Ear Conditions


What The Ears Do

We’re quite good at watching what our pets do with their ears and reading their feelings and emotions but of course ears do more. They capture sound waves and channel these vibrations down the external ear canal to the ear drum. Vibrations of the ear drum are transmitted into three tiny bones called auditory ossicles. Vibrations from the ossicles travel deeper into the inner ear to the cochlea, a curled bone containing the organ of Corti, the actual organ of hearing. It connects directly to the brain.

The anatomy of the ear protects the organ of Corti from injury but at the same time, the length of the ear canal or mites or infection in it, encourages the accumulation of wax, debris and in dogs in particular, foreign material such as grass seeds that cannot easily be shaken out. Swimming sometimes allows water to fill the external ear canal. Bathing your dog without inserting cotton wool in the ears to keep water out may also lead to ear canal problems. Chronic ear infection, especially in cats, can lead to benign tumours called ceruminomas.

The Signs Of Ear Problems

  • Watch for these signs:
  • Head and ear shaking
  • Scratching one of both ears
  • Unpleasant odour from the ears
  • Yellow, brown or mahogany coloured ear discharge
  • Inflammation (redness) to the ear flap or opening of the ear canal
  • Hiss or yelp or other indication of pain when touched around the ears
  • Head tilted to one side
  • Apparent loss of hearing
  • Swelling to an ear flap
  • Stumbling or circling to one side
  • If your pet is behaving in any of these ways please contact us.

Home Ear Maintenance

For most pets this means doing nothing other than occasionally removing visible wax on the inside of the ear flap. Don’t let water get down the ears so insert a tight ball of cotton wool in each ear before bathing your dog and always dry its ears thoroughly after it has been swimming. Always check your dog's ears after it has been playing in tall grass, looking for grass seeds or other plant material than might travel down the ear canals. This is a particular problem with spaniels, whose ear canals act as magnets for foreign material. Keep the hair directly below the ear opening clipped, to reduce the risk of seeds catching in it and entering the ear canal. If your dog has hair in its ear canals, routinely pluck small amounts with your fingers. Train your dog from puppyhood to accept this as a weekly routine. Instil a proprietary ear cleaner for dogs after pulling out hair. If your dog or cat has been in a fight, check the ears for injuries. Blood can trickle down the canal, predisposing to external ear canal infection.

Ear Cleaning

If your pet's ears are clean, leave them alone. Routine cleaning isn’t necessary. To remove wax, moisten a cloth with mineral oil and, using your finger, wipe all accessible parts of the ear. (A cotton bud dipped in mineral oil may be used but only with extreme caution. It’s easy to unwittingly use it as a plunger, pushing debris deeper into the ear canal.) If wax has accumulated in the ear canal, instill a few drops of mineral oil or baby oil leaving it in the ears for a few hours to soften the wax. Alternatively use a proprietary wax remover such as Sancerum made with a dilute salicylic acid solution. Use only the gentlest pressure. Never use alcohol-based solvents in your pet's ears. They’re intensely irritating.

If you have a droopy-eared dog, reduce the weight of hair. Routinely clip or shave the hair from the inside surfaces. This permits better air circulation in breeds such the spaniels. Gentle blow-drying with body temperature air from a hair dryer may also be beneficial.

How To Give Ear Medicines

Treating any ear condition is a team effort. While one person holds and reassures the pet, the other instills the ear drops and massages them throughout the ear. Wax can be softened using mineral oil or proprietary wax softening ear drops. Never call your dog to you when giving any medicines. Coming to you should always be associated with enjoyment. Instead, go to your dog, command him to sit, instill the appropriate medication, massage it thoroughly around the ear canal then give your dog a food treat and a vigorous "Good dog!". Give treats too, to your cat if we prescribe ear drops although in most instances we will apply a ‘spot-on’ solution to the skin that kills ear mites.

Diagnosing Ear Problems

When visiting us we will look in your pet's ear canal with an otoscope. Depending upon what is seen and the history you have given, we might swab inside the ear and look at the retrieved material under the microscope, looking for mites, their eggs, bacteria, yeast, white blood cells and other unusual cells. If a foreign body such as a grass seed is seen it will be removed with long alligator forceps. If the ear is too painful a short anaesthetic is given while the ear is examined and flushed to the ear drum with a special catheter. We classify ear problems as primary - a result of local injury or disease, or secondary- caused by a condition elsewhere in the body. If we think the ear problem is secondary we might take a blood sample to check thyroid function or suggest allergy testing if an inhalation allergy is suspected or diet restriction if food allergy is possible. Cocker spaniels and Westies are more prone to ear problems caused by food allergies than many other breeds. Secondary ear problems only resolve when the root of the problem is tackled. In any list of criminal suspects, the flea is always high on the list. In rare circumstances, the only practical solution to a chronic ear problem is for us to surgically alter the ear canal to allow better aeration. This is done by removing the lateral vertical portion of the canal. If the ear drum has been ruptured and a chronic middle ear infection exists it is sometimes necessary to remove the entire ear canal and drain the middle ear, an operation called a bulla osteotomy.

Common Ear Conditions

Ear Mites

Ear mites, tiny bugs that feed on skin debris, are very common in kittens and pups, causing about 10 percent of cases of otitis. If your pup or kitten is scratching its ears, head shaking and has a mahogany to black waxy discharge assume it has ear mites. Mites are the size of a pin head, white and move vigorously when a light is shone on them. Most remain in the ears but a few leave for short holidays outside the ears. These are the source of frequent re-infestations. Mites are highly contagious to other dogs and cats, but not us. We usually treat with spot-on insecticides and ear lotions.

Bacterial, Fungal And Yeast Infections (Otitis Externa)

Pets don't catch ear infections from other dogs. External ear canal infections are caused by opportunist microorganisms already in your pet's ears that, given an opportunity, multiply in excess, displacing beneficial bacteria. A yeast called Malassezia is possibly the most common cause of otitis externa in dogs. This yeast is an opportunist, taking advantage of mite infestations, allergy or other causes of ear canal inflammation. Malassezia often occurs concurrently with a bacterial ear infection. An affected ear may be smelly, inflamed, hot or painful. Dogs shake their heads and scratch behind or in their ears. Treatment varies according to the cause of otitis.

Middle And Inner Ear Infections (Otitis Media And Interna)

Untreated external ear infection may lead to middle or inner ear infection a far more difficult problem to overcome than a simple external infection. Sometimes dogs and cats have middle and inner ear infections but no sign of external problems and intact ear drums. These pets have developed ear problems when infection tracks up the Eustachian tube from the back of the throat into the middle ears.

Ruptured Ear Drum

Ear drums torn by trauma or as a result of infection have a resilient capacity to heal themselves providing the underlying cause of the damage has been removed. Minor ruptures will spontaneously heal. Other ruptures become permanent. While hearing is only moderately damaged, the risk of middle or inner ear infection increases markedly.


A tumour called a ceruminoma may develop from the wax producing cells lining the ear canal, especially in cats. Usually benign, they are surgically removed.

Grass Seeds And Foreign Bodies

Plant awns, often called foxtails, can work their way down a dog’s ear canal. Your dog will usually shake its head vigorously when this happens. You'll need our help to remove the foxtail with alligator forceps down an otoscope.

Ear Flap Haematomas

A hot, soft, fluctuating swelling to the ear flap occurs when blood accumulates between the skin and the cartilage of the ear. Haematomas usually occur as a consequence of vigorous head shaking although this injury may also be caused by a blood clotting disorder, warfarin poisoning and trauma. There is some evidence that in Labradors and Golden Retrievers, there is a genetic predisposition. Haematomas often recur. We drain haematomas. although sometimes temporary stitches to prevent the ear from refilling with blood or serum are needed.


Allergic otitis is usually associated with itchiness and inflammation but no discharge. If a pet damages its ear while scratching, a secondary bacterial infection may result. We may use corticosteriod drops to reduce itchiness. Excess wax production in the ears may be a form of seborrhea, an allergic response to a 'challenge' from something eaten or inhaled. This can be a frustrating and lifelong condition. We may initially suggest an exclusion diet for at least six weeks

Loss Of Balance In Dogs

Balance is maintained by the vestibular apparatus in the ear and its connections to the brain. Middle or inner ear infections and conditions may lead to damage and loss of balance. Older dogs, not uncommonly suffer from a sudden loss of balance, often accompanied by a head tilt, a ticking movement of the eyes, lack of coordination, circling, loss of appetite and vomiting. The cause of canine vestibular syndrome is poorly understood and it is sometimes erroneously mistaken for a stroke. It is not. Almost invariably, the signs of vestibular syndrome diminish although a residual head tilt is not uncommon. We will control associated nausea with medication.


Deafness is particularly disturbing because it eliminates an important form of communication we have with our pets. Fortunately, with effective training, dogs in particular readily learn to understand and respond to sign language. Deafness may be congenital, caused by infection, develop as a consequence of drug toxicity or, commonly, be age-related. Uncommonly, tumours or head injury may cause deafness. Congenital deafness, sometimes associated with the merle or piebald gene in dogs and blue-eyes in white cats is caused by a failure of the sound-receptor cells in the ear to form properly. Pups and kittens may hear at birth but become deaf within a few weeks.

Handling Deafness In Dogs

Always keep a deaf dog on its lead. With patience and food rewards with strong odours, use simple but flamboyant hand signals to train your dog to come, sit, stay and lie down. A deaf dog's other senses often become more acute. Use floor vibrations or a flashing light to get its attention. The most natural way for a deaf dog to cope with its disability is by having a hearing companion. Your deaf dog understands what is happening by watching the body language of its buddy.

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