Ear infections in Dogs

by Dr. Francesca Matthews


What is ear disease?


Ear disease is a common problem in dogs. It usually shows up as redness, swelling and pain of the external ear canal (the canal from the outside of the ear to the ear drum) and may be associated with various discharges. This is known as otitis externa.


What causes Otitis Externa?


There are a number of causes of otitis externa. These include foreign objects (most commonly grass seeds), bacteria and fungi, parasites and allergies manifesting as ear irritation. Sometimes there is more than one of these present. For example, the presence of an allergy may predispose the dog to a bacterial infection. 


The external ear canal is essentially just an extension of the skin so many skin diseases also affect the ear.


Why are some dogs more likely to get ear problems?


Just like with most conditions there are some dogs that are more likely to get ear problems. This can be related to their genetics, the anatomy of the ear and the canal (i.e., what it is shaped like), the environment of the dog, or a combination of these factors. 


Image source wikimedia commons


A dog that is always going swimming and putting its head under water will be at higher risk than the general population, as will a dog with long heavy floppy ears like a spaniel. Chocolate Labradors are a classic example of a genetic predisposition. Just because your dog doesn't have risk factors it doesn't mean it won't suffer from ear problems and conversely, even if it has risk factors it doesn't mean it will definitely develop problems.


There are also steps that can be taken to reduce risk. These are described below.


Detecting an ear infection


A change in the smell of your dog's ear can indicate the presence of a problem. It is a good idea to regularly smell your dog's ear canals so that you become used to what is normal. You are then more likely to notice subtle changes.

A normal dog may occasionally scratch at its ears, but anything more than an occasional scratch at the ear should be investigated. It is essential that ears are treated promptly to ensure the best chance of a successful resolution.

Shaking the head is also a sign of an ear problem. Sudden onset of head shaking is commonly associated with a foreign body being present, such as a grass seed. A change in the colour or in the sensitivity of the ears to being handled may also indicate a problem.


What should you do?


If you suspect a problem with your dog's ears, seek veterinary assistance as soon as possible. Do not medicate or attempt to clean inside the ear canal without veterinary advice. Attempting to clean the ear canal may push the debris further down and cause more damage. Many ear medications are ototoxic. This means that if the ear drum has not been confirmed as being intact, they can result in lasting damage to the middle and inner ears including hearing. Also if the ear canal is full of debris the ear preparations will not work as well. In addition the shelf life of an already open ear preparation, is, in many cases, only 30 days.


Diagnosis of ear problems


Make an appointment to see us. Our veterinarians will diagnose the problem using the history you provide them with and by a physical examination of the ears using a specialised instrument called an otoscope.


They will be looking at the condition of the lining of the canal, the presence of debris and what it looks like, whether the ear canal is in tact, the presence of mites or foreign bodies and any other abnormalities.


In some cases they may also decide to swab the ear canal to determine the type of bacteria present and which treatment is the best to use. This may be done on the first visit or on a subsequent visit if initial treatment has failed.


Treatment of ear problems


The treatment that will be chosen depends on what has been diagnosed and the specific animal affected. It could involve one or more of the following:


  1. Cleansers, such as Epiotic - used to remove excess moisture, exudate and other debris from the ear canal. This may be done just in the consultation, or you may be required to continue treatment at home
  2. Proprietary ear drops - these are the standard ear drops that are available to veterinarians that contain various combinations of antibiotics, antifungals and anti-inflammatories
  3. Oral medications - such as oral antibiotics, anti fungals and/or anti-inflammatories. These may be used in addition to or instead of ear drops when ear drops are not advised (such as in the case of a ruptured ear drum) or where the dog is resistant to ear drop application
  4. A general anaesthetic to enable a comprehensive ear flush. This is recommended in seriously infected ears or in cases that are resistant to treatment
  5. Surgery to modify the ear canal - this is a last resort and becomes an option to discuss when there are recurrent ear infections and signs of chronic changes to the ear canal.


It is essential to follow your veterinarian's advice and to attend revisit appointments as recommended. Remember only used medications specifically prescribed by your veterinarian for the current ear infection.

Follow up is required to track the response to treatment and modify medications accordingly. You should also contact us as soon as possible if you are having difficulty applying any medication correctly as directed by your veterinarian.


Steps to take to help reduce ear problems


It is impossible to guarantee that your dog will never get an ear infection. However, there are some steps that can be taken to help reduce the odds:


  1. Reduce swimming, especially where the dog puts it head under the water.
  2. Keep the ears of dogs like spaniels well clipped, especially the under side to improve air flow so the ear canal is cooler and less of an incubator for bacteria and fungi. This also means less hair for seeds to catch on and eventually work their way into the ear.
  3. Avoid walking your dogs in places where barley grass and other loose seeds that may get into the ear are found.
  4. When your dog is lazing around at home, encourage air flow into the ear canal by holding the flap of the ear up for a short period.
  5. Seek treatment promptly if you suspect a problem with the ear - the earlier treatment is sorted, the more chance of a fast recovery.


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