Updated November 28, 2020
- A swollen ear flap in a dog is usually a buildup of fluid
- The cause is anything that causes ear irritation
- Without treatment, a swollen ear flap heals badly
Now dive deeper…
One of the strangest problems a dog can get is when the ear flap suddenly puffs up like a balloon. One minute the ears are sitting normally, and the next minute one of them is hanging down, firm and heavy. We call this an aural haematoma.
An aural haematoma happens when fluid builds up between the skin and the cartilage. It usually starts small, like in the picture and grows to become the size of the entire flap over several days. Though clearly annoying, they don’t seem to be especially painful.
Causes Of Aural Haematomas
Unlike normal haematomas, aural haematomas rarely contain pure blood. We don’t know whether they start with a small bleed, or whether separation of the layers of the ear comes first. Either way, once fluid starts to accumulate it creates a vicious cycle allowing more fluid to form.
Aural haematomas always follow irritation to the ear canal or its flap. Head shaking or ear scratching are important, either by causing bleeding or separation. Then the haematoma seems to grow just by the pressure of escaping serum or blood.
Therefore, anything that causes skin or ear inflammation is important. Most dogs with an aural haematoma will also have an ear infection, while some might have fly bite dermatitis, allergic skin or even fleas. Follow the links to learn more about each.
Treatment Of Aural Haematomas
Treatment is either by drainage while awake or surgery under anaesthetic. Most vets will attempt drainage first even though it probably only works 50% of the time. Reasons why we wouldn’t try it include:
- A scared or anxious dog
- A haematoma that’s been there more than two days (clots block the needle)
- A very large haematoma
Once drained, the use of anti-inflammatory drugs seems to help prevent recurrence. Never attempt to drain or ‘pop’ a haematoma at home- it will be painful and you are almost certain to cause an infection.
Surgery involves making a cut to remove the fluid and clots, followed by suturing the two layers together. It’s almost 100% effective, but requires good pain control.
Can A Haematoma Heal Itself?
Without treatment, healing is highly unsatisfactory. An untreated haematoma heals itself by slowly reabsorbing the fluid and leaving the clots behind. The ear flap remains thickened, and as the clots mature, it starts to contract.
Eventually the ear flap becomes a small crumpled ‘cauliflower ear’ that covers the ear opening.
Just as importantly, there’s always a reason why the haematoma happened. Without attention to the underlying cause, your dog may continue to suffer from an undiagnosed ear problem like a grass seed or ear mites.
The sooner you get an aural haematoma seen, the better it goes. Early swellings are more likely to respond to drainage, and small haematomas are less likely to alter the shape and appearance of the ears.
Yes, having a dropped ear may just be a cosmetic problem, but who doesn’t think their dogs’ ears are the best? That’s all the excuse I need to put in another picture of Loki!
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.