A word in your ear
Deirdre Vine listens attentively to vet Brian Faulkner on the subject of dogs and their auditory equipment.
Compared to dogs, we have a pretty puny sense of hearing. We don’t hear nearly as much, nor are we as good at judging where sounds are coming from. But as John Bradshaw of the School of Veterinary Sciences at Bristol University points out, ‘Our brains are probably much better than dogs’ at distinguishing between similar sounds, a skill we have evolved in order to decode speech.’ Nevertheless, he says, ‘Although research into how dogs discriminate between various types of barks is still in its infancy, there is little doubt that they can extract a lot of detail from what they hear.’ Dogs’ hearing is roughly four times more sensitive than ours. They can pick up ultrasounds (high-pitched noises) that aren’t audible to human ears: our hearing range extends up to 23 kilohertz, that of dogs to 45 kilohertz. John suggests this is a legacy of their smaller canid ancestors, such as foxes, which use high-frequency hearing when hunting to locate prey such as mice by their ultrasonic squeaks. Owners should bear in mind that noises containing high-frequency sound – such as the banging of metal gates or the din of some noisy kennels – can cause dogs discomfort.
Keeping an eye on the ears
While the anatomy of a dog’s ear protects its inner parts from injury, 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 how best to look after our pets’ precious ears? Vet Brian Faulkner recommends that we examine our dog’s ears at least once a week to check for any scabs or crustiness, 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, leave them alone.
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 pooch, 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 (dogs tend 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. Click here to see a step-by-step video. 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.
Ear infections are fairly common in dogs (of any age) ‘because the ear canal is like a Petri dish of warmth, moisture and wax – a great environment for infections to flourish in,’ says Brian. ‘Owners often assume they can clean their way out of an infection. Cleaning may help prevent an infection, but you can’t clean your way out of 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 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; and an offensive odour from the ears or a yelp of pain when your dog is touched around the ears. These all indicate that you should take him or her 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
‘I definitely see more dogs than cats with ear issues in my surgery,’ says Brian, ‘and otitis externa – inflammation of the external ear canal – is by far the most common 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 patients’ ears we know that, statistically, some 75 per cent of those dogs have an underlying skin allergy and will require treatment to manage it,’ says Brian. ‘The ear is just skin in a special place, so we’re actually talking about a skin disease.’ He continues: ‘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 and younger dogs are caused by ear mites – tiny bugs that feed on skin debris.
Grass seeds sometimes get lodged in dogs’ ear canals – warning signs include shaking and pawing at the head and the ear, often soon after a walk. They 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 dogs’ ears trimmed in summertime.
‘Occasionally, people describe their dogs’ hearing going very suddenly,’ says Brian. ‘This resembles the breaking a of a guitar string – little muscles in the hearing apparatus just go, disrupting the sound conduction. There’s no trauma and the dog might otherwise appear to have normal, healthy ears.’ But all is not lost. While a degree of hearing loss is relatively common in older dogs, it’s by no means inevitable, and Brian points out that about 20 per cent of hearing is actually conducted through non-hearing apparatus – through vibrations of the bones in the skull. As with all of the above conditions, your vet can advise on how to proceed for the best possible quality of life for your dog.