Floppy and long, short and pointy, our furry friends have ears that are quite different from our own. Their ears are amazing, hearing around 4 times better than us and approximately 18 muscles in each ear allow dogs to move their ears in order to communicate their feelings to us and other dogs.
Unfortunately ear problems are common, causing itchy, smelly, hot and often painful, swollen ears.
Frequent causes include yeast and bacterial infections, ear mites and foreign bodies such as grass seeds.
Breeds with long floppy ears, dogs with underlying allergies or those that love to swim can be more susceptible to ear problems but its common in many other breeds too.
Never ignore an ear problem, they can be very painful and without veterinary treatment can get much worse quite quickly and we all know how horrible earache can be.
What are the signs of an ear problem?
Itchiness -shaking head, scratching and rubbing ears
Excess wax or discharge ,often with an increased smell
Redness and swelling around entrance to ear canal
Pain- reluctance to let you near their head
Swelling in the ear flap (aural haematoma)
Middle and inner ear infections can also cause a head tilt, loss of balance, vomiting and partial deafness.
Why are some dogs prone to ear infections?
The shape of their ears- Dogs have a long, ‘L ‘ shaped ear canal which easily traps dirt and moisture (for example after swimming) which means it can become hot and sweaty. Just the kind of environment bugs such as bacteria and yeasts thrive in. Although beautiful, the long floppy ears of breeds such as Spaniels contribute to this problem, as do the narrow or hairy ear canals of other breeds.
Foreign bodies- things that shouldn’t be there such as grass seeds
Dogs with underlying allergies – the lining of the ear is like skin on the rest of the body and can become itchy and inflamed in an allergic dog.
What to do if your dog is suffering from ear problems?
The first step is a trip to your vets as they are unlikely to clear up on their own. The vet will look inside your dog’s ear with an instrument called an otoscope to check for damage deeper in the ear canal and for things such as grass seeds. The inside of the ear canal is very sensitive and in the most painful cases this may require sedation or an anaesthetic. Often a simple test where a sample of the discharge is examined under the microscope is performed to diagnose bacterial or yeast infections.
The rest of the skin can also be examined for any concurrent issues which may warrant further investigation into possible allergies.
How are ear problems treated?
Some ear infections can be treated relatively quickly and successfully with a course of prescribed medicated ear drops sometimes alongside anti-inflammatory /pain relief oral medications.
Ear cleaning is important as unless the ear is clean the medicated ear drops cannot work properly, in some cases this needs to be done under sedation or anaesthetic but can often be demonstrated and then continued at home.
In very severe, long term cases surgery can even be required.
How can I reduce the chances of my dog developing an ear problem?
Ear problems are not completely preventable but are much easier to treat if the signs are picked up earlier.
Here are some top tips on early detection and management:
It’s important to carry out a regular ear inspection, checking for discharge or smell. Remember the ear can be a very delicate and sensitive area and it is important to form positive associations with the ears being touched, so give them plenty of treats and fuss while you’re examining the ears.
Using a good quality ear cleaner can be helpful to remove wax and debris from within the ear. Just bear in mind that excessive and unnecessary ear cleaning can cause problems so always discuss the cleaning regime/ product with a vet. NEVER use cotton buds in your dogs ears.
Check carefully for grass seeds after those lovely romps through grassy fields particularly in the summer months.
If your dog has underlying allergies, either to food or the environment, they will be more likely to develop ear infections. Diagnosing and treating the underlying allergies can prevent the ears from repeatedly getting inflamed and infected.
If the problem recurs seek advice as soon as possible. If the disease is left untreated permanent damage may result. In severe cases, if left untreated, the ear infection can pass beyond the eardrum and cause problems with balance, or a brain infection called meningitis.
The good news is if underlying causes are identified and managed then ear problems will be much less of a painful issue for your best friend.