Updated June 6, 2021
‘At A Glance (Details Below)’ Emergency Care
Why Dogs Shake Their Head
- The most common cause is due to the pain from an ear infection
- Other causes include grass seeds in the ear, insect bite and allergies
- All dogs shake occasionally, but if it starts happening more often, it’s time to see a vet
Now dive deeper.
What do you think is the most common disease of dogs in Adelaide?
Head shaking is often the only clue to an ear infection. If owners miss the signs, which can be subtle, a dog can live in pain for years without anyone realising.
Why Do Dogs Get Ear infections?
Main Article: Why Dogs Get Ear Infections
Ear infections happen in dogs for many reasons. These include:
- skin allergies and dermatitis
- grass seeds embedded in the ear
- ear mites or other parasites
- excessive hair in the ear canal
- a buildup of ear wax
Sometimes head shaking can occur without an infection, but the same causes are usually responsible.
Dogs have a long, deep and L-shaped ear canal which seems to make it a natural weak point. Any disease affecting the skin of a dog will usually be worse in the ear. For example, mild skin allergy elsewhere on the body can cause much more dramatic redness, heat and moisture buildup in the ear, leading to secondary infection with yeast or bacteria.
That’s why I was happy when Byron’s owner brought him in last week. He had been shaking his head more than usual in the past week or two but it wasn’t obvious that there was a problem at all.
This is his bad ear. There isn’t a lot to see on the outside but you may notice it a little red and has a small blood spot from scratching.
However, once we looked inside it was a different matter. The left ear canal was painful, swollen, narrow and obviously infected. We collected some pus or discharge and stained it to identify the cause of the infection. The picture shows what we could see under 100X magnification; these are yeasts called Malassezia pachydermatis.
Due to his infection being caught early, a short course of an antifungal ear ointment should fix the problem. However, ear drops are fiendishly difficult to use correctly, and infections can be hard to treat in such convoluted ears. Therefore, we always check the ear after a week to make sure the infection is resolved. To leave an ear infection rumbling away will result in permanent damage.
The end result of this can be a last resort surgery we call total ear canal ablation.
How Do Vets Treat Ear Infections?
Main Article: How To Treat An Ear Infection
So what can you expect when you visit the vet because your dog is shaking their head? We will gently check both ear canals starting with the good one. Then we will perform a cytological smear (cost here) to identify any infectious agents such as Staphylococcus, Pseudomonas or Malassezia. Depending on what we find we may then need to:
- send a bacteriological swab to the lab for culture and sensitivity testing
- take samples for ear mite identification
- schedule an ear clean under anaesthetic
We are also going to consider your dog’s skin health as a whole.
Most dogs like Byron can be prescribed an appropriate ointment, and scheduled a revisit in 1 week. As ear infections are always caused by something else, we will also take the time to discuss prevention such as cleaning.
How do you clean dogs’ ears? Watch the second video but remember this is only done once an ear has been checked by a vet. Otherwise you can cause pain or permanent hearing loss.
How To Tell If Your Dog Has An Ear Infection
An ear infection causes:
- redness & holding an ear down
- pain, swelling & soreness
- head shaking or a head tilt
- visible discharge
- loss of hearing
- sometimes an ear swelling called aural haematoma
However, the best way to find an ear infection early is the smell. Sometimes it can be foul, sometimes a bit like smelly feet.
Ears should smell no different to the rest of your dog’s coat. As our clients can attest, you’ll often find me taking a sneaky sniff at each ear during a routine examination.
I remember seeing a guide dog with an ear infection. The (blind) owner knew there was a problem but in my early inexperienced days, I thought it looked pretty good. However, I got out the otoscope and peered inside to find a hidden, deep ear infection which my eyes had tried to tell me didn’t exist. The owner knew from the smell alone that something was wrong.
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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.