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Ear Issues: What That Head Shaking and Ear Flapping is Trying to Tell You

Ear Issues: What That Head Shaking and Ear Flapping is Trying to Tell You

May 18, 2021
AUTHOR Dr. Ross Bernstein

Reviewed by Dr. Ross Bernstein

Dr. Ross Bernstein is a seasoned veterinarian who we’re fortunate to have as the head of our Board of Pet Experts. Dr. Ross earned his doctoral degree in veterinary medicine at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, where he was trained under the guidance of some of the country's most renowned veterinary professionals.


When it comes to understanding ear issues in your dog, it is helpful to first gain an understanding of your canine pal’s ears. Understanding the structure of the ear will help you to better recognize problems and treat them when necessary.

The External Dog Ear

A dog’s ear has three parts: external, middle, and internal. The external ear is what you see when you look at your dog. Different breeds of dogs have different shapes, positions, and carriages when it comes to their external ear. The external ear carriage can be erect, pricked, or semi-dropped, which is determined by the muscle that is attached to the base of the ear.

The position, which is often referred to as the “ear set” can be high, low, close, or wide. High ears are ones that are based above the eyes, low ears are located below the eye, close ears are near each other on the skull, and wide ears are further apart.
The shape of the external dog ear can be either tulip, rose, bat, v-shaped, heart-shaped, or triangular. The tulip shape is upright with curved edges and the rose ear is folded back. The bat ear is blunt with rounded tips, while the v-shaped ear is triangular. Heart-shaped ears are wider in the area near to the dog’s head and triangular are similar to v-shaped, except they are smaller.

Ear Issues: What That Head Shaking and Ear Flapping is Trying to Tell You

Ear Mites Problem

One fairly common problem that affects the external ear of dogs is ear mites, which are small spider-like creatures that live on or just under the surface of the ear’s skin. The type of ear mite that affects dogs is Otodectes. This ear mite is easily transmitted from one dog to another. Although ear mites are more commonly found in younger or abandoned pets, older pets can get them as well.

Ear mites are easy to recognize because you will notice a dry and black discharge, similar to coffee grounds, in your pet’s external ear. Earwax, blood, inflammatory biochemicals, and the actual ear mites cause this. In addition to looking unpleasant, it can have a bad odor as well. In an attempt to get rid of the ear mites and to satisfy its discomfort, you might notice your dog shack its head or even paw at its ears if it has ear mites.
It is important to treat ear mites for several reasons.

First, it can lead to serious skin disease if left untreated. Second, it can be very painful and troublesome for your pet. There are many different types of over-the-counter eardrops that can be purchased to kill off ear mites. It is important to follow the directions carefully and to use the eardrops for the recommended length of time in order to completely destroy the ear mite’s life cycle.

The outer ear can become infected in other ways, as well. Yeast, bacteria, foreign bodies, and even lake water can cause an outer ear infection. If the infection is not cared for, it can move into the middle ear and cause the eardrum to become porous.

Ear Issues: What That Head Shaking and Ear Flapping is Trying to Tell You

The Middle Dog Ear

The middle ear of the dog is filled with air and includes the tympanic membrane or eardrum. The eardrum vibrates in response to sound through the help of the pars flaccida and pars tensa, which make up the eardrum. When your dog has an ear infection, the veterinarian can tell by looking at the pars flaccida because it bulges when it becomes filled with fluid in response to an infection.

In order to relieve the pressure on your dog’s middle ear when it has an infection, the veterinarian may choose to stick a tube into the pars tensa, which is translucent. Through the translucent, the veterinarian is capable of seeing the hammer (malleus), anvil (incus), and stirrup (stapes). These tiny bones work together to transmit sound from the middle ear to the inner ear.

Ear Issues: What That Head Shaking and Ear Flapping is Trying to Tell You

The Inner Dog Ear

The inner ear of the dog is filled with fluid. Here, sounds are changed from airwaves to nerve impulses. This part is located on the temporal bone and includes nerves, which help the dog hear and maintain its balance. The nerves interact with special hairs, which are located on the Organ of Corti. In addition, the 8th Cranial Nerve, which carries sound and balance information, is located in the inner ear.

The importance of the inner ear when it comes to balance is the reason why your pet may seem disoriented, confused, or out of balance when it has an ear infection.

author image

Dr. Ross Bernstein

Member of Alpha Paw’s Board of Pet Experts

Dr. Ross Bernstein is a seasoned veterinarian who we’re fortunate to have as the head of our Board of Pet Experts. Dr. Ross completed his undergraduate studies at Duke University, earning his B.S. in Neuroscience with a minor in Economics and Psychology. He then went on to pursue his doctoral degree in veterinary medicine at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, where he was trained under the guidance of some of the country's most renowned veterinary professionals.

After UC Davis, Dr. Ross completed a one-year rotating internship in Medicine & Surgery at the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine, and recently completed an additional year of further training in small animal surgery at the Las Vegas Veterinary Specialty Center, where he gained extensive experience in complex soft tissue, orthopedic and neurological procedures.

Dr. Ross shares his home with a Golden Retriever named Duma. We’re lucky to have someone as experienced, knowledgeable, and passionate as Dr. Ross in our pack – not only as our trusted advisor, but also as our good friend. Thank you, Dr. Ross!

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