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Dog Ear Health and Care

Jun 6, 2008
Some breeds of dogs are more susceptible than others to ear disease. Dogs whose ears "drop" or fall over the opening of the ear canals are the most suceptible to ear problems. Ears that drop allow moisture and debris to build up in the ear canal. Making the situation even worse is the fact that hair grows in the ear canals of these breeds.

Bacteria, ear-mites, and yeast grow especially well in areas that are moist, alkaline, and dirty, making ear canals prime targets for these disease causing elements. Add hair to such an environment, and you have the ideal breeding ground for these bacteria, ear-mites, and yeast to grow with wild abandon.

The goal of ear care, then, is to keep the ear canals of our little buddies clean and dry. Doing so will greatly reduce the opportunity for ear infections to occur.

Good ear care begins with frequent inspection of the ear canals for any signs of irritation. An excellent time to do this is during your grooming sessions, several times each week. Ideally, your dog should learn to happily accept you peeking into and handling their ears as pups, but it is never too late to gently and gradually train this vital health behavior.

When inspecting your dog's ears, it is important to know how they should look. A healthy ear will be light pink in color. It will appear clean, with minor appearance of wax. It will also be odor-free. Any variations from light pink, clean, and non-smelling, are "red flags" that call for attention and action.

Similarly, there are a number of easily identifiable signs that indicate irritation or infection in the ear canal. The presence of any one of these signal a need for further investigation. These signs may include behaviors such as frequent scratching or pawing the ears, shaking the head, or tilting the head to one side. Other behaviors may be observed as problems with balance, hearing, or disorientation. We may be alerted that there is sensitivity to having an ear touched. Visual signs may also include redness or swelling of the ear canal, and discharges that may be yellowish, blackish, bloody, or the consistency of coffee grounds. There can be an accumulation of dark brown wax. An unpleasant odor is often detectable. Finally, there may be behavioral changes including listlessness, or irritability when ear canal irritation or infection is present.

Whatever the signs, when irritation or infection of the ear canal is suspected, seek veterinary care quickly! Ear problems cause considerable discomfort.

So far, we've learned why some breeds are so susceptible to ear canal irritations and infections and the general kinds of ear canal issues they tend to get. We understand the importance of examining our little buddies' ears regularly. And, we know how to recognize healthy ears, and the signs and symptoms of infected or irritated ear canals.


Infections of the external ear (otitus externa) or of the middle ear, (otitus media) are most frequently caused by the growth of bacteria or yeast. Bacteria and yeast thrive in such warm, moist, dark environments. The accumulation of wax, hair, dirt, and other foreign matter in the ear canal, besides being problems in and of themselves, are high risk factors. These elements trap moisture and further prevent any circulation of air. Because of this, the accumulation of wax, hair, dirt, and other matter contribute to the both the beginning and the continuation of these bacterial and yeast infections in the ear canal.

Veterinary intervention is needed to correctly diagnose and prescribe the needed treatment for such infections. Antibiotics are often used for bacterial infections, while antifungals are ususally the choice for addressing yeast issues.

When yeast or bacterial infections are present, a dog will often shake its head, scratch or paw its ear, and may tilt the head to one side. This type of infection frequently produces a pungent odor. As the situation worsens, the ear canal will become inflamed and often produce a pussy discharge.

It should be noted that ear infections can also be symptoms of possible allergies or hormonal imbalances. Again, a veterinarian can determine if this is the case and prescribe the appropriate interventions.

Ear mites are common parasites that are highly contagious, easily spreading from pet to pet. Because parasites depend upon a living "carrier," if one pet in a home has been diagnosed with ear mites, any other pets in the home also need to be examined for similar infestations and treated, by a veterinarian, as necessary.

Excessive itching is the most common sign of ear mites. Ear mites create dark, crumbly debris, resembling coffee grounds.

Proper ear care can usually prevent recurring infections. This involves keeping the ear canals clean and dry. A first step is removal of excess hair in the canal. Hair in the ear canal tends to trap dirt and water. Hair removal should be done as gently as possible, handling only a very few hairs at a time.

Twisting hair clusters around a tool and yanking can cause irritation! Please avoid such abrupt, massive actions, as they can do more harm than good.

A few hairs at a time can be comfortably removed using the thumb and forefinger to grasp the hairs at their bases, next to the skin, and carefully pulling.

After removing excess hair, the ear canals may be flushed with a commercial cleanser designed specifically for canine ears. Ask your veterinarian's advice! After flushing, gently massage the base of the ears, next to the dog's head, to distribute the solution within the folds inside the canal. A good ear cleaning solution will be designed not only to clean the ear canal, but also to liquify the wax, dry the moisture from the canal, and normalize the pH (acidity-alkaline factor) in the canal.

During warm weather your furry friend is likely to have more opportunities to be in water, whether for fun or for bathing. As preventative maintenance, a veterinarian-approved solution to treat the ears after water exposure can be useful.

Please, avoid alcohol as it can cause tremendous burning and further irritation! Also, Q-tips are "out" for ear canal care!

Regular ear exams and periodic maintenance to keep the canals clean and dry can prevent untold ear discomfort!
About the Author
Sandy Schneider, author, is a devoted dog mom. Agility, grooming, obedience, and just plain having fun with her dogs are her passion. She operates Bichon World and invites you to visit the site for great information and articles.
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