Solving ear diseases in pets

Dogs’ ears come in a variety of styles.

Some stick up, some flop down, some are hairy and some are not.  Nevertheless, they are all prone to ear infections.

How do you know if your dog has an ear infection? What can you do at home to treat it and when should you visit your vet?

How Will  I Know My Pet Has an Ear Infection?

When an infection starts, a pet will:-

  • shake its head occasionally
  • scratch its ear(s)
  • appear distressed
  • moan as it tries to scratch its ear
  • rub its head along the ground
  • and may walk with its head at an angle

When you examine the ear, you may notice that the ears have a unpleasant smell. You may also see some discharge in the ear, especially in the ear canal. This discharge may be brown in colour, it may be yellow and look like pus, or it may contain blood which is not something to ignore.

An insect called an ear mite sometimes causes ear infections. These small creepy-crawlies move around inside the ear canal and cause great discomfort. The ears of the dog or cat react to this irritation by pumping out a waxy discharge. This gunk is an ideal soup for bacteria, yeasts and fungi to grow in, further worsening the problem.

Ear infections can also be caused by an injury to the ear or from foreign objects, especially grass seeds, becoming lodged inside the ear canal.

Home treatment

If the problem is caught early enough, then home treatment may be useful, especially if ear mites are the cause.

Ask your vet for a good ear cleaning solution that also contains a compound to kill the mites. There are many examples. These preparations contain compounds to dissolve the wax, to reduce bacterial infection and to kill the mites that are present. Put the medication into each ear twice daily or as indicated.

Some of the spot on the neck flea control preparations and several monthly preparations that prevent heartworms, intestinal worms and skin parasites also help to control ear mites.

Be careful when cleaning your pet’s ears. The old rule of ‘putting nothing smaller than your elbow’ in your pet’s ear is still a wise one. Many owners will attempt to clean their pets’ ears by using cotton buds. Buds will often ramrod the wax down onto the ear drum. This makes it much more difficult to eliminate the infection, and may lead to a rupture of the ear drum.

To clean the outer part of the ear, a cotton ball, not a bud, moistened with an ear cleaning solution will do well. Only clean the area of the ears that you can see.

Administer a few drops of the cleaning solution to each ear. Massage the area under the ear canal gently and you will usually hear a squelching sound indicating the ear solution is being distributed throughout the ear canal. Unless the problem is advanced, the cleaning solutions will then dissolve the wax.

Now stand back! Your dog or cat will shake its head vigorously after you use the ear cleaner and then the discharge and wax will come out – usually splattering all over you and the ceiling!

For poodles and other animals with hairy ear canals, plucking the hairs from the ear canals may be necessary to allow proper ventilation.

Animals with long, heavy, droopy ears, such as Basset Hounds and Cocker Spaniels, need their ears examined regularly. The weight of their ears prevents natural airing and drying of the ear canals.

Most animals do not get ear infections, so, unless you know your pet has a problem, I feel that leaving the ears alone is best, using the old rule ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’.  All that is necessary for most is an annual inspection of your pet’s ears by your veterinarian, who can clean them then if necessary.

When Should Your Vet Step In?

Typically, letting your veterinarian professionally examine and clean your pet’s ears is easier and safer.

If the infection is a bad one, it is guaranteed that your pet will need prescription medications to solve the problem. Ear medications like this are not available over the counter.

Your vet will look into your pet’s ears with an otoscope to find out what is causing the problem. If mites are present, they will be visible but, in many cases, bacteria or yeasts without ear mites cause the infection. It can also be due to foreign bodies such as grass seeds.

It may be necessary for your pet to be anaesthetised for the vet to examine its ears correctly. This will also allow proper cleaning and inspection. A sample of the discharge is often taken and this will be examined under the microscope to find out what bugs are present.

A swab may also be sent off to a laboratory for a ‘culture and sensitivity’ test. This is done to detect what bugs are present and what medications are best suited to kill them. As you will know, some bacteria are resistant to certain antibiotics.

Be sure to complete the full course of any ointment that your vet prescribes.

Sometimes, ear infections recur. This can be for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the dog or cat may have a deformed or narrow ear canal or that it may have tumours or growths in the ear. In addition, recurring ear infections often result when the animal has a generalised skin infection. Solving the skin infection will usually eliminate the ear problem.

In cases where a narrowing of the ear canal is present, from a tumour, a long-term infection or a natural deformity, the ear canal remains moist and infections are almost impossible to eliminate. Your pet may need an operation to solve this problem.

If you feel you pet’s ears are causing it problems, don’t delay. Ear infections left untreated can be a very difficult problem.

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Dr Cam Day

Dr Cam Day

Vet Behavioralist

Dr Cam Day is a Veterinarian consulting full-time in pet behaviour in South-East Queensland, Australia.