The Outer Ear
The visible ear is the rotating, signal-capture portion of the outer ear called the pinna (Figure 1). It is rarely the smallest part of the hearing apparatus, though. Rabbit ears range from the kitten-like ears of a Netherland dwarf to the ridiculously long ears of an English lop, accounting for up to 12% of the rabbit’s surface area. In up-eared (some would say “normal”) rabbits, each ear can rotate nearly 270º to allow detection of the source of a sound, or even to monitor two sounds at once.
The pinna also has a relatively large blood supply, and the extensive network of blood vessels provides a lot of surface area for heat exchange. When he gets overheated, a rabbit’s ear vessels will swell with blood. This is a major part of his temperature-control system. A damp cloth rubbed on your rabbit’s ears on a hot day, or during a high fever, can aid this process by adding evaporative cooling.
The rest of the outer ear is composed of a bent canal that goes vertically and then almost horizontally to lead to the eardrum. This portion of the ear is prone to buildup of earwax and debris, which may then become a breeding ground for infection. Many rabbits can deftly clean out any accumulation with a back toenail, but lops and infirm rabbits may need a bit of help. Since the ear canal has a bend, this can be done fairly safely. Your veterinarian can show you how.
The Middle EarMoving roughly toward the center of the back of the rabbit’s skull, you next come to the middle ear.
The three ossicles- hammer, anvil and stirrup (see inset)- transfer the pressure of a sound wave from the eardrum to the fluid-filled inner ear. The middle ear acting
Connecting the middle ear to the throat s a short, narrow passage called the eustachian tube (Figure 1).
This passage provides a means for maintaining equal air pressure on both sides of the eardrum. Although normally closed off by a valve system, it also provides a possible route for infectious bacteria to enter the middle ear.
eardrum ruptures. If you see pus in your rabbit’s ear, this may be what has happened, and it’s definitely time for that vet visit.
The Inner EarOur sound wave has now been transmitted to the fluid of the inner ear, which is called endolymph. The inner ear has two main parts: The cochlea, a spiral-shaped tube, processes the sound waves transmitted to it by the ossicles, before passing the information on to the brain.
The vestibular apparatus senses the position of the head and any movement or motion it may be experiencing.
basilar membrane, inset) that
decreases in thickness and stiffness from one end to the other. When a sound wave reaches the portion of the basilar membrane with the same resonant frequency, its associated hair cells send nerve impulses to the brain to give a perception of the sound’s pitch.
A very strong movement of the endolymph due to very loud noise may cause hair cells to die. This can cause partial deafness and may be why your bun ignores you when you call her name. More likely, though, is that she just has a different agenda.
The other part of the inner ear has nothing to do with hearing. It is called the labyrinth and it keeps track of the body’s position and movement. The labyrinth itself has two types of sensory devices. The saccule and the utricle make up the mac-ular organs which detect head position and linear motion.
Microscopic crystals sit atop tiny hairs on the surface of these organs. The information from all of the hair cells lets your rabbit know if she is right side up, upside down or blissfully flopped on her side. A “righting reflex” helps her to keep her head in a normal upright position most of the time by telling the neck muscles to contract or relax.
Labyrinth Damage and Head TiltWhen everything is working correctly, the signals from the labyrinth keep the rabbit oriented in his environment. A damaged or missing labyrinth, due to injury or disease, can send your rabbit into a spin-physically as well as figuratively.
The muscles on the side of a damaged labyrinth relax and those on the opposite side of the head tense. The eyes move rapidly side to side (nystagmus), and the head and neck tend to twist or turn toward the damaged side. This is the same as corrections in normal movement to right themselves, but there is no real movement, only perceived movement.
We see this as rolling or circling in rabbits with ear infections or neurological diseases such as Encephalitozoon cuniculi.
As an example, damage to the right labyrinth, or pressure from an infection in the middle ear, will cause a rabbit to turn his head to the right or twist the right side down, depending on which canal receives the most stimulation. The signals to his brain (from the damaged labyrinth) tell him that
he is or tilting to the left, so his righting reflex attempts to correct the misorientation by tilting to the right.
Since the signals are false, he will hold his head tilted to the right or even roll completely over in a vain attempt to control the situation. You may also see nystagmal movement of his eyes as a result of this same mis-signal. Damage to both labyrinths at the same time will appear mostly as an erroneous signal from the vertical canals (which detect forward and back tilting of the head). The head is likely to droop and there may be a shifting of the eyes up and down (vertical nystagmus) as the rabbit attempts to ascertain when his head is in a normal position.
Footnotes and complete article:
Special Needs Bunnies with Head Tilt
Head Tilt in Bunnies
Middle & Inner Ear Issues in Rabbits
What is E. cuniculi?