By Dr. Mara Wendel
Sheabel Animal Medical Center
If your dog has ever had an ear infection, then you have seen how uncomfortable it can make him or her. Usually, dogs will shake their head, use their paws to scratch their ears, and often a foul odor and even discharge may be noticed from one or both ears.
Dogs with chronic ear infections that shake their heads and scratch vigorously may cause a blood vessel in the ear flap to rupture, leading to a hematoma or swelling that must be fixed with surgery. In severe cases, infection can spread to the middle ear and cause neurologic signs such as a head tilt, lack of balance, and a slack-jawed appearance. Let’s go over the common causes of ear infections in dogs, treatment, and most importantly, prevention of this painful disease.
First, dogs have a different structure to the ear canal than people. In dogs, there is actually a vertical portion of the canal that shoots straight down from the opening of their ear and makes a right angled turn into the horizontal portion of the ear canal. People only have a horizontal ear canal, and it is the dog’s right angled turn that makes them predisposed to infection — debris and wax have to work upward rather than straight out.
Most ear infections stem from an over-production of wax, which occurs due to irritation. The moisture of ear wax then promotes bacterial growth and infection. There are a number of reasons a dog’s ear may become irritated and get this vicious cycle started. Allergies due to food and environmental or seasonal causes are one of the number one reasons for ear infections that we see at our practice.
Just like your dog may develop itchy skin due to allergies, the ear canals are also at risk for irritation. Some breeds, such as Golden Retrievers, are especially prone to food allergies and recurrent yeast infections in their ears. Other breeds, such as Cocker Spaniels, are predisposed to ear infections due to having large, heavier ears that hang down and do not allow the ear canal to dry out as easily.
Another common cause of ear infections is hair growth deep in the canal, which is most common in Poodles and Schnauzers. Hair in the canal prevents wax and debris from working out of the canal normally. Also, dogs who are bathed frequently or like to swim can develop irritation in the ear canal due to getting water in their ears. Lastly, ear mite infections, and foreign bodies such as grass awns and foxtails can set your dog up for ear infections.
If you notice signs of an ear infection in your dog, your veterinarian will examine the ears closely, and take a sample of the debris to evaluate under the microscope for bacteria and yeast. Typically, ear infections require treatment by flushing the ears with a cleaning solution to remove the debris, and applying medication to the ears daily for about two weeks. In more severe cases, oral antibiotics and anti-inflammatories (such as prednisone) may be required to make the dog more comfortable.
In chronic cases, or those with structural abnormalities preventing normal ear canal health, surgery may be the best option. There are a couple of surgical options to help the ear canal drain more easily, or to remove the ear canal completely so that it can no longer be a source of pain and discomfort. Although it sounds drastic, if you have had a dog with chronic ear infections then you know how big of a struggle this disease can become for some dogs.
Now that we have gone over the most common causes of ear infections, and possible treatments, here are a few tips to help keep your dog’s ears healthy. The key to ear canal health is removing excess wax and debris, and to avoid underlying causes for irritation. Ruling out allergies is often a good way to start. Remember that dogs can be allergic to both food and to environmental or seasonal allergens just like people. Your veterinarian may recommend a hypoallergenic diet, or treatment for environmental allergies.
If your dog has a long hair coat, regular grooming and having your groomer or veterinarian pluck the hair out of the ears can help. Regular veterinary exams is the best way to make sure your dog’s ears are in good health and pick up early signs of ear infection. Finally, if you have a dog prone to ear infections for any of the above reasons, flushing the ears regularly with a balanced ear cleansing solution is a great way to maintain healthy ear canals. Once weekly flushing is often enough to prevent infections in predisposed dogs, and your veterinarian can recommend an appropriate product for your dog and show you how to properly flush the ear canals.
In summary, ear infections are a common cause of discomfort in dogs for a number of different reasons. Treatment can be frustrating and many infections tend to be recurrent unless underlying causes (allergies, breed predispositions, etc.) are addressed. Visit with your veterinarian about the best way to keep your dog’s ears healthy.
Dr. Mara Wendel is a veterinarian at sheabelpets.com. She received her undergraduate degree in biology from Cornell University in 2005. Wendel then returned home to Ames, Iowa, to attend veterinary school at Iowa State University. After graduation, she moved to Lexington to work at Rood and Riddle as an equine veterinarian for two years before joining Sheabel.