Given how common ear problems are in dogs, it pays to give regular attention to the state of your own pup’s ears, and to know how to keep them clean and healthy.
Ear problems are among the most common reasons dogs visit the veterinarian. Yet many of these problems can be prevented or minimized with an awareness of how and why they manifest, along with some practiced cleaning effort. With the right knowledge and techniques, you can keep your dog’s ears healthy for life.
How can I prevent ear problems in my pet?
Many ear problems can be prevented through routine care. Dogs that swim or who are bathed frequently; who live in areas with dense environmental allergens; have open ear canals; or are prone to skin problems, should be given preventive treatment as often as deemed necessary by your veterinarian.
If you aren’t comfortable with the process of cleaning your dog or cat’s ears, ask your veterinarian to give you a demonstration. Veterinary technicians and professional groomers are also adept at cleaning canine ears, and scheduling consistent technician appointments and grooming sessions can help you stay ahead of problems before clinical signs appear.
Aren’t dog and cat ears just like human ears?
Canine ears have a different structure than human ears. Our ears have a “straight shot”, called the horizontal canal, which connects the tympanic membrane (eardrum) to the pinna (flap).
Dogs have a vertical canal that drops downward from the pinna. This then takes a nearly 90° bend to become a horizontal canal, which courses inward to the tympanic membrane. The longer ear canal helps make canine hearing sharper than ours, but it also means the dog’s ears can be more challenging to keep clean. It also makes them prone to an accumulation of debris as well as to infections, especially as the ear canal is also bent.
Dogs have three parts to their ears — outer, middle, and inner.
- Outer: Made up of the ear canal and pinna.
- Middle: Consists of the tympanic membrane, an air-filled chamber containing three tiny bones (hammer, anvil and stirrup), along with the eustachian tube (an air-filled tube connecting to the junction of the nose and mouth).
- Inner: Includes the cochlea (hearing organ) and vestibular system (balance-permitting organ).
When the pinna points out or up, the ear canal is considered to be open. This permits air to enter the canal and minimize the development of a moist environment that can support the proliferation of microorganisms (bacteria, mites, yeast, etc.). Yet an open ear canal permits allergens and moisture to enter the ear, which in turn can contribute to aural ailments.
Pets with pinnae pointing down (i.e. floppy-eared dogs) are considered to have a closed ear canal. This helps prevent water and irritants from entering the ear canal, but it also creates a dark, warm and potentially moist microenvironment, which supports microorganism growth and ear problems.
Clinical signs of ear problems in a dog or cat
- Scratching around the ears, face, or neck
- Head shaking or tilt
- Ear flap or canal redness, swelling, discharge or odor
- Mass-like skin lesions (cancerous or non-cancerous masses)
- Not wanting the head or ears touched
- Decreased appetite
- Ataxia (loss of balance)
What else you can do
In addition to performing weekly cleaning and inspections, feeding your dog a high quality diet can help maintain ear health. One of the first indications of health problems in dogs fed a low quality commercial diet is skin and ear discharge. These discharges are the body’s way of ridding itself of the chemicals and additives found in low-end food.