Cats are fascinating creatures, and they’re built with some pretty amazing functions. As we’ve already pointed out, their “software” is pretty advanced, and they’re not lacking for cool hardware, either. A lot of attention gets paid to animals’ senses of smell and sight and their noses and eyes, but cats’ ears and hearing deserve a little praise, too. Here are 10 things you might not know about your cat’s ears and what they can do.
1. Cats’ ears are pretty similar to those of other mammals and share the same three structural areas: the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. The outer ear is made up of the pinna (that’s the external triangular part you can see on top of their heads, and what we usually think of when we talk about their ears) and the ear canal. The pinna’s job is to capture sound waves and funnel them down the ear canal to the middle ear. Cats’ pinnae are mobile, and they can turn and move them independently. “Cats have a lot of muscle control over their ear,” says Dr. George Strain, a neuroscientist at Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “They can actually use it like a radar unit and turn it toward the source of sound and increase their hearing sensitivity by 15 to 20 percent.”
The middle ear contains the eardrum and tiny bones called ossicles, which vibrate in response to sound waves and transmit those vibrations to the inner ear. In the inner ear, sensory cells in the organ of Corti respond to the vibrations by moving and bending, which sends electrical signals through the auditory nerve to the brain for processing.
The inner ear also contains the vestibular system, which helps provide a sense of balance and spatial orientation. Its shared location and connectivity to the sensory parts of the inner ear mean that an inner ear infection can affect both hearing and vestibular function, Strain says. “As a result, [a cat with an inner ear infection] may exhibit signs like a head tilt or a curvature of the body toward the side where the infection is.”