There’s nothing cuter than a puppy holding one ear up, often accompanied by an adorably curious head tilt.
But what does it mean when a dog has one ear up and one down?
This article will discuss some of the most common reasons for this canine behavior, including why this is so common in puppies.
What does it mean when a dog has one ear up and one down?
Your dog is alert and attentive
Your dog will literally prick up their ears when paying close attention to something interesting in their surrounding environment, such as another dog or a sound. Their ears are held upright and forward, indicating they are stimulated and alert.
If your dog is more relaxed, but still surveying their surroundings, they might just have a single ear pricked up and listening, rather than both ears in an upright forward position.
Your dog has a health condition
When something isn’t quite right with your dog’s ears, they usually hold one ear in a “floppy” or flattened position. This can give the appearance of one ear up and one down. The most common ear problems in dogs include:
Infection of the outer ear canal (also known as otitis externa) is common in dogs of all breeds, but dogs with floppy ears, such as Cocker Spaniels, or hairy ears, such as Poodles, may be more prone. Dogs with underlying allergic skin conditions such as Atopic Dermatitis (Atopy) are also more likely to develop ear infections. Puppies, on the other hand, are more likely to be infected with ear mites than adult dogs.
Ear infections are both irritating and painful. Most dogs with an ear infection will shake their head and scratch at their ears, and the ear itself will often become red and inflamed, with smelly, waxy, dark brown or yellow discharge. If left untreated, ear infections can lead to permanent narrowing of the ear canals and even hearing loss.
If you suspect that your dog has an ear infection, it’s important to visit a veterinarian as soon as possible. Mild, uncomplicated ear infections are usually treated with medicated ear drops and the use of an ear cleaner, but your vet will examine your dog’s ears closely to make sure the underlying cause is treated. Grass awns (foxtails) and other foreign material can also make their way into your pup’s ears; your vet will often recommend sedating your dog to remove these safely.
An aural hematoma occurs when the blood vessels inside the ear burst and blood collects inside the cartilage and skin. The affected ear looks severely swollen and tends to be soft and warm in the early stages, but with time will shrivel and scar to form what is known as a “cauliflower ear”.
Aural hematomas usually occur because your pup has been shaking and scratching at their ears and has caused trauma. It’s important that the underlying cause for the irritation is also identified and treated. Reasons your pup might have been shaking and scratching at their ears include ear infections, foreign bodies (such as grass awns), allergies, parasites, and injuries or wounds.
There are many different methods for treating the aural hematoma itself, from surgery to drainage with a needle and bandaging. Your veterinarian will discuss the best options for your dog, depending on factors such as the severity of the hematoma and your dog’s ear shape.
When your pup’s ear is injured, they will tend to hold it down in a flattened or floppy position because holding it upright is painful. This is common for dogs with ear infections as well as traumatic injuries to the ear, such as cuts and bite wounds.
The ear is highly vascular and tends to bleed a lot when injured. Other signs of ear injuries include swelling, open wounds, tearing of the ear, discharge, shaking their head, and scratching at their ears. If there is a large amount of bleeding, it’s best to contact your closest emergency veterinary hospital immediately.
An abscess is simply a pocket of infection that forms within the body. Abscesses typically come up quickly as a painful swelling and can cause illness and fever. Abscesses may occur on the ear secondary to a bite wound or a penetrating injury with a stick or foreign object, or from a migrating grass awn.
If you suspect your dog has an abscess, they should see a vet as soon as possible. Abscesses require drainage and cleaning, as well as antibiotics and pain relief. In some cases, surgery may be required to completely remove the infected tissue.
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When to take your dog to the vet
If your adult dog doesn’t usually hold one ear up and they have suddenly started to, it’s always best to book an appointment with your vet. They will check your pup’s ears carefully for any problems that might be developing. If your dog is showing signs of an ear problem or they are unwell in themselves, they need to see a vet as soon as possible.
Common signs to look out for include:
- Head shaking
- Scratching their ears
- Abnormal ear position (such as one ear up and one down)
- Unpleasant odor
- Red, inflamed ears
- Waxy dark brown or yellow discharge
- Wounds, bleeding, or visible injuries
- Swollen ears or visible lumps
- Loss of appetite
When to clean your dog’s ears
It’s important to clean your pup’s ears according to your vet’s recommendation. The healthy canine ear will naturally keep itself clean and free of excessive wax build-up, and over cleaning can disrupt this normal process. In fact, healthy dogs do not need their ears cleaned more than once every 1 to 2 months.
Start getting in the habit of checking your dog’s ears once a week to see if they are showing signs of wax build-up, or redness. If the ears are uncomfortable to touch, itchy, painful, or swollen, have a yellow or dark brown discharge or an unpleasant odor, do not go ahead with cleaning and instead book an appointment with your vet.
Dogs with allergies or breeds prone to ear infections will need more frequent ear cleaning, sometimes as often as once a week. However, it’s best to discuss the frequency and treatment plan with your vet as this will vary depending on their individual needs. It’s also a good idea to clean your dog’s ears after a swim or bath.
When cleaning your pup’s ears, always use an ear cleaner formulated for dogs and recommended by your vet. Never stick anything down your dog’s ear canal, including cotton-tipped applicators (Q-tips). Use cotton balls instead.
Dog breeds with floppy ears
A large variety of unique dog breeds means there are lots of different ear shapes and sizes, including breeds that have naturally floppy ears that never stand upright. These breeds include:
- Cocker Spaniels
- English Springer Spaniels
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
- Basset Hounds
These breeds may be more prone to developing ear infections than dogs with upright ears, and it can be more challenging to notice any differences in symmetry. Monitoring your pup’s ears closely and making sure they are comfortable having their ears handled from a young age is important to detect any problems early.
Why do puppies have floppy ears?
In most cases, it’s completely normal for puppies to have floppy ears, even breeds that will have upright ears as adults. This is because the cartilage that holds the ears up is still developing and strengthening.
Breeds with upright ears, such as German Shepherds, Corgis, Australian Cattle Dogs, Chihuahuas, French Bulldogs, and Siberian Huskies will all start out life as young puppies with floppy ears. Over time, the cartilage within the ear strengthens and the ears begin to stand upright. Your pup’s ears will typically drop again as they experience teething (eruption of the adult teeth between 3 and 6 months of age), before returning to an upright position.
During this period it’s completely normal for one ear to stand up before the other. In most cases, everything will even out as your pup matures. In most breeds, this will occur at around 6 months of age; however, in some breeds such as German Shepherds, this may take up to 8 months.
If you are concerned that your pup’s floppy ears aren’t standing up or your pup is showing signs of an ear problem, it’s best to book an appointment with your vet.
Though it can be completely normal for a dog to hold one ear up and one down, it can also be a sign of an underlying ear problem. Understanding what to look out for when it comes to common problems like ear infections, aural hematomas, and traumatic injuries can be helpful when telling the difference. However, if you have any concerns about your pup’s ears, it’s always best to speak to your vet.