Question from Amanda Shaw
My dog keeps shaking his head and scratching his ears, they feel a little bit swollen but they are cleaned often so no mites he is lively and not off his food I’m at a loss.
Answer from Shanika Winters MRCVS, online vet
Hi Amanda and thank you for your question about your dog’s ears. It is great that you are cleaning your dog’s ears regularly. I will discuss a list of possible causes for your dog to be shaking his head, scratching his ears and for the swelling followed by some treatment options.
Why is my dog shaking his head and scratching at his ears?
The symptoms you have described could be due to a foreign body e.g. a grass seed down the ear canal, bacterial or yeast infection, skin allergy, parasites e.g. ear mites, polyps or an aural haematoma (blood blister) all of which can be painful.
Grass seeds are a common finding down the ear canal of dogs that go for walks in the countryside. The shape of a dog’s ear canal has an upright tube (vertical canal) and then a 90 degree bend and a sideways tube (horizontal canal) at the end of this is the ear drum (tympanic membrane), this lends itself to getting things lodged inside. A foreign body like a grass seed can usually be seen by your vet with the help of an otoscope (hand held torch with a magnifying lens and a funnel). Grass seeds can usually be removed using a special pair of long grabbing forceps; some dogs will however need sedation or a general anaesthetic to allow the removal and examination to be carried out safely. We often send dogs home with antibiotic and pain relief after foreign body removal to combat any infection and pain.
Bacterial and yeast infections of the ear are conditions that affect the skin that lines the inside of the ear canals. The shape of the ear canal along with the ear flap (pinna) tends to funnel in moisture and trap germs. Dogs with a large floppy pinna such as Spaniels have the added feature of a closed lid over the ear canal all leading to a great environment for germs to breed. Infection may be present on other parts of the body and the whole animal may need treatment not just the ears. If the condition is only affecting the ears then ear cleaning solution and antibiotic drops can be a very effective treatment. If you are new to applying ear cleaner and ear drops then ask your vet or veterinary nurse to show you the best way to use them. If the condition is affecting other areas of skin then injectable or tablet medications may be given so that the drugs can travel in the blood stream to reach more areas of the body. When infections are not clearing up your vet might suggest taking swabs from the area. The swabs are sent to the laboratory for bacteriology and sensitivity. This tells us which bacteria and yeasts are present, and which drugs should be effective against them.
Skin allergy can affect the ears as the ear canals are lined by skin, diagnosis and treatment of skin allergy can involve swabs, biopsy samples and skin scrapes analysed at your vets or sent to a laboratory. Treatment of skin allergy can involve use of low allergy diets, shampoos, desensitisation vaccines, antibiotics, antihistamines and various immunosuppressant drugs.
Parasites including ear mites (Otodectes cynotis) and ticks (Ixodes varieties) can lead to irritation and then bacterial infection of the ears. Ticks are usually visible to the naked eye but ear mites are more easily seen under a microscope. Use of an appropriate antiparasitic treatment and removal of the parasites are the best method of treatment.
Aural haematoma, this is a blood blister usually found on the outer skin of the ear pinna, seen as a swollen area which often causes the ear to droop. The swelling is soft and fluid-filled, it is often the result of a trauma such as a dog fight or vigorous ear shaking. The haematoma develops as small blood vessels in the ear burst and the blood leaks under the skin, this separates into a pink tinged fluid and a thicker dark red clot. Some dogs are prone to recurrence of aural haematomas and repeat treatments may be needed. There are two main methods of treatment, draining via a needle or surgical drainage under a general anaesthetic. Antibiotics, steroids or anti-inflammatory drugs may also be given in the form of tablets, injections or directly into the ear.
Ear polyps are growths of different size that occur inside the ear canal, they are usually diagnosed on examination using an otoscope. Polyps are usually not cancerous but if there is any doubt then the polyp can be sent to a laboratory for analysis after removal. Small sized and numbers of polyps may not cause a problem to your dog but if there is irritation they can be removed surgically, in more serious cases removal of part or all of the ear canal may be an option.
In conclusion it is really important to have your dog’s ears examined by your vet so that a correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment can be started. I hope that my answer has been helpful and that your dog has much more comfortable ears as soon as possible.
Shanika Winters VetMB MRCVS (online vet)
If your dog has a problem with its ears please book an appointment to see your vet, or use our online symptom checker