Many dog owners have learned to recognize the telltale signs of an ear infection: whining, scratching, and head shaking are often the first symptoms of the problem.
Ear infections are common conditions in dogs, especially those with floppy ears such as Basset Hounds and Cocker Spaniels. An estimated 20 percent of dogs have some form of ear disease, which may affect one or both ears. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce the length and severity of these episodes for your dog.
There are three types of ear infections, known formally as otitis externa, media, and interna. The most common is otitis externa, in which inflammation affects the layer of cells lining the external portion of the ear canal. Otitis media and interna refer to infections of the middle and inner ear canal, respectively. These infections often result from the spread of infection from the external ear. Otitis media and interna can be very serious and may result in deafness, facial paralysis, and vestibular signs. That’s why it’s important to prevent infections and seek early treatment when problems arise.
Some dogs show no symptoms of ear infection aside from a buildup of wax and discharge in the ear canal. But ear infections often cause significant discomfort and affected dogs may show signs such as:
- Head shaking
- Scratching at the affected ear
- Dark discharge
- Redness and swelling of the ear canal
- Crusting or scabs in the ears
The canine ear canal is more vertical than that of a human, forming an L-shape that tends to hold in fluid. This makes dogs more prone to ear infections. Ear infections are typically caused by bacteria, yeast, or a combination of both. In puppies, ear mites can also be a source of infection.
Factors that may predispose your dog to ear infections include:
- Moisture, which can create a prime growing environment for bacteria and yeast
- Allergies, which lead to ear disease in about 50 percent of dogs with allergic skin disease and 80 percent of dogs with food sensitivities
- Endocrine disorders, such as thyroid disease
- Autoimmune disorders
- Wax buildup
- Foreign bodies
- Injury to the ear canal
- Excessive cleaning
If your dog is showing any of the common signs of ear infections, it’s important to visit your veterinarian as soon as possible. Quick treatment is necessary not only for your dog’s comfort (these conditions can be painful!), but also to prevent the spread of infection to the middle and inner ear. Do not try to treat ear problems at home.
Be prepared to provide your vet with a thorough history of the problem. This is especially important for first-time infections, or if you are seeing a new veterinarian. Your vet will want to know the following:
- Duration of any symptoms, such as pain, swelling, discharge, and odor
- If your dog has any allergies or other underlying medical conditions
- If your dog is on medication
- What your dog has been eating
- How often you clean your dog’s ears and which products you use
- If you’ve trimmed or plucked the hair in your dog’s ears
- Recent activities, such as baths, grooming, or swimming
- If your dog has a history of ear infections, when they occurred, and how they were treated
After obtaining your dog’s history, your veterinarian will perform a physical examination. In severe cases, your vet may also recommend sedating your dog to facilitate examination deep within the ear canal. Your vet will evaluate both ears, and the exam may include:
- Visual assessment to look for signs such as redness, swelling, and discharge
- Examination with an otoscope, which allows evaluation of the ear canal and eardrum
- Gentle palpation of the ear to assess level of pain
- Microscopic examination of samples taken by swabbing the ear
- Culture of samples from the ear
- Biopsies or X-rays in severe or chronic cases
Your veterinarian will thoroughly clean your dog’s ears using a medicated cleaner. Your vet may also prescribe a cleaner and a topical medication for you to use at home. In severe cases, your vet may prescribe oral antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications.
Most uncomplicated ear infections resolve within 1–2 weeks, once appropriate treatment begins. But severe infections or those due to underlying conditions may take months to resolve, or may become chronic problems. In cases of severe chronic disease where other treatments have failed, your veterinarian may recommend surgery such as a Total Ear Canal Ablation (TECA). A TECA surgery removes the ear canal, thus removing the diseased tissue and preventing the recurrence of infection.
It is important to follow your veterinarian’s instructions closely and return to the veterinary hospital for any recommended recheck appointments. Lapses in your dog’s treatment may lead to the recurrence of the infection. It is especially important that you finish the full course of your dog’s medication, even if your dog appears to be getting better. Failure to finish the full course of treatment may lead to additional problems such as resistant infections.
As with most diseases, prevention is always best. Excess moisture is a common cause of ear infections, so be sure to thoroughly dry your dog’s ears after swimming and bathing. If your dog is prone to chronic or recurrent ear infections, identifying and managing any underlying causes such as allergies can help prevent new infections from occurring.
Cleaning your dog’s ears at home can also help prevent ear infections. Jeff Grognet, DVM, a columnist for AKC Family Dog, advises the following steps for ear cleaning: “First, fill the canal with a cleaning solution and massage the vertical ear canal from the outside. Wipe out the canal with absorbent gauze. Don’t use paper towels or cotton because these may leave fibers behind, and those could cause irritation.” Cotton swabs may also be useful for cleaning your dog’s pinnae (the external ear flaps) but avoid using them in the ear canal, which may inadvertently push debris deeper into the canal.
Ear infections are a common and often recurrent problem in many dogs, but, with your veterinarian’s help, you can keep your dog’s ears clean and comfortable. If your dog is showing signs of an ear infection, seek treatment right away to ensure the problem does not become serious.