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Animal Skin and Allergy Clinic Blog

Hear! Hear! The Importance of Pet Ear Health

Dog Scratching FleaIn the dog, ears come in many shapes: tall, short, floppy, or cropped. Our pets need their ears for the day to day functions of both hearing and balance. Ear health is very important to our pets. Keep reading if you want to hear all about it.

What’s In an Ear?

The ear, while a seemingly simple appendage, is actually a pretty complex organ. Your pet’s ear is comprised of several main parts. These include:

The pinna – The pinna, or outer ear flap comes in many shapes and sizes. It is responsible for protecting the ear canal and directing sounds toward the eardrum.

The ear canal – The dog ear is a narrow, spiral, L-shaped tube that ends at the eardrum. The pinna, or ear flap, begins vertical, and then spirals into a horizontal direction towards the ear drum, this is called the external ear canal.  Most ear disease occurs in this external area.

The eardrum- The eardrum, or tympanic membrane, is a thin, clear membrane similar to the cornea of the eye.  In the normal state one can see through this membrane into the middle ear.  Sound waves make the eardrum move and this movement is transferred to small bones which connect the eardrum to the inner ear.  Sound waves move these bones and this movement causes movement of liquid in the inner ear.  This movement stimulates sensory hairs that are connected to the nerves that convert this to sound in the brain.

The middle ear – The middle ear consists of a space lined by tissue connected to the back of the mouth and the throat via a tube called the Eustachian tube.  The tissue lining this tube produces mucous, much like the nose, and is important in keeping infections occurring in the throat from affecting the ears.  This is why sore throats often are linked to pain and excess mucous in the middle ear.  The mucous from the middle ear drains into the back of the mouth during respiratory infections.

The inner ear – Deep inside the skull is the inner ear. This area contains fluid which helps our pets to keep their balance. The inner ear also transmits the electrical impulses from the eardrum to the brain, resulting in hearing.

Let’s Hear It For the Ears

Our pet’s ears are pretty amazing, and have some very important functions.

Our pets rely on their ears to hear. While puppies and kittens are born without the ability to hear, their canals open up within a few weeks after birth and begin to take in sounds. Animals are dependent on their ability to hear to be able to socialize, interact, and to protect themselves. While deaf pets can adapt, hearing is a big part of being a dog or cat.

The ears are also extremely important for balance. The vestibular apparatus, which is found deep within the inner ear, detects the body’s orientation and tells the brain which way is up. When there is a problem in the inner ear, a pet is often dizzy and unable to stand.

Without their ears, our pets would not be able to function as normal animals.

Pet Ear Health

Ears are highly innervated, that is they have numerous nerves that sense pain, so when your pet’s ears are affected they can also be very painful.  Even a small, barely visible infection causes extreme pain to your pet.  They often do not let us know they are in pain, or have anything wrong with their ears, until long after major disease changes have occurred.  We need to be very attentive to, and learn to recognize, the signs of ear disease in our pets.

Your pet’s ears should be examined regularly by taking a peek under the ear flaps, at least once or twice a week. Signs that it is time for your pet to have his or her ears examined include:

  • The presence of a foul odor
  • Redness or swelling, even minor, in the outer ear
  • Painful when handling the ears
  • Increased discharge from one or both ears
  • Excessive head shaking or scratching at the ears or face
  • Holding or tilting the head/ear to one side
  • Chewing food slowly due to painful ears affecting movement of the jaw muscles
  • Holding head down
  • Shaking the head very slowly so as to avoid pain

There are several problems that can affect our pet’s ears.  The most common reason for ear disease in the dog is allergic disease.  In some dogs with allergy, ear disease is the only sign present.  In most cases of allergy the pet is also itching, rubbing, or licking the paws, face, armpits, groin, or under the tail areas. Other causes of ear disease include foreign bodies (hair or grass seeds), tumors, excess wax production, or in rare cases parasites in the ear canals.

By far, the most common cause of ear disease in the dog is allergy. The tendency is to focus on the secondary infection, like yeast, and not address the allergic cause. Allergy causes excess wax production and causes ear infections. A diagnosis of a yeast infection in the ear is really just the result of a primary allergic disease.

Treatment of the ear for the infection without addressing the allergic cause will result in chronic irreversible change to the ear canal. If treatment focuses only on the infection you will find that the issue will keep returning. Each time more chronic changes will take place in the ear canal structure, such as polyps, thickened and narrowed ear canals, to a point where returning to normal ear function will be impossible.

With ear infections, one must remember that the infection is rarely the entire problem.  Focusing only on the infection will allow the underlying allergy to cause irreversible changes to the ear canal that are permanent. The sooner the cause of ear disease is addressed the better chance we have to keep our pet’s ears normal and pain free.

Once chronic change has occurred, our pets will live the rest of their life with painful ears even if they are treated. To prevent these incurable ear changes the allergic cause needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

Monitoring your pet’s ears closely will allow you to identify issues early on, before they become more serious. Your pet’s ear health is very important. Don’t forget to monitor this area when grooming your pet, and if you think there may be a problem, let us know. We are all ears!