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My dog is shaking its head – does he have an ear infection?

Aug 8, 2022 | Dogs, Pet Health

Ear infection (Otitis externa)


My dog is shaking its head- does this mean my dog has ear mites?

The most likely answer is “No”. We very rarely diagnose ear mites in adult dogs. Yes ear mites can cause scratching, and head shaking. However, ear mite infections are more common in puppies and kittens.


How do I know my dog has an infection?

Ear infections are usually very painful and your dog will show some or all of the following signs:

  • Pain – yelping when touched
  • Head shaking
  • Ear scratching
  • Red inflamed ears
  • Smell- offensive odour
  • Black or yellowish discharge


Signs of long-term, chronic ear infection:

  • Crusty ears
  • Thickened ears
  • Narrowed (stenotic) ear canal


Can I just get some ear medication for these symptoms?

You will need to see a vet to make sure your pet gets a safe and the right treatment. It is important that your dog is examined to ensure that the eardrum is intact. Administration of certain medications can result in loss of hearing if the eardrum is ruptured. This can only be detected by a thorough ear examination by your veterinarian.

There are several kinds of bacteria and at least one type of fungus that commonly cause ear infections. Without knowing the specific kind of infection present, it is not possible to know which medication to use. In some cases, the problem is a foreign body, a polyp, or a tumour. Treatment with medication alone will not resolve these problems.


What can I expect when I bring my dog to the vet?

First, the ear canal is examined with an otoscope, an instrument that provides magnification and light. This examination allows your veterinarian to determine whether the eardrum is intact and if there is any foreign material in the canal. When a dog is in extreme pain and refuses to allow the examination, it may be necessary to sedate or anesthetize the dog for a thorough examination.

The next step is to examine a sample of the material from the ear canal under a microscope to determine the type of organism causing the infection. Microscopic examination is important in helping your veterinarian choose the right medication to treat the inflamed ear canal. Culture and susceptibility tests are often used in severe or chronic ear infections to ensure your pet is receiving the right medication.

An important part of the evaluation of the patient is the identification of underlying disease. Many dogs with chronic or recurrent ear infections have allergies or low thyroid function (hypothyroidism). If underlying disease is suspected, it must be diagnosed and treated or the pet will continue to experience chronic ear problems.


Prevent complications

Dogs with ear infections are uncomfortable. Their ears are a source of constant pain and they frequently scratch them and shake their head. This can cause a condition called an ‘aural hematoma,’ in which blood vessels in the ear flap break, causing a painful swelling that requires surgical treatment. Deep ear infections can damage or rupture the eardrum, causing an internal ear infection and even permanent hearing loss.


5 steps to get the ear medication into the right part of the ear

Many owners worry about getting this right so here is a diagram and some steps to follow.

It is important to get the medication into the horizontal part of the ear canal (see diagram). Unlike our ear canal, the dog’s external ear canal is L-shaped. The vertical canal connects with the outside of the ear and is the upper part of the ‘L’. The horizontal canal lies deeper in the canal and terminates at the eardrum. The goal is to administer the medication into the lower part of the ‘L’ – the horizontal ear canal.


The ear canal may be medicated by following these steps:

  • Gently pull the earflap straight up and slightly toward the back and hold it with one hand.
  • Using the other hand, apply a small amount of medication into the vertical part of the ear canal while continuing to keep the earflap elevated. Hold the ear up long enough for the medication to run down to the turn between the vertical and horizontal canal.
  • Put one finger in front of and at the base of the earflap, put your thumb behind and at the base.
  • Massage the ear canal between your finger and thumb. A ‘squishing’ sound tells you that the medication has gone into the horizontal canal.
  • Release the ear and let your dog shake its head. Many medications will contain a wax solvent and you may observe debris dissolved in this solvent leaving the ear as your dog shakes its head.

Be sure to ask your veterinarian for specific directions regarding any ear medication or cleansing agents.

When all medications have been applied, you can gently clean the inside of the earflap. Do not clean the inside of the ear canal because that will also remove the much-needed layer of medication.

Do not use cotton buds as they tend to push debris back into the ear canal.

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