Ear Problems and Care
A dog's sense of hearing is acute, many times greater than our own. A dog's ears are delicate, sensitive, finely tuned instruments that allow the dog to pick up sounds that humans could never hear. That's why ear care is so important.
The ear has three parts: the pinna, or auricle, the middle ear and the inner ear. The pinna is a flap that forms the outer section of the ear. It originates the hearing process by trapping sound waves. The pinna also determines the ears' shape and movement.
The middle ear, which processes sound, consists of the tympanic cavity, the eardrum and the auditory ossicles, a series of tiny bones known as the hammer (malleus), anvil (incus) and stirrup (stapes). Sound waves travel down the ear canal to the eardrum, where they are transmitted across the middle ear by the auditory ossicies to the inner ear.
Small fluid-filled tubes, or canals, make up part of the inner ear. Tiny hairs inside the tubes record movement of the fluid and changes in the dog's posture and position. This information, when passed along the auditory nerve to the brain, governs the dog's sense of balance. The rest of the inner ear consists of the cochlea, a snail-shaped tube that converts sound vibrations into messages, and the auditory nerve, which carries the messages to the brain, where they are translated into meaningful sounds.
Ear infections are common in dogs, and dogs with heavy, hairy, hanging ears have them the most often. The canine ear canal is very long and makes a right angle turn into the ear drum. Dogs with floppy ears have ear canals that are shut off from air and can stay moist and warm: an ideal environment for bacterial growth. Untreated ear infections can develop into chronic conditions which are very painful to the dog and may cause deafness. In some cases, surgery will be required to try to rectify the problem.
How can you tell if your dog's ears are healthy? Take a look -- make a visual inspection of each ear - inside and out. A healthy ear should be free of debris, dirt or excess wax, with no sores or inflammation. Another way to check is to smell your dog's ears. It may sound strange, but ears with problems often emit a strong odor; healthy ears do not. An ear with an unpleasant odor is an ear that needs attention. Touch your dog's ears. Are they extremely warm to the touch or sensitive? Ear infections can be painful, so if your dog whimpers when you touch its ears, there may be a problem.
Otitis - Inflammation
Dogs can suffer from three types of ear infections: otitis external (infection of the ear canal); otitis media (infection of the middle ear), and otitis internal (infection of the inner ear).
The most common signs of an outer-ear infection are a waxy or pus-like discharge, often accompanied by a foul odor; redness and irritation; frequent scratching at the ear and shaking of the head; and rubbing the ear along the floor.
Middle-ear infections are not common. They are usually the result of an untreated outer-ear infection, a punctured eardrum or an infection entering from the eustachian tube. Middle ear infections are painful, and a dog may hold its head to the side or shy away when its ear is touched. Because middle-ear infections can affect a dog's balance and hearing, treatment should not be delayed.
Inner-ear infections often occur when middle-ear infections spread to the inner-ear. The signs are similar to those of outer- and middle-ear infections. Again, because inner-ear infections can cause temporary or even permanent deafness, treatment should begin at once.
Ear infections are most frequently caused by bacteria, fungus, ear mites or a combination of these. The type of treatment depends on the cause of infection.
Generally, treatment includes cleansing the ear with a special solution formulated to break down the wax and discharge, followed by medication to kill the mites, bacteria or fungus. In severe or chronic infections, the veterinarian may culture the ear to determine more accurately the cause of infection and the best medication.
Examine and clean your dog's ear canal weekly. Healthy ears don't need much cleaning. Wipe your dog's ears out with a dry cotton ball or one slightly moistened with mineral oil each time you groom. (DO NOT USE Q TIPS!!) You can also use commercially prepared ear cleaners, though it's probably not necessary if the ears are clean. (Most of these products can contain alcohol, which some vets say irritates the ear lining and which can feel cold going in. Natural Herbal Ear Wash by Halo, available in health food stores, is preferred by some pets.)
Cleaning a dirty ear, one that is filled with wax or dark brown waxy debris (a sign of ear mites) is another story. Many dogs do not like this activity, so you may need to enlist a human helper to hold the dog. Dampen a cotton ball with mineral oil or ear cleaner and get to work. Hold the ear flap up with one hand and wipe it with the other. Wrap another dampened cotton ball around your finger and insert it gently into the canal as far as you can. Do not poke! Wipe out all the folds and crevices, but wipe gently. You may need to use several cotton balls to properly clean the ears.
If the ear is extremely dirty or filled with dry, caked debris, you may want to fill the canal with ear cleaner(per directions from your vet) before wiping it out with cotton balls. To do so, hold up the ear flap with one hand and with your other, squirt a small amount into the canal. (Many dogs will resist this. Try to bring the cleanser to room temperature beforehand to make the solution less shocking.) Massage the base of the ear for a few minutes, let the dog shake his head and then clean the ear with cotton balls.
Some literature suggests that chronic ear infections may be caused by hypothyroidism. If your dog suffers from skin problems and ear infections, have him tested for thyroid insufficiency.
If your dog's ear swells up, he may have a hematoma. An aural hematoma is caused by an accumulation of blood between the skin and the cartilage of the ear pinna, or flap. It occurs when a blood vessel is ruptured, usually from excessive scratching or shaking of the ear due to an infection.
After a few days, the blood clots and begins to organize. Left untreated, this process will continue and the body will begin to reabsorb the clot. Unfortunately, in the process, the ear will become scarred and retracted: a typical cauliflower ear.
Aural hematomas aren't usually painful and may go unnoticed for several days. To reduce the chances of a deformed ear or of the area becoming infected, surgical repair is recommended. This usually involves draining the blood from the area and allowing the skin and cartilage to re-attach without undue scarring. At the same time, any ear infection should also be treated.