Common Problems of the Eyes, Ears, and Mouth

These areas of the face are often the first line of defense for a dog. Think about it — if you were closer to the ground and spent most of your time sniffing and digging around to find out what was happening in your world, your eyes, ears, and mouth would be at greater risk of injury or infection, too.


Eyes and their surrounding tissues are susceptible to a number of problems. Dogs have three eyelids: top and bottom, and a third eyelid called the nictitating membrane, an extra layer of protection against the elements. The eyelids and the nictitating membrane all produce tears to lubricate the eye.

If one or both of your dog's eyes is tearing excessively, suspect a problem. It could be that a speck of dust or dirt or a grass seed has lodged between the eyelid and the eyeball. If you can see the particle, you can try to remove it with blunt tweezers or a moistened paper towel or cotton ball. To help the eye heal, apply some antibiotic ophthalmic ointment just inside the lower lid. Likewise, if an eye appears red or swollen, the dog may have an infection caused by a foreign body. It is best to consult your veterinarian if such a condition exists.

Entropion and Ectropion

Sometimes eye irritation is caused by a congenital defect of the eyelid. If the eyelid rolls inward, causing the eyelashes to aggravate the eye, the condition is called entropion. When the eyelid rolls outward, the condition is known as ectropion. Dogs with ectropion have exposed eyelid tissue that's particularly prone to damage and infection. Entropion and ectropion are both common congenital defects that require surgical repair.


The membrane that lines the inner sides of the eyeball up to the cornea is called the conjunctiva. If it becomes infected, you'll notice a discharge from the corner of the dog's eye. The discharge may be clear and watery or opaque and thick. Typically this is the result of a bacterial infection. Your veterinarian can give you the best diagnosis.

Eye Problems of Older Dogs

As your dog ages, she becomes prone to dry eye and cataracts. As the name implies, dry eye is a condition in which the surface of the eye appears dull instead of shiny and bright. Dry eye is a condition of the tear glands, indicating that something is at fault with them. Consequently, they cannot supply the moisture necessary to lubricate the eye properly, which in turn leads to infection. Your veterinarian may be able to stimulate the tearing mechanism, or artificial tears will be prescribed.

Cataracts are clouding of the cornea that lead to blindness. They usually appear as milky colored or bluish-gray spots in the dog's eye. All older dogs are prone to developing cataracts. Other dogs at risk are diabetic dogs and dogs with a congenital problem that causes cataracts to form early.

The Ears

Dogs' ears come in all shapes and sizes, from small and erect to long and pendulous. The most common problems they're susceptible to are cuts, hematomas, and infections. Many breeds' ears are cropped both to enhance appearance and to reduce the incidence of ear infection.

The Inner Ear

The skin of a healthy inner ear should be pink with some waxy lightbrown secretion in the ear canal. If you notice your dog scratching at his ears, excessively rubbing the side of his face against the floor or other surfaces, or whining with discomfort when you stroke around his ears, suspect an infection or other problem. The skin that lines the ear canal is the perfect host for bacteria, which thrive in warm, moist environments. Dogs who swim regularly, who live in humid environments, who have long, hairy ears, or whose ears are not regularly inspected for excessive dirty wax buildup can easily develop an infection. Your veterinarian will diagnose it and give you instructions for treatment.

Ear mites can be another source of itchy, inflamed inner ears. These microscopic parasites also like warm, moist environments, where they feed on skin flakes. A scraping at the vet's office will confirm this diagnosis.

The Outer Ear

Ear flaps are most prone to cuts, bites, and hematomas. As long as a cut is not deep, it is simple to treat by cleaning it thoroughly and applying antibiotic ointment. Often dogs involved in a fight will get their ears bitten. If the bite is deep, take the dog to the veterinarian; otherwise, wash it thoroughly, apply antibiotic ointment, and monitor it for infection.

Hematomas are the result of a pooling of blood in the ear flap. This can happen after a dog shakes her ears violently, scratches them excessively, or knocks them against a sharp object. Consult your veterinarian about the best way to deal with a hematoma.


Some breeds of dogs have genetic defects that cause them to either be born deaf or develop deafness at an early age. Conscientious breeders will test their dogs if they suspect a problem and remove affected dogs from their breeding programs. This is most common in Dalmatians and some Terrier breeds. Older dogs lose some or all of their hearing. They still manage to get around in familiar, safe environments, but special care should be given to them.

The Nose

First of all, forget the folk remedy that says a dog with a warm, dry nose is sick. Yes, a dog's nose should typically be cool and moist, and if it's not, the dog may have a fever. But some sick dogs will have cool, runny noses. Regardless, the nose is an all-important organ to the dog. Smell is her most acute sense; through it she learns the most about her environment and the other creatures in it.

Runny Nose

Because the nose itself doesn't have any sweat glands, when a dog is excited or sick, the nasal mucous membrane will secrete water. Only secretions that persist for several hours indicate a problem.


This indicates an irritation to the front of the nasal cavity (coughing or gagging means the irritation is further back). It could be the inhalation of dust or dirt, which would cause the dog to sneeze several times and then stop, or it could indicate a fever or infection if it persists. If the sneezing is accompanied by discharge from the nose and/or eyes, see your veterinarian.

The Mouth

The dog's mouth is made up of the lips, teeth, gums, and tongue. It is the passageway to the esophagus. While the lips and tongue can be injured by cuts or burns, injury and disease most commonly affect the teeth and gums, and it is on these that you must concentrate.


The average adult dog has forty-two teeth in her mouth (this can vary by breed, with shorter-faced breeds having fewer teeth). With improper oral hygiene, the teeth can become encrusted with plaque and tartar, leading to smelly dog breath, inflamed or infected gums, tooth loss, and general deterioration of the mouth.

Because of the high incidence of dogs suffering from periodontal disease, veterinarians and others in the pet industry have gone out of their way to educate owners and provide them with materials that make taking care of their dogs' teeth easy.

During your annual checkups at the veterinarian's office, the doctor can advise you whether your dog's teeth need to be surgically scraped to have any lingering or stubborn tartar removed. Since this procedure requires anesthesia, discuss it with your vet at length before subjecting your dog to it.

When they're young, dogs have stain-free, shiny teeth. To keep them looking that way (for beauty and health reasons), you should brush them several times a week with a toothpaste made especially for dogs.


Healthy gums are pink and should be firm. Red, swollen, painful gums are a sign of gingivitis and require immediate attention. Your veterinarian will probably need to scrape your dog's teeth to remove offending tartar, after which you'll need to aggressively brush and inspect your dog's teeth. Severe gingivitis can lead to infection and tooth decay.

Choking and Gagging

If your dog starts to choke or gag, there may be something caught in the back of his mouth. If possible, try to remove the object yourself. If it's lodged too firmly and your dog is struggling and choking, take him to the veterinarian immediately. Try to calm and reassure the dog.

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