Ear infections, a common canine affliction, may be caused by an allergic reaction or contact with bacteria, loose debris or ear mites. While not often serious, ear infections can make life miserable for a dog. If left untreated, these infections can cause scarring and permanent ear damage.
Here’s what you’ll find:
- Canine Ear Canals and Ear Infections
- Allergies and Other Ear Infection Causes
- Symptoms of Ear Infections
- Treating Ear Infections
- Chronic Ear Infections
- Surgical Treatments for Ear Infections
Canine Ear Canals and Ear Infections
The basic anatomy of the canine ear canal predisposes dogs to ear infections. While the inner ear canal is horizontal, the outer ear canal bends upwards, becoming vertical. This means any infectious agents or debris caught in the ear can easily fall down into the inner ear. Gravity works against the dog here: foreign bodies can only be removed by pushing them up to get them out of the outer ear canal.
Allergies and Other Ear Infection Causes
Ear infections are usually secondary complications, developing in response to some other agent. Allergies, ear mites and foreign particles trapped in the ear canal can all cause excessive wax buildup. Moist excess wax and the darkness of the ear canal provide a suitable environment for bacteria to replicate and cause ear infections. As ear infections develop, the ear canals become inflamed and pus builds up, causing discomfort and pain.
Allergies are often the cause of canine ear infections, especially those that are chronic and recurring.
Ear mites are more of a problem for outdoor cats than dogs, but the little parasites will happily colonize a dog given the opportunity. Once ear mites invade a dog’s ear, they replicate and trigger a canine ear infection.
Other foreign bodies that may become lodged in a dog’s ear canal include grass seeds, burrs and various plant material. As a dog plays and explores his or her environment, such materials can easily become lodged in a dog’s ear, ensuing in an ear infection.
In addition to these causes of ear infections, some breeds are susceptible to hair growth in the ear canal, which can result in wax buildup and ear infections. Poodles and Schnauzers are especially susceptible to ear canal hair growth.
Other risk factors associated with canine ear infections include:
- long ear canals (more common in some breeds than others)
- plucking hair from the ear canal while grooming
- swelling of the outer ear canal
- swimming (may introduce water to the ear canal)
- use of cotton swabs to clean the ears.
Symptoms of Ear Infections
Symptoms of ear infections are fairly simple to spot: your dog will feel discomfort in the ear and attempt to gain relief by scratching or rubbing the affected ear. Scratching may raise sores on the outer ear if the infection causes significant discomfort. The dog may also rub his ear along the floor or against furniture or shake his head vigorously to relieve physical distress.
Excessive ear scratching can cause the blood vessels in the earflap to rupture causing a hematoma. This is recognized by swelling of the earflap (pinna).
If ear infections reach the middle ear, the dog’s coordination and balance may be affected. In such cases the dog may develop an unusual head tilt, abnormal eye movements and a loss of balance and coordination.
Treating Ear Infections
Despite a number of over the counter products for ear mites and canine ear infections, veterinary care is the only real solution for ear infections.
For ear infections caused by minor ear debris, an ear wash and disinfection are sufficient treatment. In most cases, however, earwax, debris and/or ear mites have clogged the ear to the point that a full ear flushing is required.
Dogs are usually sedated for an ear flushing: ear infections make ears very tender and painful, and a sudden movement while flushing the ear can cause ear damage. After an ear flushing, topical and oral medications are available to kill bacterial and yeast ear infections and speed ear healing.
If allergies are the cause of chronic ear infections, discovering what the dog is allergic to is necessary. Allergy testing can identify some of the more common canine allergies.
When ear mites are the source of an ear infection, the mites must be eradicated in addition to treating the ear infection. Some ear mite medications kill both ear mites and combat ear infections.
Chronic Ear Infections
Recurrent or chronic ear infections require special treatment. In the case of chronic ear infections, your veterinarian will take a sample of ear discharge and culture it to identify the specific bacterial agent or yeast. Once the type of bacteria or yeast has been determined, your veterinarian can target it with a specific antibiotic or antifungal.
Dogs that suffer from chronic ear infections benefit from preventive care. Your veterinarian can show you how to administer at-home ear washes to disinfect the ear canal.
Chronic ear infections are often complicated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. One type of bacteria in particular, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, is extremely tenacious, and often causes chronic ear infections even after antibiotics kill all other infectious agents.
Pseudomonas may be killed with large doses of oral quinolone antibiotics, presuming the bacteria have yet to develop a resistance to that group of medications. Topical solutions, such as silver sulfadiazine, assist in ear healing and can also kill Pseudomonas.
Surgical Treatments for Ear Infections
Surgical treatments for ear infections are used only for chronic ear infections that don’t respond to antibiotic therapy.
During surgery, the vertical portion of the ear canal is opened to remove ear debris and discharge. Surgically cleaning ears can prevent ear canal scarring due to prolonged inflammation.
Surgical treatment of the ear canal may be required if the ear canal has been narrowed or partially blocked by scarring. The surface of the ear canal is removed, which allows healthy tissue to grow back. Although ear canal ablation is an expensive procedure, requiring a specialist in canine ear surgery, it usually cures chronic and severe ear infections.