Ear infections are one of the most common medical problems found in dogs. The medical term for an ear infection is “otitis externia” and up to 20% of all dogs will deal with it at some point during their lives. Fortunately, the signs of an ear infection are fairly obvious and treatment is usually pretty simple. Here’s everything you need to know:
Causes of Dog Ear Infections
Ear diseases are common in large part because there are so many different causes. Some causes of ear infections include:
- Allergies (food or environment)
- Hormonal Issues
An ear problem might be the first sign of allergies. If your dog has frequent ear infections, you will want to look into the possibility that allergies are the cause. Generally, treating the allergies will prevent ear problems from recurring.
Parasites are another potential cause. The ear mite – known as Otodectes cynotis – is a common cause of ear problems in cats, but dogs can occasionally be affected as well. If ear mites are the cause of the infection, your dog will typically scratch his ear excessively and aggressively.
Bacteria and yeast can also cause ear infections. A healthy ear can fight off these organisms but if your dog’s ear has been compromised by allergies, trauma, parasites or similar issues, bacteria and yeast can thrive.
Don’t forget to check for something as simple as a foreign body stuck in the ear. Small plants, bits of bark or other flora can find their way into a dog’s ear canal. Always check your dog’s ear canal after any extended time spent outdoors.
Genetics can also play a role as some dog breeds are particularly prone to ear infections. Any dog with a non-erect outer ear or with ears that drag on the ground has an elevated risk of infection. Dogs under the age of five are especially susceptible to infections. Also, certain breeds are predisposed to hereditary ear diseases. These include:
- Shetland Sheepdog
- Shar Pei
- West Highland White Terrier
- Cocker Spaniel
Ear infections have a variety of symptoms, most of which are fairly easy to spot. They include:
- Scratching in and around the ear
- Ear redness, swelling and sensitivity to touch
- Crusts, scabs and other lesions on the inside of the outer ear
- Hair loss around the ears
However, not every sign of an ear infection centers on the ears. You also want to watch out for these behaviors:
- Rubbing of head and ears on furniture, floor, etc.
- Frequent head shaking
- Prolonged head tilt
- Loss of balance / Lack of coordination
- Walking in circles
- Hearing loss
With so many potential causes, diagnosis can be a bit tricky. Your vet will have to examine the ear canal with a special device called an otoscope. She might also swab the ear canal and study the sample under a microscope in order to identify any bacteria, yeast or mites. If these initial procedures don’t reveal the cause, additional diagnostic work might be needed.
The course of treatment really depends on the cause. For bacterial and yeast infections, your dog might need a course of antibiotics and/or antifungals. If you do end up giving your dog antibiotics, you may want to supplement his diet with probiotics and digestive enzymes to counteract the potentially detrimental effect of the antibiotics on your dog’s gut health.
Allergies can be a little trickier to handle. First, you’ll want to work with your vet to try to identify what your dog is allergic to, although this is not always possible. In severe cases, immunotherapy and allergy testing might be the best solution. As explained by Dr. Amy Randall, “Immunotherapy is the use of FDA standardized allergens (pollens, house dust mites, molds) in a liquid formulation which is administered to the allergic patient to help desensitize her to those environmental allergens she has developed an allergy to.” If your dog does appear to have allergies, you may have to administer regular allergy medicine, in liquid, pill or injection form, for the rest of your pooch’s life. However, don’t be alarmed – most injectable allergy medications are administered subcutaneously (under the skin rather than intravenously which is into a vein) with a very thin needle, using a syringe you will easily be able to handle. Most dogs barely react to injections with these small gauge needles and the benefits of keeping the allergies at bay far outweigh the small pinprick your pooch will feel.
If ear mites are the issue, you’ll probably need prescription ear medication. Medication may also the solution for various bacterial and yeast infections.
The Benefits of Regular Ear Cleanings
The good news is many ear problems can be prevented by regular cleanings. You can clean your dog’s ears yourself at home. It’s easy, safe and requires no harsh chemicals.
Dogs have L-shaped ears. Unfortunately, this shape allows bacteria to collect at the corner of the “L.” As bacteria accumulates in the ear, the risk of infection grows. Regular cleaning keeps this bacteria at bay.
Most dogs need their ears cleaned about once a week. However, some dogs need cleanings about three times a week. These are dogs who:
- have a history of ear infections
- swim on a regular basis
- have ears which hang down loosely (like a Cocker Spaniel)
To clean your dog’s ears you first need an ear cleaning solution. While your vet can help you find ear cleaning medication, there are also a variety of effective homeopathic options.
All Natural Ear Cleaning Solutions
You may be able to effectively clean your dog’s ears with simple white vinegar. First, find a clean bottle with a nozzle. Many people use the type of bottle which comes with hair coloring products. Glass or plastic droppers will also work well. Fill the bottle or dropper with equal parts white vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. Then, add a few drops of rubbing alcohol. Be sure and add no more than a few drops of alcohol (less for smaller dogs) in order to avoid burning your dog’s ear. Follow the “how to” steps outlined below. Gently fill your dog’s ear with the liquid, squish it around a bit and then let him shake the liquid back out of his ears.
If your dog has extreme wax build-up you might want to try a stronger solution. Take six ounces of apple cider vinegar and add one and half teaspoons of boric acid (again, modulating for smaller ears). Shake well and add a teaspoon of Betadine and then follow the same administration procedure outlined below.
Almond oil is another effective solution to clean your dog’s ears. Many pet guardians prefer the pleasant scent of almond oil to vinegar. To use, take a few drops of almond oil and put them in a shot glass. Then take the shot glass and submerge it into a glass of hot water to warm the oil up. When it’s a comfortably warm temperature take a dropper or syringe to collect a few drops of the oil and gently squeeze them into your dog’s ear canal. Massage the base of the ear. Finally, wipe away any excess oil with a clean cloth.
How to Clean Your Dog’s Ears
If your dog is new to ear cleanings, you can expect some squirming. As long you approach the task with a gentle manner and lots of positive reinforcement, you and your dog should be fine. Here’s the best way to keep those ears clean:
- While holding your dog securely, gently pull the ear flap upwards so that you have a clear opening into your dog’s ear.
- Using a plastic or glass eye dropper, drip a few drops of ear cleaning solution into your dog’s ear.
- Using your thumb and forefinger, gently massage the base of the dog’s ear – from the outside – for about 30 seconds. The ear canal will feel like a small tube. As you massage the tube, you’ll hear a soft, squishing sound. That’s okay – it means you’re massaging the right part of the ear.
- Now it’s time to drain out the dirt and grime. Tip your dog’s head to the side over a towel. If this is the first ear cleaning your dog’s had in a while, don’t be surprised if a lot of gunk comes pouring out of that ear! This is perfectly normal.
- Use a soft cloth or tissue to clean up any extra wax or debris. Never insert anything more than a half inch deep into your dog’s ear canal. Doing so can risk permanent ear damage and hearing loss and can cause pain.
- Repeat the process with the other ear. When you’re done, fold your dog’s ears back and keep them back for about five minutes. This helps the ears dry.
Please note that you will, when possible, want to do this outside in case your pooch decides to shake the cleanser out on his own rather than waiting to neatly tip the liquid out. In exchange for the joy of having his ears cleaned, he’ll be more than happy to gift you with a messy spray of cleaning solution and ear gunk all over your cabinets.
While ear infections are a common problem in dogs, they can be treated safely and easily. Regular ear cleanings will prevent a lot of future problems with your dog’s ears. Most dogs require only about five minutes of cleaning once a week. If your dog does wind up with an infection, you and your vet have a variety of natural, homeopathic solutions available.
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