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Examining and Medicating the Ears of a Dog

This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian. 

In the photographs below, unless otherwise noted, the dog is facing with her nose pointing to your right.

Variations on these instructions exist.
Ear cleaning and medicating can be messy so cover good clothes and work on a surface that is easy to clean.

Most dogs do not like having their ears cleaned. Some dogs will happily sit in your lap or on a table while you clean or medicate their ears but many require some form of restraint.

One method to restrain the dog is to place her/him on a table. Stand on the side of the table opposite to the ear you are medicating; in the photograph the right ear is being medicated.

Drape your right arm over the dog's shoulders. Wrap your left arm around the head and neck and use the finger tips of the left hand to push the ear flap back and up to expose the inner surface of the ear.

If the dog tries to stand, lean your upper body over his/her shoulders to prevent him/her from rising.

If your dog is too wiggly, try laying him/her on his/her side. Reach over his/her neck with your left arm and firmly grasp the elbow of the leg closest to the table. Always hold the leg close to the elbow, NOT close to the toes.

Keep your left elbow on his/her neck to prevent him/her from picking up his/her head. Use the fingers of your right hand to pull back the ear flap to expose the inner side of the ear. If the ear flaps are long, you can tuck the ear flap under your left elbow.

Holding the medication bottle in your right hand, place the prescribed number of drops of medication into the ear canal.

It is easier to perform this procedure if you have a helper. See the section on restraining a dog for some additional suggestions.

Anatomy of the normal dog ear

The ear has 3 major parts:
  1. outer ear
  2. middle ear
  3. inner ear
The outer ear consists of the ear flap (also called the pinna) which can be upright (a prick ear) or floppy. The ear flap funnels sound into the ear canal. Unlike humans that have a very short ear canal, dogs have a long narrow ear canal that makes almost a 90 degree bend as it travels to the deeper parts of the ear.

The outer ear cannel is separated from the middle ear by a thin membrane called the eardrum or tympanic membrane. The ear drum is very fragile and can be damaged by ear disease or during ear cleaning. The middle ear consists of 3 small bones, an air filled cavity called the bulla and a thin tube (the eustachian tube) leading from the bulla to the back of the mouth.

The inner ear connects to the brain and contains nerves and centers for balance and hearing. The following picture shows a diagram of the right ear as it appears if you are looking at the dog's head from the front. A CT scan of the head is pictured on the right.

Dogs have many more ear problems than cats. Dogs with heavy floppy ears have the most problems with ear infections. Some breeds have lots of hair in and around the ear canal which causes them to develop ear infections. Dogs that spend lots of time in the water also are prone to developing ear infections.

Dogs with skin allergies may have ear problems as part of the allergy.
Additional Anatomy

The outer ear flap is usually covered with fur.

If the ear is itchy, scratching may result in hair loss on the ear flap or at the base of the ear. Severe scratching may also lead to tears at the edges of the ear. Ear damage may lead to bleeding between the skin and cartilage of the ear flap; a hematoma. The ear flap is swollen, warm and painful.

The inner side of the ear should be a healthy pink color. A small amount of black discharge may be observed.

Ear infections may result in:
head shaking
ear scratching
rubbing ears on the floor or other surfaces

Ear cleaning can be accomplished with the following supplies:
ear wash solution
cotton balls
a tweezers or hemostat to pluck hair
q tips may be used if used properly

Ear cleaning solutions contain various chemicals and may contain drying agents. Check with your veterinarian regarding which product to use and how often to use it. Excessive ear cleaning can be damaging to the ear.

If the "non-furred", inner side of the ear flap contains lots of fur at the opening to the ear canal, a few hairs at a time can be plucked. Lots of hair at the opening to the ear canal reduces air flow into the ear. Good air flow is important to maintaining a healthy ear.
The ear wash solution is squeezed into the ear canal. A few drops of ear wash should be applied to the inside of the ear flap and then the tip of the ear wash bottle should be inserted a few millimeters into the ear canal, to place some of the wash solution down the ear canal. Be careful not to tightly force the tip of the bottle into the ear canal as forceful squeezing of the bottle with the bottle wedged into the ear canal could rupture the ear drum.

The dog will usually shake its head as soon as the wash is inserted into the ear, shaking out much of the solution.

Massage the base of the ear to distribute the wash solution throughout the ear canal. Dogs usually like this part.

Use cotton balls to remove discharge from the inner side of the ear flap.

You can also use q tips to clean the inner side of the ear flap

... DON'T stick q tips into the ear any further than you can see.

Deep placement of a q tip can rupture the ear drum or can pack wax and other debris further into the ear canal, preventing medications from getting to the deeper parts of the ear canal.

Ear medications may contain several different drugs and may be ointments (pictured on the left and in insert) or drops (pictured on the right).

Ear medications are most effective when placed in a clear ear. If they are placed on top of ear wax or other debris they will not be as effective. Your veterinarian will give you instructions, if cleaning is needed before ear medications are given.

Sometimes your veterinarian will recommend a thorough ear exam under sedation or anesthesia if:
the dog will not allow cleaning awake
it is suspected that a foreign body such as plant material is inside the ear canal
the veterinarian needs to collect samples from the ear for cytology or culture

If you would like to see an overview of ear cleaning under anesthesia please visit the following web site:

Whether using ointments or drops, place a small amount of medication on the inside of the ear flap and the prescribed number of drops into the ear canal. The tip of the ointment tube or dropper should be placed a few millimeters into the ear canal to assure that the medication goes into the ear canal. If the ear is stretched away from the head, the bend in the ear canal will straighten so that the medication can be deposited over the entire ear canal.

DO NOT place the long neck of the ointment tube as far as it will go down the ear canal as you could puncture the ear drum with it.

Massage the base of the ear to help distribute the medication into the ear canal.

Dogs with chronic ear infections will benefit from anything that increases air flow into the ear canal. Ear flow can be improved by:
plucking hairs from around the opening of the ear canal
tying or taping ears together on top of the head
pictured is a stretchy tubular fabric with holes cut for exposure of the ear canals. A regular sock can be used for smaller dogs. The ears may need to be taped together under the sock.

If the infection is severe or involves the middle and inner ear, oral medications may also be prescribed. Surgery is sometimes necessary if the infection is in the middle ear.
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