Why Do Dogs Have Floppy Ears?

Darwin says Domestication Syndrome could be the reason for different ears.

By Justyne Yuen-Lee


Do your ears hang low? Do they wobble to and fro?

The American Kennel Club recognizes over 192 dog breeds, in all different shapes, lengths, and sizes. You can spot the differences all the way down to the shapes of their ears – floppy or pointed! The floppy-eared doggies run with their tails wagging and ears flapping with every bounce. This is in contrast to cats and other domesticated species, such as cows, horses, or even guinea pigs – that have erect ears.

Darwin’s Intrigue


Charles Darwin noticed that wild animals used their ears to catch passing sounds. The only droopy-eared animal, according to his research, was the elephant. He pondered the association between hearing and stature of ear.


The only sound pups at home need to hear is the treat bag rustling!

This left him with the conclusion, “The incapacity to erect the ears is certainly in some manner the result of domestication.”

Darwin noted that it wasn’t only ears that were uniquely useless or hindered in domesticated animals, but that these animals also tended toward shorter snouts, smaller jaws and teeth, and lighter coats with more splotches. He named this phenomenon “domestication syndrome.”


Darwin believed there had to be some kind of reason for this syndrome, but could not create a link. This left future scientists to find the answer!

The Experiment


Silver foxes brought Darwin’s theory back to life!

In Russia, during the 1950s, geneticist Dmitri Belyaev created a hypothesis about silver foxes: the physical changes in animals result from selecting preferred behavioral traits.

In his experiment, Belyaev bred foxes and chose the tamer ones to continue in the breeding program. These were the individuals that were the most calm around humans, and less likely to bite. He continued this trend with the offspring and in only a few generations, the foxes were friendly and domesticated. Even more astounding, many individuals in this population had floppy ears, changes in fur color, smaller skulls, jaws and teeth!

The Adrenaline Link


A study done in 2014 puts forth a similar theory that domestication had an impact on dogs’ ears and other physical traits. The study, published in Genetics, suggests that early humans noticed a wolf different from the others, a wolf that wasn’t afraid of humans.  Adam Wilkins, of the Institute of Theoretical Biology in Berlin, offered the idea that this different wolf probably lacked an excess of adrenaline.


Friendlier dogs = floppy ears?

Neural crest cells, found in the adrenal gland, migrate during fetal development to different parts of what will become a fully formed animal. The end location for these neural crest cells differ in wild versus domesticated animals.


If these cells don’t reach the ears, the ears become “deformed” or floppy. If the cells affect pigmentation, then the fur becomes patchy rather than solid. And if cells reach the jaw or teeth, then they become smaller.

The Result


“What you got to say about my ears!” – this Beagle, probably

The Domestication Syndrome Darwin proposed proved true, but these genetic differences do not mean our fluffy companions are at a disadvantage.


According to Wilkins, “In the case of domesticated animals, most of them would not survive very well in the wild if they were released, but in captivity they do perfectly well and while the traits of the ‘domestication syndrome’ are technically defects, they do not seem to harm them.”


They don’t need such pointy ears to hear you with, my dear!

Our pets don’t need to be on high alert or camouflage themselves in a habitat. Instead, they have evolved into our companions and have aided in the development of civilizations!


Of course, not all dogs have floppy ears. Nordic breeds like Malamutes, Siberian Huskies, and Samoyeds and Terriers like Yorkshire, West Highland, and Cairn all retain their pointy ears trait.


It all comes down to selective breeding. Humans have changed the original pointy wolf ear into a variety of shapes. There are the floppy Basset Hounds, pointy-eared Corgis, and French Bulldogs with blunt ears.

Still, no matter the shape of the ear, every dog enjoys a good scratch behind the ear with a side of, “who’s a good doggy?”