Brian Faulkner - BSc (Hons), BVM&S, MBA, MSc(Psych), MRCVS

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How do I keep my puppy’s ears healthy?

Brian Faulkner - BSc (Hons), BVM&S, MBA, MSc(Psych), MRCVS

Compared to your puppy you have a pretty poor sense of hearing. People don’t hear nearly as much, nor are we as good at judging where sounds are coming from. It’s important to keep these impressive ears in good health.

Keeping an eye on the ears

Your puppy’s ear is shaped to funnel sound and protect its inner parts from injury. However, the length of the ear canal also encourages the accumulation of wax, debris, mites and other foreign material that cannot easily be shaken out. So it’s important to look after your puppy’s ears.

You should examine your dogs’ ears at least once a week to check for any scabs or crustiness, and excessive or black wax. Start by gently lifting the earflap so you can look down the ear canal. The ear should be a healthy pink – not inflamed, obviously red or excessively waxy. Some dogs’ ears will need cleaning quite regularly, others won’t require it at all – it depends on the particular dog. If your dog’s ears look healthy, it is best to leave them alone.

Cleaning tips

To clean, all you need is cotton wool and a vet-approved liquid ear cleaner. Use cotton buds with extreme caution, never inserting them into the ear but only wiping around the outer opening. Nor should you use alcohol-based solvents in the ears because they’re extremely irritating. Enlist a helper to hold your puppy, leaving your hands free to hold the ear flap, put the cleaner in and follow up with a squelchy ear massage for 15 seconds or so, your puppy is likely to enjoy that part!

Wrap a bit of cotton wool around your finger, then gently insert your finger into the canal to remove the wax, repeat depending on how waxy the ears are. Be careful not to push too deeply or firmly, and feed a tasty treat afterwards to help ensure the process has a positive association for your dog.

Other simple measures to avert possible irritation and infection include inserting a tight ball of cotton wool in each ear before bathing your dog, to prevent water from getting down the ears, and drying the ears thoroughly after water play.

Early prevention

Ear infections are fairly common in dogs, even puppies, because the ear canal is a great environment for infections to flourish in. Don’t assume you can clean your way out of an infection. Cleaning may help prevent an infection, but it won’t cure one, it won’t be effective and might even be uncomfortable. Early intervention is always better, because an untreated external ear infection may lead to a harder-to-treat middle or inner ear infection – which can cause hearing damage or loss of balance.

Look out for any of the following:

– Inflammation (redness) of the ear flap or opening of the ear canal

 Unusual head and ear shaking

– A yellow, brown or dark discharge

 Repeated scratching of one or both ears with hind paws

– An offensive odour from the ears

– Yelps of pain when your puppy is touched around the ears.

These all indicate that you should take your puppy to the vet for a check-up. If your dog has pendulous ears, there is also likely to be a characteristic ‘flap and slap’ sound signalling the intense itch of otitis.

Identifying the culprits

Otitis externa, which is inflammation of the external ear canal, is by far the most common ear problem. This may be caused by skin allergies, parasites, infections or foreign materials, often grass seed in summer.

If there’s recurrent, persistent infection in a dogs ears we know that, statistically, some 75 per cent of those dogs have an underlying skin allergy and will require treatment to manage it. The ear canal is just a specialised piece of skin, so when we are dealing with ear canal issues, we’re often dealing with a generalised skin disease.

The classic allergic pattern in a dog is what we call “ears and rears, feet and face”. The itchy ears will flap and shake, the dog may chew his feet or rub his face or rear along the carpet.

On the other hand, if the irritation is caused by a parasite, then it will be confined to the ear. Over half of all cases of otitis in puppies are caused by ear mites, tiny bugs that feed on skin debris.

Grass seeds sometimes get lodged in puppies ear canals, warning signs include shaking and pawing at the head and the ear, often soon after a walk. Your puppy may even hold their head to the side in an effort to dislodge the seed. You won’t be able to spot it, but a vet will make a diagnosis using an otoscope to look down the ear canal, and remove the seed with forceps if necessary.

Due to their pendulous ears, Cockapoos, Cocker and Springer Spaniels are commonly affected, and many owners avoid long-grassed areas and keep the fur around their puppy’s ears trimmed in summertime.

Brian Faulkner - BSc (Hons), BVM&S, MBA, MSc(Psych), MRCVS

Brian graduated from Edinburgh Vet School in 1995 and worked in mixed practice before studying for an MBA at Nottingham Business School in 2000/2001. After setting up and developing numerous veterinary practices in Suffolk in the 2000s, Brian was awarded the Petplan-UK Vet of the Year in 2008 after having been runner-up in 2007. Brian is currently the Petplan Pet Insurance media and PR vet and works in his own small animal veterinary practice 3 days a week. During his 20 year career Brian has worked in over 250 veterinary practices as a clinician, consultant and confidence coach.

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