Ear problems in dogs are a common reason for needing to visit your vet. While on many occasions the issue can be easily treated, sometimes there’s an underlying cause which will require further investigation. Generally, ear problems will not clear up on their own, are very painful and often get worse over time. Therefore, it’s a good idea to get them seen promptly if you suspect a problem.
- Shaking of the head or rubbing the ear along the ground
- Scratching at the ears and around the head
- Brown, yellow, or bloody discharge
- Red, swollen and/or heated ears
- Unpleasant odour
- Painful ears to touch (the dog may yelp and/or become aggressive when the area in touched)
- Crusts or scabs on inside of the outer ear
More serious symptoms, often associated with longer term ear problems, include; tilting of the head, loss of balance, unusual eye movements, circling (walking in circles) and loss of hearing.
So why do dogs get so many problems with their ears?
There are a number of factors which all contribute;
- General anatomy – the tube that runs from the outside of the ear further into the head (the ear canal) is mostly vertical in dogs where as in people, it is horizontal. This makes it much more likely that debris will stay in the ear canal and can also make it more moist inside. Just the right conditions for bacteria and yeast to grow.
- Ear anatomy – Breeds with long floppy ears, or have lots of hair inside, may be more likely to get ear infections as it will be warmer and damper in the ear canal.
- Dogs being dogs! – Whether they are a land loving, meadow bouncer exposing their ears to grass seeds as they frolic, or a water addict getting their ears (as well as your car and home) nice and damp as often as possible, many day to day activities associated with simply being a happy dog can contribute to ear problems.
Common causes of ear problems
It is not uncommon for more than one problem to be identified. For example, once the ear canal is inflamed and the dog is scratching at it for any reason (such as an underlying allergy) a secondary infection is much more likely.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The first stage is a thorough examination of the ear by your vet. If the ear is very painful, this may not be possible without sedation, pain relief, and anti-inflammatories first. However, it’s important that they are able to look right down the ear canal, and do so without frightening your dog and making them anxious about having their ears examined in future.
Infections and ear mite infestations
If an infection or ear mites are suspected, a sample of the debris in the ear canal might be taken on a swab, and examined under a microscope to identify the bugs involved. This may also be sent to a laboratory for further tests, to identify the exact bacteria and work out which antibiotics are effective against it. Once an accurate diagnosis has been made, topical and/or oral medications may be used to clear the infection or treat the mites.
If a grass seed or other foreign body is suspected, sedation or general anaesthetic if often required to find the pesky seed or awn. Antibiotics, pain-relief and anti-inflammatories are likely to be required afterwards.
It’s also very important to remember that allergy is a common underlying cause of ear problems in dogs. In some cases, ear problems will be the only sign of allergy you’ll see. In fact, around 43% of dogs with recurrent or long term ear issues have underlying allergic disease. If you vet is suspicious your dog has an allergy, they may suggest a dietary trial to rule out food allergy and further tests to help identify the allergens (substances in the environment such as pollens) that are triggering the allergy.
Long term management
- As a puppy, especially if you have a breed with long ears or that is at higher risk of allergies, get your dog used to having their ears handled in a positive way.
- Once you have established that checking ears is not scary, routinely check their ears for abnormal discharge, redness and/or odour, and if appropriate clean the ears regularly at home. Your vet will advise on cleaning technique, how frequently it is required and the right type of cleaner for your dog.
- When the ear is sore, don’t try and examine it at home. Take your dog into the veterinary practice, where they can administer pain relief and sedation if required before examination occurs. This will reduce the chance of the dog becoming frightened and you no longer being able to administer topical ear cleaners or medications anymore.
- After exposure to water (baths or swimming) dry your dog’s ears thoroughly.
- If your dog has excessively hairy ears, ask your vet whether hair removal would be appropriate. Your vet can then advice how and when to get this done.
- If allergy is diagnosed, your vet will speak to you about the various management options available to help control the symptoms long-term.
For more information on the diagnosis and treatment of allergy click here.
Written by Johanna Gourlay– Senior Veterinary Technical Manager
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