Does your dog suffer from ear infections?
Ear infections can be extremely uncomfortable for dogs. Many, if not most dogs will suffer from an ear infection at some point in their lives.
The majority of ear infections will clear up with some basic veterinary treatment such as an antibacterial ointment, but a proportion will not clear up properly or will seem to clear up and then later recur.
The dogs ear is composed of 3 different parts; inner, middle and outer. The ear drum separates the middle ear from the outer ear. Problems with the inner and middle ear often present with neurological signs such as a loss of balance, circling or a head tilt. In this article we focus on the more common problems associated with the external ear, known as otitis externa.
Some common questions
What makes some dogs more susceptible to ear infections than others?
- Breed - Ear infections may occur in any breed, but Cocker Spaniels, Shar Peis, Poodles and other floppy eared dogs are the most susceptible. Cocker Spaniels are predisposed to ear infections because they have more secretory glands than other breeds. Sharpeis are predisposed because of the conformation of their ear canal. Poodles are more prone to ear infections because of excessive hair in the ear canal, trapping moisture.
- Allergies - Many pets with multiple allergies will sometimes have flare ups of eyes, ears and skin at the same time. 25% of food allergic dogs have ear disease as their only symptom.
- Ear shape - Pets with floppy ears are more prone to ear infections because the air does not dry the ears naturally, as it does for pets with erect ears.
- Hair - Hair in the ear canals can keep the moisture trapped in the ear canal, which leads to infections. Hair in the ear canals should be removed regularly by your pets groomer or veterinarian.
- Swimming - Dogs that spend time in water, such as Labrador Retrievers, are more susceptible to ear infections as microorganisms love moist environments.
How can I tell if my dog has an ear infection?
Most ear infections are obvious as there is a pungent odor and waxy discharge in the affected ear. However, sometimes an ear will look perfectly normal from the outside but will be intensely itchy for the dog. Either way, it is best to have a vet examine in the ear to ensure that there are no foreign bodies such as a grass seed stuck in the ear canal. Common signs of an ear infection are:
- Scratching at the affected ear.
- Head shaking.
- Rubbing the affected ear along the floor or against a vertical object such as the sofa.
- Reddening of the inside of the ear flap and the ear canals.
- Discharge from the ear canals. This can vary from brown wax to pus.
- A pungent smell coming from the ear region.
- Tenderness or irritability when the ear is touched.
My dog has an ear infection, is there any way I can treat it at home without going to the vets?
You are taking a risk if you do not seek veterinary help. Many ear infections are easy to nip in the bud with antibiotic ointment if caught early, but if left to develop can be stubborn to treat. Bear in mind also that if there is something like a grass seed in the ear canal, nothing you can do will provide relief for this, it would need removing under sedation or full general anesthetic. Your vet can look into the canal with an otoscope to visualize the problem and check that the ear drum has not perforated, and dispense medication that you cannot buy anywhere other than from a vet or with a prescription from a vet. Your vet will also be able to identify any underlying or predisposing factor which can be eradicated, such as allergies, by conducting a full physical examination.
Having said all that, very mild infections can sometimes be cured with home treatment. Firstly, remove any clumps of hair growing in the ear canal by plucking them. This looks painful but actually, there are no nerve endings around the follicles of these hairs so it is not painful to the dog. This will ventilate the ear much better and make it a less attractive environment for bacteria to multiply in. Then, squirt some dog ear cleaner into the canal. Remember that the opening to the ear canal is the furthest hole to the outside. If you do not have any dog ear cleaner then use olive oil as this too will help loosen any wax. Having put some cleaner or olive oil into the canal, massage the ear and pinch the canal until you hear a squelching noise. This means the liquid is being spread around the entire canal, dislodging as much debris as possible. Then, take a ball of dry cotton wool and wipe the opening to the ear canal and inside of the ear flap, in a twisting motion.
The above paragraph describes how to clean your dog’s ears effectively. This procedure should be done on a regular basis (e.g. monthly) regardless of whether your dog suffers from ear infections or not; it is a sensible measure to prevent ear infections occurring.
Giving the ears a really thorough clean in this way may in some cases be sufficient to cure a mild ear infection, but if a colony of bacteria or yeast have taken residence in your pets ear canal, you will need treatment to eradicate them. As mentioned before, this is best obtained through your local vet, who will provide you with an antibacterial, antifungal and/or antiparasitic ointment to cover all possible infectious causes. If you are determined to attempt home treatment, then mix 1 part white vinegar with 10 parts cooled boiled water, and flush the ear with a syringe. This needs to be done daily for about 2 weeks, then weekly for about a month. It can only be done on a clean ear as otherwise the wax acts as a shield for the bacteria. The logic behind this treatment is that you are acidifying the ear canal, making the pH unfavourable for bacterial growth.
A minority of ear infections are incredibly difficult to eradicate. Owners and vets often become increasingly frustrated when ear infections do not respond to treatment or keep recurring, with owners questioning the vets treatment protocol and vets wondering whether the owner has been giving the treatment properly. The truth is that some ear infections need radical and aggressive treatment to cure them, such as surgery to remove part of or all of the ear canal or weekly flushing out the ear under general anaesthetic. The fact that some dogs are euthanased because of their ear problem means ear infections must be taken seriously by both owner and vet.