Why do some dogs get ear infections and some don’t? Why are some dogs prone to recurrent infections and other dogs never seem to get an infection at all?
In private practice we see infections of the ear canal on a daily basis. As many as 1 in 5 dogs presented at veterinary practices have some sort of ear infection.
The dog’s ear canal is essentially an L-shaped tube that ends at the eardrum. With the help of the pinna (the floppy or pointy external ear), it channels sound to the eardrum and then to the middle and inner ears. The canal is lined by skin and can get infected as part of a generalised skin infection or completely independently.
Certain factors like breed, ear anatomy and moisture can predispose dogs to infections of the ear canal:
Some breeds seem to be over-represented when it comes to ear infections. Spaniels, Golden and Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Standard Poodles, Sharpei’s and Bulldogs are seen for ear infections far more frequently than other breeds
Long floppy or droopy ears can make ears more susceptible to infection, as can hairy and narrow ear canals
Water in the ear canal from swimming or washing, increases risk of infection
Parasites: Ear mites can invade the ear canal and irritate and inflame the canal wall. This inflammation makes the area very prone to overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria and secondary bacterial infections are often seen hand in hand with ear mite infestations.
Bacteria and Yeasts: Like the skin, the ear canal has a normal population of bacteria and yeasts. If the environment in the ear changes, certain bacteria may multiply more than others, leading to infection.
Allergies: Dogs with skin allergies are very prone to ear infections. Skin allergies lead to a low grade inflammation of the whole skin, including the ear canal. This irritation allows the overgrowth of some bacteria and yeasts leading to true Otitis Externa (outer ear infection)
Foreign bodies: Foreign bodies like grass seeds and insects can be very irritating in the ear canal. The foreign bodies on their own can lead to severe symptoms of itching and head shaking and in many cases these ears are also secondarily infected by bacteria by the time we see them in veterinary practice.
Polyps and abnormal anatomy of the ear canal: Abnormalities in the normally smooth outer ear canal, can also make ears more prone to infection.
Symptoms of Ear Infections
Scratching the head and ears
Strong smell from the ear canal
Discharges from the ear canal
Damage to the pinna, the visible pointy or floppy part of the ear. Blood blisters can form between the layers of the cartilage of the pinna and are seen as a swollen, hard, painful ear. These unfortunately, require surgical correction
Head tilting towards the affected side
If the infection spreads to the middle or inner ear, an unsteady gait and walking in circles can be seen
Treatment of an ear infection should always be done under the supervision of a veterinarian. A full clinical examination of the dog including the skin and ears is necessary. The vet will also check if the eardrum is intact or damaged, which will affect the way in which the infection is treated.
Occasionally, sedation and thorough ear rinsing may be necessary if the canal if filled with excessive amounts of pus or discharge. This allows for better visualisation of the ear drum, removes excessive debris that might dilute ear ointments and can speed up recovery.
Never simply treat these infections blindly. Many internet websites advocating a “natural approach” will suggest the use of diluted vinegar to treat ear infections. Not only will this severely irritate the lining of the ear canal, but if the ear is already inflamed it will be immensely painful. If the eardrum is not intact, the vinegar can enter the middle ear and affect the dog’s hearing. Contact your vet for a full clinical examination and their treatment recommendations, before putting anything into the ear canal of your dog!
Keep the inside of your dog’s ear canals dry when washing them and dry them thoroughly with a cotton ball after a trip to the beach
Regularly remove excess wax from the ear canal with cotton balls and a recommended veterinary ear cleanser. Depending on the nature and amount of wax, your vet will advise how often this should be done
Regularly pluck excess hair from the ear canal. This can be done by your groomer. You can also ask them to shave excess hair away from the ear canal opening, to allow for easy air flow in and out of the ear canal.
Discuss allergy control measures with your vet, if allergies are found to be the underlying cause of recurrent ear infections in your dog
Ears that repeatedly become infected, need careful and long term management. With minimal but regular application of preventative measures, you can keep your dog’s ears healthier and more comfortable.
Ear Cleaners Available:
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