So, in principle, it makes sense that ears are a good place for some kind of sensory function to develop. We used cats because we wanted to do imaging in living animals.”

In 2014, a group led by the same professor reported that cats were found to have a much higher concentration of auditory nerve cells in their cochlea compared to other mammals such as humans and rabbits. They also found that cats’ auditory nerve cells were more active during hearing compared to other mammals. These characteristics are typical of a complex, sophisticated auditory organ. But, Leblanc points out, cats lack a middle ear. This means that sound waves are directed straight to the ear without the auditory nerve and the rest of the auditory organ coming in between. This could have led to the feline species’ specialization of the ear.

Image Credit: Jean-Philippe Leblanc, McGill University

A closer examination of this anatomy in a species known for its advanced sense of hearing, particularly in the cochlea, could show how cats accomplish this. The cochlea is one of the four spirals of the ear. It has a number of sensors that detect and encode sound information into nerve impulses which are then sent to the brain. A similar spiral exists in all vertebrate species except cats. So, to determine whether earwax actually plays a role in the cochlea’s function, Leblanc’s team wanted to know if cats’ high levels of earwax were connected to the cochlea.

A group led by Leblanc decided to conduct some experiments to see whether earwax changes as the cochlea responds to sound. He had a group of 15 cats and seven dogs under his care listen to tones at three frequencies (1, 1.5 and 3 kHz) while measuring sound pressure level in the eardrum. Then, he measured the amount of earwax present in their ears.

During the first test, the cats did not hear anything at all, while the dogs heard, but not as well as humans do. They also had less earwax on average than cats. Cats, Leblanc says, have less earwax as they grow older, so that may have accounted for some of the difference.

Image Credit: Jean-Philippe Leblanc, McGill University

Next, the cats and dogs listened to tones for a few minutes a day for three months. Both groups had a small increase in earwax, but while dogs’ earwax increased to a much larger extent than the cats’ did, the increase was still not a lot.

After listening to the tones, Leblanc also took acoustic impedance measurements. This tells you how easily sound is transmitted through a medium like earwax. On average, the cats had less acoustic impedance than the dogs, which is why they had less earwax.

So, the answer to whether or not you can hear things is yes, you can hear, and it doesn’t depend only on how good your hearing is. However, the level of perception changes with how much earwax you have. When you have little earwax, you’ll be better at hearing lower frequencies than if you had lots of earwax.

In this experiment, the researchers used the dogs to help them understand how earwax affects hearing. They knew they could get a good result, since the humans use the dogs to train their hearing.

These results are especially significant for dogs, since the hearing of many breeds varies. Some can hear very low or high frequencies, but others can’t, and their ability to hear doesn’t seem to match their size.

Since our dogs can hear better with less earwax, perhaps they have adapted their physiology to better hear the low frequencies. This would make their ability to pick up certain sounds – like the alarm bark that lets them know their owners are coming back home – more effective. And these behaviors would help maintain social order and cohesion.

So far, no one has tested other mammals with high or low levels of earwax to see if they respond the same way, and we don’t know whether this trend is universal. However, it’s pretty clear that being near a dog helps human hearing by allowing the receiver to hear better.

This study was published in the journal Biology Letters.


Feature Photo: Pexels

By Kelly Carmichael, Science Writer | April 4, 2020

Watch the video: Why Do Cats Lick Your Ears?! Strange Cat Behaviours Explained (May 2022).

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