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Signs of a Perforated Eardrum in Dogs

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Learn more about your dog's eardrum and how it can get ruptured. Review some common signs of a perforated eardrum, and learn how your vet might approach it.

Learn more about your dog's eardrum and how it can get ruptured. Review some common signs of a perforated eardrum, and learn how your vet might approach it.

Where Is Your Dog's Eardrum, and How Does It Rupture?

If your dog has recently started turning a deaf ear to your commands, you may want to stop blaming him for being stubborn. It may be that your dog's eardrum is perforated. A perforated eardrum is something that needs to be taken very seriously. Untreated, it may cause long-term effects and even deafness.

What is the eardrum, exactly? The eardrum is a thin, delicate membrane that separates your dog's external ear from the middle and inner ear. This membrane is not readily visible as it is deep in the dog's ear canal.

What Does the Eardrum Do?

The main function of the eardrum is to transmit sounds captured from the air to three small bones contained within the middle ear space. These three bones, known as ossicles, then transmit the noises to the labyrinth.

Potential Causes of Eardrum Perforation

As it is tucked deep into the ear canal, you may wonder how an eardrum may perforate. Well, there are several ways. The following are some common and not-so-common ways your dog's eardrum may rupture:

  • Very loud noises
  • Sudden severe changes in atmospheric pressure
  • Middle ear infection (quite common)
  • Trauma (for example, inserting instruments in the ear too deeply)
  • Foreign objects (i.e. a foxtail)
  • Exposure to toxins

Now that you are aware of how the eardrum functions and how it can become perforated, you may be interested in understanding the signs and symptoms. At the veterinary clinic, we used to see several of these cases, and at times, the owners were very worried.

An example of an intact ear drum.

An example of an intact ear drum.

Symptoms of a Perforated Eardrum in Canines

  • Pain: One of the most obvious signs of a perforated eardrum is pain. Ear pain may manifest itself in several different ways. Many dogs may whimper when the affected ear is touched, some may continuously scratch or rub the ear, while others may tilt their head or repeatedly shake their heads. Affected dogs may also refuse to eat or open their mouths because jaw movements tend to exacerbate the ear pain.
  • Discharge: The eardrum, also known as the tympanic membrane, separates the dog's ear canal from the middle ear. When the middle ear becomes infected, fluid may build up, putting pressure on the thin, drum-like tympanic membrane and causing it to rupture. When a tear or hole is found in this membrane, fluid from inside the middle ear may drain out into the ear canal. This discharge may appear as a thick, pus-like fluid often tinged with blood. Note that when pressure builds up causing the eardrum to burst, the dog may feel better and have less pain.
  • Neurological Signs: Because the facial and sympathetic nerves pass through the dog's middle ear space, paralysis of the facial nerves may be observed on the same side of the affected ear, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. A dog may, therefore, be unable to blink, the eyelids may completely close, and the sides of the face and mouth may appear droopy. Because the middle ear and inner ear also play an important role in balance, a ruptured eardrum and inner ear infection may also cause staggering, walking in circles, involuntary eye movements, and incoordination.
  • Hearing Loss: Because the eardrum is responsible for transmitting sounds to the inner ear, a damaged eardrum will affect the dog's hearing ability. However, the hearing loss may be barely noticeable when only one eardrum is damaged. Even dogs affected by unilateral hearing loss may still be capable of responding to sound stimuli, courtesy of the unaffected ear, writes George M. Strain in the book Deafness in Dogs and Cats.
  • Visible Symptoms: If you suspect that your dog's eardrum is perforated, consult your veterinarian. With the aid of an otoscope, your veterinarian may determine the presence of a tear or perforation of the ear canal. Because few dogs will allow a thorough examination of the eardrum, sedation or general anesthesia may be necessary. Once the otoscope is inserted into the ear canal, the tympanic membrane can be seen. When this membrane is punctured, ragged edges of where the eardrum used to be may be observed. If the eardrum was torn, a hole may be visible.
A perforated ear drum can cause a vast array of symptoms in dogs and requires treatment from a veterinarian.

A perforated ear drum can cause a vast array of symptoms in dogs and requires treatment from a veterinarian.

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Read More From Pethelpful

How Is a Ruptured Eardrum Remedied?

First of all, absolutely do not try to use over-the-counter medication or any product that has not been approved by your vet. Many products can be harmful if there is a ruptured eardrum, as they will penetrate into the inner ear and can even cause deafness.

What Your Vet Might Do to Treat It

  • As mentioned above, your vet may use an otoscope to determine the presence of a tear or rupture. The exam may require sedation or general anesthesia.
  • The vet will possibly flush the ears using appropriate products.
  • If the inner ear is infected, and the dog is exhibiting neurological signs, then your vet may recommend steroids, systemic antibiotics, and anti-inflammatory/anti-fungal ear drops based on cytological findings.

What's the Prognosis?

As much as a ruptured eardrum may sound like bad news, the good news is they heal in three to four weeks. However, the prognosis depends upon the severity of the problem and the response to treatment. Some dogs may suffer permanent hearing loss and change in the lips or ears. If your dog is circling, suffering from nystagmus (jerking eye movement) or head tilt, then you may want to learn more about vestibular disease in dogs.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Maggie on July 24, 2016:

My vet used the otoscope on my dog. Bacteria was found and the ear was flushed in the right ear. The night I brought her home she woke up screaming and holding her right front leg up. Every time she sleeps she wakes up screaming and holdings he right leg up. Could this be related to her ear infection.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 08, 2013:

Good idea to change vets if the one you have you're not too sure about. A second opinion always helps. You would expect a vet to know how far deep he can go in the dog's "L" shaped ear canal and how gentle he must be when dealing with this area. The yelping you witnessed though may have been simply triggered from a painful ear. Even the most mellow dogs react to this type of pain. Also, consider that according to Vet Surgery Central, about 50% of dogs that have chronic ear infections have a ruptured ear drum and infection in the middle ear. If the ear problem has been going on since summer, the recurring ear problem is not being taken care of properly. A different vet may help you find proper treatment. Best wishes!

bettybb on March 07, 2013:

I have to wonder if my vet ruptured my mastiff's eardrum. I took her in for her annual exam in the summer and told him she had a minor fungal infection--not uncommon in the breed. He pinched a swab of cotton between some tweezers and shoved it deep into her ear several times. The last time, she yelped and nearly snapped him--she's normally very meek. Later, there was drainage from her ear, and she rubs it and frequently shakes her head. It has bothered her ever since though we frequently clean her ears and have used the medications he gave us. I thought I was just being paranoid, but she saw him again on the February 8, and he did the same thing to her, and again, her ear is bothering her very much now. I don't see why he couldn't have just looked into her ear with an otoscope to see what's going on. He already knew that she has a tendency to have fungal infections. Though he has been our vet for 20-years, I've decided to change vets.

wetnosedogs from Alabama on July 28, 2012:

Thanks for this great hub. I guess I just don't think of stuff like that, but these are good things to know to watch for.

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