Ear Disease in Dogs: Part One

© Hill’s Pet Nutrition Atlas of Veterinary Clinical Anatomy

If you are a dog lover, chances are one of your canine companions has experienced an ear infection. No fun, right? And if your dog has suffered with recurrent ear infections, chances are you’ve felt like pulling your own hair out!

The following information is intended to enhance your understanding of the canine ear and help you get the help you need if your dog develops ear issues.

The anatomy of the canine ear canal

I invite you to join me on an imaginary trip. Pretend you are miniaturized to the size of Tom Thumb. Now slip beneath your dog’s earflap and sit yourself down on the ledge of the opening to the ear canal. Give yourself a little push-off and then let gravity launch you down what feels like a giant slip and slide. Here is what you will see along the way.

The first part of your voyage is within the vertical ear canal, aptly named because of its rather steep descent. You are sliding down a wide-open tunnel with smooth pink surfaces. You come to an abrupt halt as you arrive at a rather sharp bend within the tunnel. You stand and take a few short steps that bring you to another descent, this one more gradual. You are now within the horizontal portion of the external ear canal. Looking forward you see a glistening, semi-transparent membrane that fills the entirety of the tunnel ahead. Aha! This must be the eardrum (tympanic membrane). It appears quite thin so you muster up some speed and run straight towards it. Your force and momentum cause the eardrum to rupture and you topple forward into a large cavernous space.

The middle ear

You’ve now entered the tympanic bulla (middle ear cavity), an open and empty, smooth surfaced cave created out of bone. It’s not easy, but you manage to climb out of this cavern, and as you approach the top you notice multiple small bones (ossicles that are responsible for transmitting sound) along with what looks like a thin window shade called the cochlear window. You poke your head through the shade and find yourself peering into yet another space. Bold little traveler that you are, you climb on in.

The inner ear

You have entered the inner ear a rather small and crowded space filled with some really crazy looking labyrinthine structures. Some of them are responsible for transmission of sound to the brain, others for maintenance of balance. You see a white ropy structure that is a nerve leading directly into the brain. Now wait just a minute before you grab hold of that nerve! I think you’ve done enough for one day!

What you’ve observed

Exhausted as you are after your incredible journey you’ve likely gained some new knowledge about the canine ear:

  • From the surface, the ear may look like a pretty simple body part. In fact, what lies beneath is an amazingly complex structure consisting of the external ear canal, the middle ear, and the inner ear.
  • The normal external ear canal appears wide open, smooth-surfaced, and devoid of any fluid or debris.
  • The eardrum is quite thin and fragile. It can be fairly easily perforated by a foreign body within the ear canal or in response to infection.
  • Following swimming or bathing moisture is readily retained within the external ear canal, thanks to gravity and the anatomy of the ear canal. Such moisture predisposes to ear infections (more information about this next week). The same holds true for foreign bodies. Once they’ve entered the external ear canal they typically stay put, even with vigorous head shaking.
  • The length and structure of the external ear canal make it impossible to be viewed in its entirety without the use of a special instrument called an otoscope. An ear problem in a head-shaking dog cannot be ruled out with an at-home flashlight exam!

Stay tuned for part two of this blog post in which I will discuss a variety of canine ear diseases, their causes, and treatments.

Did you learn anything new on your “incredible voyage”?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.


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17 Comments on “Ear Disease in Dogs: Part One

  1. My poodle and cocker suffered from ear infections. After taking antibiotics and Mometamax, their ears were healed. I would clean them with regular ear cleaner from Pet store but infections would come back. Finally vet gave me TRIZULTRA + KETO. Its a weekly flush and the reoccurring infections have ceased. Its a 12 oz bottle and it cost around 30.00 but lasts a long time.

  2. Hi Gloria. Based on what you have described I encourage you to get another opinion from a veterinarian who specializes in dermatology. They are the true ear experts. Ask your family vet for a referral or visit http://www.acvd.org to find a dermatologist near you. If you have not already explored a possible food allergy, this might be the place to start.

  3. I have 2 cats with ear problems. One has the problem only slightly, but she cries when it bothers her. And she scratches her ears occasionally. The other cat – you can’t even pet or kiss his head without him shaking it. I have had both to several vets and no one can find out what is wrong. I have put in various ear drops, creams, etc. and the problem still exists.

  4. Has anyone got their dogs thyroid tested? One of our dogs kept getting ear infections, etc and the vet thought it might be allergies but eventually he tested his thyroid. It was so off it wasn’t even reading on the machine. He’s now on thyroid medication and hasn’t had an ear infection in several years. My 2nd dog just got her first ear infection so I had her thyroid tested but her thyroid is fine.

  5. My lab had bouts of recurrent infections for a couple of years, we tried diet, allergy tests, steroids with a dipahydramine cocktail… you name it we tried it. I switched vets and the new vet put her on MalOtic, it’s a gentamicin ointment that I put in her ears once a week… No more ear problems and it’s been 1 year!!

  6. My Bullmastiff has yellow mucus eyes, at times he can’t see, and it leaks out and dry’s, I wash it out saline, eye drops, used triple antibiotic in them, told it’s just dry eye, will keep getting worse. Also a left ear told it’s yeast infection, none of the stuff he’s given us works.
    My home was flooded in Jersey, four feet of sewerer water, my dog wouldn’t stay in the upstairs bedrooms alone laying on the floors he got something.
    We were in Fla. for six months the vet got rid of it, then about eight months it came back, he has a slow thyroid on meds for that also.

  7. Hi Cassandra. I invite you to read my next blog post which I hope will provide some concrete suggestions for taking care of your dog’s ears.

  8. Please help , our 13 year old pointer is also suffering from chronic ear problems , yeast infections etc lots of wax , tried everything , steroids , antibiotics ,etc,, what can be done

  9. I need help with my lab, three vets, a number of medications, bathing once a week, changing food, washing the ears all the time, washing him and finally being told it is allergies, he is on constant steroids and miserable, I am miserable because I know this is not good for him at all….been told yeast, then bacteria, now allergies….third round of steroids now in three weeks and the ear still stinks, and oh he is a house dog…..just no longer now what to do for him.

  10. I have recurrent ear infections on my lab, I have been to three different vets and used all the medication they have sold to me. I seem to just be on a continuous run of steroids now, which I know is not good for my lab, and no he is not bathed often and he does not get them wet often, I have epi-otic which I use all the time and now he is breaking out on his skin, so I have to bathe him once a week with malaseb shampoo, I was told it was yeast, then bacterial and now allergies..I am so beside myself to keep this baby well and his ears smell so bad. He is a house dog and I changed his food to taste of the wild..I am at my wits end and I need some help bad if anyone can offer any.

  11. Hi Kelley and Kay. Please stay tuned for my next blog post which I hope will provide some concrete suggestions for taking care of your dogs’ ears.

  12. My Golden has ear infections all the time….yeast in one side…bacteria in the other….he has been on antibiotics for months…as soon as I stop them …he has stinky stuff running out of his ear….he now is taking thyroid meds….antibiotics…..atopica and gets an allergy shot every 4 days….still he has stinky ear junk….HELP….he’s costing me a lot of money and it’s still not working.

  13. Hi Sue. This is why I asked at the end of the blog post that you stay tuned for part II! I really feel that understanding the anatomy of the external ear canal is imperative when treating chronic ear infections. Thanks for your patience.

  14. Thanks for the comments Doctor..but in all fairness most of us reading this are because we have dogs with chronic ear problems and were looking for more info. One of my standard poodles has a chronic “bad ear”..is on some kind of treatment most of the year, most of which keeps the infection under control but never completely gone. I have owned poodles all my life and cared for them..none of the vets I have gone to with him have been able to “cure”..so we just maintain. I have tried every antibotic/flush/diet (currently on raw) and many of the home remedies to give him a good clean ear..not working. If you want to talk about ears let us know what is the newest treatment for these chronic ear problems..we are ready to try it!
    Sue Alton

  15. Great question Carolyn. Thanks for asking. I generally advise against removing hair from dogs’ ear canals. In most cases this causes more inflammation rather than resolving inflammation. Because of the anatomy of the ear canal it is impossible to “dry” the external ear canal from the surface unless you instill a drying agent into the ear canal. For dogs who tend to get ear infections after bathing or swimming, I recommend using a drying agent in the ear canal immediately following with hopes of preventing infection.

  16. Very informative, thank you! Looking forward to the next installment. In the meantime, a question. Esme was adopted more than a year ago with a slight ear infection which cleared up with medication. She loves to swim and has long floppy ears (she’s a maltipoo). She has not had another infection. Question: should I be plucking the hair inside her ear canals? As you might imagine, even with lots of clicks and treats, she hates this. I feed her a great diet (raw, home cooked, and premium commercial foods) and take care to dry her ears.

  17. As a cocker spaniel owner and rescuer, it’s the #1 problem for us. (#2 is the cocker spaniel eye) Some cockers even need to have the canal removed and sewn shut after permanent changes make it impossible even to clean them. … which reminds me…. time to attempt to murder Daisy, I mean…. clean her ears (though she would tell you it’s a murder attempt)