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Be on the Lookout for Problems in Dogs' Ears

Published March 9, 2012
An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy,

From the long droopy ears of the basset hound to the perky triangular ears of the Akita, dogs' ears come in an astounding array of variations. Unfortunately, there seem to be an equal variety of possible causes of inflammation in dogs' ears. Owners would do well to check their pet's ears weekly to catch problems early on.

"Otitis is the name for inflammation of the ear canal, and it is one of the most common reasons that people bring their dogs to see the veterinarian," says Dr. Karen Campbell, a veterinarian and professor at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana who is board certified in both internal medicine and dermatology. "Owners should understand however, that otitis is just a sign of an underlying problem, so the treatment is going to depend on uncovering the cause."

Common causes of ear problems include debris or chronic moisture in the ear canal. The physical characteristics of the ear may be a contributing factor. Big, droopy ears and ears with a lot of hair may trap moisture and debris. Droopy ears may also prevent owners from noticing the problem until it has progressed.

Dogs that swim a lot also have an increased risk of otitis because their ears are frequently damp. Drying their ears gently with a towel after each swim could help prevent problems.

Twigs and plant awns, which are seeds with pointy ends and bristly fibers, are foreign objects that may lodge in a dog's ear and cause problems. Dr. Campbell says it's also not uncommon to discover that a small child has placed a penny or other object into the pet's ear.

Many forms of allergy contribute to ear inflammation in dogs, including allergies to fleas and mites. Several types of mites live in or around the ears, in cats as well as in dogs. Contact allergies that affect the skin around the ears—or anything that causes itchy, unhealthy skin—can precipitate otitis.

Food allergies very frequently cause ear problems, according to Dr. Campbell. She says that in up to 80 percent of dogs with food allergies, otitis is the only sign of the allergy.

Less frequently seen causes of otitis include hypothyroidism and certain disorders of the skin.

Overzealous cleaning of your pet's ears can also lead to otitis. Plucking the hairs from the ears damages the skin inside and can lead to inflammation.

"Owners should never use cotton swabs in dogs' or cats' ears because there is a very real risk of damaging the skin lining the ear canal," advises Dr. Campbell. "If your veterinarian prescribes ear cleaner for an infection, apply it with cotton balls instead of swabs and clean only as often as recommended by the veterinarian. Too-frequent cleanings can worsen inflammation."

Luckily, otitis is curable in the early stages. Dr. Campbell suggests spending two minutes every week to check your pet's ears for redness or other signs of a problem. This practice can help your pet avoid chronic ear disease, which can lead to pain and permanent hearing loss, and can save you time and trouble.

If you have questions about your pet's ears, please speak with your local veterinarian.

An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy,

Veterinary Extension/Office of Public Engagement
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

Writer: Andrea Lin