Ear infections in the dog are a fairly common problem seen in many breeds. There are a number of underlying factors that contribute to why this is the case.
One of the main predisposing factors is the shape of the ear canal. It resembles the letter “L” and the ‘foot’ of the L (or the horizontal portion of the canal) is at the bottom. This becomes a great area for debris to accumulate and it keeps things warm and dark which are ideal growth conditions for many organisms.
A normal dog ear has a self- cleaning mechanism that moves wax and debris up and out of the ear, but if there is an accumulation of debris, hair, water or if there is inflammation such as we see with pets with allergies, we will see a disruption in this mechanism that allows infection to prosper.
Allergy is the most common cause of recurrent infection of the ear in dogs. The inflammation and abnormal tissue barrier seen in these pets predisposes the ear to an overgrowth of what is typically a normal commensal organism. Normal ears will contain a very small number of bacteria and yeast.
Symptoms of ear infection in the dog include head shaking, scratching at the ears, a tilt towards the painful ear, odor or discharge. Home remedies, while appealing, can do more harm than good especially in cases with ulceration and pain.
Because not all ear infections are the same, a pet should be examined when they have ear infections, even if it is a recurrent issue. Knowing the organisms present in the ear, the status of the tissues, and whether or not the ear drum is intact or even visible can change treatment. A severely painful ear that has swelling and poor visualization may even require sedation for examination and cleaning.
Most treatment involves a flush or cleaner to prepare the surface of the ear for the medication. If there is excessive debris in the ear topical medications work poorly. Medications are usually a combination of an antifungal, antibacterial and a steroid.
In cases where we suspect involvement of the middle or inner ear, we will prescribe oral medications for infection as well. The majority of ear infections however involve the external ear and only respond well to topical treatment.
If treatment is unsuccessful, further work up will be needed to determine the cause. Your vet may recommend a culture, an alternative product, examination with sedation, allergy testing, thyroid testing, x-rays or even surgery.
Pets with chronic ear infections can be very difficult to treat due to the nature of the changes to the ear and the types of organisms that often thrive in chronic situations. It is possible for there to be permanent damage which makes a total cure impossible, but we can improve the pet’s comfort and ideally keep infections minimized with maintenance therapy in many cases. In severe cases your vet may recommend surgery to remove the abnormal tissue.