Ear foreign bodies in dogs

Ear foreign bodies are a common problem for dogs, especially in the summer months. Dogs of any age, size or breed can get ear foreign bodies. But long, floppy ears and an active outdoor lifestyle increase the risk.


Ear foreign bodies happen when something works its way into your dog’s ear canal and gets stuck there. Once lodged, the object will either stay put or work its way deeper into the ear. Grass seeds and parasites are the most common ear ‘foreign bodies’. They cause irritation in the ear, which may be intense. Other complications include infection, a damaged eardrum, or aural haematoma. Always consult a vet if your dog is shaking their head or showing other signs of ear irritation.


What are ear foreign bodies in dogs?

Your dog’s external ear comprises the vertical and horizontal canals. The opening of the ear leads to the vertical canal.

  • An ear foreign body refers to something trapped in the vertical or horizontal canal.
  • Long floppy ears can trap grass awns or pieces of twig between them and the entrance to the ear canal.
  • Hair around the entrance usually protects the inside of the ear. But sometimes it funnels foreign bodies, such as grass seeds, into the narrow ear canal.
  • Once inside an ear canal, a foreign body is unlikely to come out by itself.

Things likely to get stuck in your dog’s ears include:

  • Grass awns
  • Parasites: fleas, mites
  • Blades of grass or straw
  • Seeds
  • Beads, gravel or sand

Medium to longer-term problems:

  • Irritation of the ear canal stimulates formation of ear wax.
  • Irritated, inflamed ears and accumulation of wax lead to infection.



How can I tell if my dog has an ear foreign body?

Sharp or hard foreign bodies, such as grass seeds:

  • Sudden onset, often during or shortly after a walk
  • Symptoms of intense ear irritation, such as head shaking, rubbing, pawing, whimpering/crying
  • Becoming quiet and dull, going off food
  • Holding head to one side

Mites, fleas, and smooth or softer foreign bodies such as paper or cotton wool

  • Mild to moderate irritation, scratching, rubbing
  • Less abrupt onset, but doesn’t go away

Unidentified and untreated ear foreign bodies lead to ear disease:

  • Build-up of wax and discharge at the entrance to the ear canals
  • Smelly ears
  • Redness and swelling



Which dogs are most at risk of ear foreign bodies?

Lifestyle, ear shape and preventive treatments all influence how likely your dog is to get an ear foreign body

Risk factors include:

  • Having floppy ears and mid-length to longer hair that traps grass seeds or burrs.
  • Running or playing in long grass.
  • Mooching in undergrowth or bushes.
  • Swimming in ponds, lakes or rivers.
  • Being shorter or of medium height.
  • Not having regular anti-parasite preventive treatment.
  • Having existing ear disease that predisposes to rolling and rubbing ears on the ground for relief.

Spaniels and terrier breeds are particularly likely to fit the description!

Complications of ear foreign bodies

  • Ear infections
  • Aural haematomas from head-shaking
  • Burst eardrum: a sharp or hard foreign body may perforate the eardrum. The eardrum (tympanic membrane) separates the outer ear from the middle ear.
  • Otitis media: signs include head tilt, pain, Horner’s syndrome, and difficulty eating.



How do vets diagnose ear foreign bodies in dogs?

Sudden onset of intense ear irritation during or shortly after a walk raises suspicion of an ear foreign body.

Your vet will usually make or confirm a diagnosis by examining your dog’s ears with an otoscope, a special tool with a light source and magnification.

More specialist tests:

Video otoscopy

  • Examining the ear canals through a special camera.
  • Requires sedation or a general anaesthetic. Your dog is relaxed and comfortable or fast asleep.

Vet treatment

What’s the treatment for ear foreign bodies in dogs?

If your vet can see a foreign body, they can usually remove it using an otoscope and special fine forceps.

How straightforward this is depends on:

  • How calm your dog is.
  • How painful the ear is.
  • How far down the ear the foreign body has travelled.
  • The size and shape of the object.

The vet may advise:

  • Sedation or a general anaesthetic to relax your dog for the procedure. And to keep them still.
  • Anti-inflammatory medicine if the ear is painful.
  • Specific treatments for complications such as an ear infection or aural haematoma.
  • Antiparasitic treatment, such as ear drops and/or spot-ons if the ‘foreign body’ is ear mites.

Ear flushing:

  • To remove small foreign particles, such as sand or gravel.
  • Requires deep sedation or general anaesthetic.
  • A safer option where the foreign body is close to the eardrum.

Video otoscopy:

  • As well as looking inside the ear, this equipment has tools to grasp and remove small foreign bodies.
  • Allows safe removal of objects next to or on the surface of the eardrum.
  • Your dog will have a general anaesthetic for this procedure.

Home treatment

How to help a dog with an ear foreign body at home

Call a vet as soon as possible if your dog shows sudden intense ear irritation. Ear foreign bodies can be extremely distressing.

If your dog shows symptoms suggesting something is trapped in their ear:

  • Check under the ear flaps and at the entry to the ear canal to see if anything is visible.
  • Remove any visible loose irritants.
  • Try to soothe the ear with drops of olive oil or baby oil in the ear canal, but be prepared for the head-shaking and wall-splattering with oil and debris afterwards!



Tips for preventing ear foreign bodies in dogs

  • Avoid walking through long grasses where grass seeds and burrs are a risk.
  • Check your dog’s ears after every walk and remove grass, twigs, seeds or burrs promptly.
  • Consider trimming some of the hair that could be trapping things close to the ear.
  • Keep up-to-date with anti-parasite treatment.
  • Where possible, discourage rolling in sand or gravel.


When to worry

When to worry about ear foreign bodies in dogs

Call a vet as soon as possible if your dog:

  • Develops intense head-shaking or ear-rubbing. Especially after a walk.
  • Develops a head tilt or balance problems after having an irritated ear.


Joii can help with advice on:

  • Antiparasitic treatments for dogs.
  • Treating simple ear irritations at home.
  • Diagnosing and treating skin allergies.
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