Ear Problems Leading to Otitis in Dogs

Ear problems are one of the most common reasons that dog owners seek veterinary care. Inflammation or infection of the ear, called otitis, can be a particularly frustrating problem for you and a painful ordeal for your dog.

Why are ear problems so common in dogs?
To understand why you’ve never had an ear infection and yet your dog suffers constantly with one episode after another, just look at his ears. Does he have cute, floppy ear flaps that hang down and cover the openings to his ear canals? They may make him look adorable, but they also obstruct air flow and contribute to the creation of a cozy, warm, moist environment underneath. What about hair? Try to look down inside the ear canal. Do you see a nice, smooth, accessible tunnel or an opening that is obliterated by a mass of fuzzy hairs that can trap even more moisture and debris?

While you’re looking into his ear canal, what else do you notice? When your doctor looks into your ear, the view is straight in horizontally through the canal to the ear drum. Not so for a dog. From the visible opening your dog’s ear canal heads straight down vertically and then makes a right-angle turn before finally proceeding horizontally to reach the eardrum. The shape of the canal means even less air flow, more trapped moisture and a more difficult path for anything (wax, debris, foreign objects or infectious agents) to work up and out of the canal. It also means anything good (like cleansers and medications) have a more difficult path to travel.

How does the environment affect ear problems in dogs?
We’ve already touched on why some dogs (like those with floppy ears or hairy ears) might be more prone to ear problems, but why don’t all Basset Hounds have bad ears and why do some German Shepherds battle chronic ear infections? Sometimes, it has to do with environment—living in a warm, wet environment or swimming a lot causes inflammation and moisture in the canals.

What else may cause ear problems in dogs?
Allergies in dogs often manifest as red, itchy, inflamed ears that become infected. In fact, sometimes, ear problems are the only symptom you will see in an allergic dog. The same is true for dogs that have underactive thyroid glands; dogs that have oily hair coats or excessive dandruff can have those same problems in the lining of their ear canals—thus causing irritation and providing safe harbor for infectious agents to live happily and to reproduce beyond what would be normal.

How do you know if your dog has an ear problem?
Sometimes it will be, quite literally, painfully obvious. Any of the following may be signs of an ear issue:

  • Your dog is crying or pawing at his ear or cheek
  • Your dog is shaking or tilting his head
  • You see or smell purulent (pus discharge)
  • You see infectious discharge
  • Your dog’s ear flap or canal is red and inflamed

Other times your dog will just be depressed and you won’t see anything at all on the surface to alert you of an issue with his ear. I have seen happy dogs with the worst-looking ear infections imaginable, and I have seen minor ear infections that caused dogs to become anorexic and listless. It just depends on the dog. If your dog isn’t acting like his normal self, see your veterinarian.

How do you treat canine ear problems?
That will depend on several factors:

  • The type of problem (infectious, inflammatory, parasitic and/or foreign object)
  • The chronicity (is this a first time issue or a persistent/recurrent one?)
  • Are underlying, more systemic issues suspected (allergies, thyroid, etc.)?

Your veterinarian will take different diagnostic steps depending on the answers to these questions.

How will my dog be examined for ear problems?
After an external examination of the ear flap and external canal, a nice, small cotton swab can be gently inserted into the horizontal portion of the canal to check debris. This can also be a way to gauge your dog’s comfort or discomfort level. If a dog won’t tolerate the least invasive little cotton swab then he is not going to be keen on the insertion of the larger otoscopic cone needed to evaluate deep down into the canal and around that bend to see the ear drum. That is why some dogs, with really painful ears, need mild sedation just to accomplish a good, thorough examination. There may also be so much debris or fluid in the canal that careful irrigation has to be performed to clean it out in order to visualize the ear drum, check for foreign bodies, check for ticks or mites, and to prepare the canal for effective medical treatment. Remember, we mentioned that the anatomy of the canal makes it harder to get debris out and to get medication in—a thorough cleaning to start can make all the difference.

A quick check of any discharge can be performed under the microscope to identify bacteria and/or yeast. Then appropriate medications can be prescribed topically and/or orally. Just be sure that your veterinary staff instructs you on the proper techniques for cleaning and medicating your dog’s ears and that you keep any recheck appointments so that the full extent of the ear canal can be visualized again to verify complete cure before you quit treatments.

If the problem does not resolve or if it recurs, your veterinarian may need to perform cultures to identify more effective medications and may recommend further testing for those potential predisposing problems mentioned above. Most importantly, realize that even though it seems like an ear infection should be any easy thing to cure in dogs that is not always the case. You and your veterinarian really need to work as a team for a successful outcome.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

Does swimming cause ear infections?

Although swimming can contribute to a dog developing an ear infection, there must be other abnormalities present to allow infection to develop. Studies have been done where pure bacterial culture was literally poured into the ear canals of normal dogs. These normal dogs did not develop ear infections! Thus, if your dog develops otitis after swimming, you should discuss underlying causes and treatment options with your veterinarian.

Ear Infections and Otitis Externa in Dogs

, DVM, DACVD, Department of Medical Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The tubular portion of the outer ear that carries sound to the eardrum is called the ear canal. The most common disorder of the ear canal in dogs is called otitis externa. This condition occurs when the layer of cells that line the external ear canal becomes inflamed. Signs include headshaking, odor, redness of the skin, swelling, scratching, increased discharge, and scaly skin. The ear canal may be painful or itchy depending on the cause or duration of the condition. One or both ears can be affected, and signs can be sudden or longterm. Otitis externa can be caused by many different factors. Some of these factors (such as parasites, foreign objects, and allergies) appear to directly cause the inflammation, while others (such as certain bacteria, yeasts, or a middle ear infection) perpetuate the condition. To complicate things further, the shape or form of the pinnae or ear canals can predispose dogs to developing otitis externa. Identifying these factors is key to successful control of the inflammation. Unless all the causes are identified and treated, the condition may return. Based on these factors, your veterinarian can determine whether the condition can be cured or if longterm or lifelong treatments are necessary.

Otitis externa, the most common ear disease in dogs, can be caused by many factors.

A detailed history and thorough physical and skin examination can provide clues as to the cause of otitis externa. The pinnae and regions near the ear may show evidence of self-trauma (from scratching, for example), redness of skin, and primary and secondary skin abnormalities. Deformities of the pinnae, an abnormal growth of tissue in the canal, and head-shaking suggest longterm ear discomfort.

Your dog may require sedation or anesthesia to allow a thorough examination using an otoscope. This is especially true if the ear is painful, if the canal is obstructed with discharge or widespread inflammatory tissue, or if the animal is uncooperative. An examination using an otoscope will allow identification of foreign objects deep in the ear, impacted debris, low-grade infections with parasites, and ruptured or abnormal eardrums. Tissues for culture (to identify any infection-causing microbes) are usually taken at the same time that the examination of the ear canal using an otoscope is being conducted.

Sometimes a smear taken using a cotton-tipped applicator can provide immediate diagnostic information. The external ear canals of most dogs and cats harbor small numbers of harmless microorganisms. These organisms may cause disease if the environment of the ear changes in a way that allows them to multiply and cause an infection. Microscopic examination of a smear can quickly determine if this type of overgrowth is present.

If your dog has any type of discharge from its ears, it should be examined by a veterinarian. A dark discharge in the canal usually signals the presence of either a yeast infection or a parasite such as ear mites, but may also be seen with a bacterial or mixed infection. Your veterinarian will examine the discharge for eggs, larvae, or adults of ear mites.

Additional tests are sometimes needed to identify the factors causing the inflammation. Allergy testing may be recommended. Hair samples for ringworm tests may be warranted. Biopsies from animals with long-term, obstructive, inflammation of the external ear canal in only one ear may reveal whether tumors are present. X-rays may be taken when better visualization of the eardrum is needed, when inflammation of the middle ear is suspected, or when neurologic signs (such as loss of balance) are present.

Ear Infections in Dogs and Cats: Fighting Otitis

Is your dog shaking her head a lot? Does your cat have a lot of waxy stuff in his ears? Is there a bad odor coming from your pet’s ears? If so, your pet may have otitis which is the fancy doctor word for inflammation or infection of the ear.

What causes ear infections in pets? Excessive bacteria or yeast inside the ear canals, or parasites such as ear mites living in the ear canal (a common problem in cats) can cause an infection. Occasionally, the canal may become red, inflamed and itchy, but not actually infected.

Why do they get yeast or bacteria in the first place? Bacterial and yeast infections occur when conditions inside the ear are right for excessive growth of these organisms. If a pet has food or environmental allergies, the skin lining the ear can become irritated and broken, allowing for these organisms to take hold and cause an infection. Sometimes, a bit of water in the ear canal that does not evaporate such as after a pet has been swimming or had a bath can lead to an infection as bacteria and yeast like a warm, moist place to grow.

Ear mites are more common in young puppies and kittens and more common in cats in general, especially outdoor cats. These parasites live in the ear canal causing thick dry black debris to build up in the canal. They can be spread from one pet to another by close contact with one another. Mild cases have no symptoms, but some pets are quite itchy.

Sometimes, a polyp or tumor in the ear canal can lead to infection as ear wax and debris can remain trapped in the canal.

An ear infection can cause your pet’s ears to get quite itchy and sore. He may shake his head, paw at his ears or rub them on the floor and his ears may look red, may have yellow or brown waxy debris visible in the ear canal and may have a bad odor. Severe or chronic infections may cause the ear canal to swell shut and may cause hardening of the canal and even hearing loss. Dogs with long ear flaps or lots of hair in or around the ear canals such as poodles and Cocker Spaniels have an increased risk of ear problems.

How is an ear infection diagnosed? Your veterinarian will most likely examine your pet, looking inside the ears. Mites are usually visible with the special magnifying otoscope. A sample of the debris in the pet’s ear may be smeared on a slide, stained and examined under a microscope to look for yeast or bacteria. Once in a while, a sample may be sent to a lab for culture to identify the specific type of bacteria present to aid in treating a more resistant infection.

How is an infection treated? Once the type of infection is known, appropriate topical antibiotics, anti-fungal drugs or mite treatments can be administered. In almost all cases, something needs to be applied to the ear canal. Drugs taken orally often do not penetrate the ear canal well, though severe infections may require topical and oral medications. A rinse or flush to clean and medicate the ear, use of ear drops or creams or even a thick medicated paste applied to the ear canal may be used.

Can you prevent ear infections? Maybe. If your pet has chronic infections, determining if she has an underlying allergy to foods or to things in her environment like trees, pollens and grasses and taking measures to control these allergies may limit or eliminate ear infections. Keeping hair trimmed around the ear canals, periodic cleaning of the ear canals and drying pet’s ears after bathing or swimming can also reduce infections.

Ear infections are not usually too serious, but they can make pets very uncomfortable, so, if your pet has symptoms of an ear infection, consult your vet for proper treatment of otitis.

This blog brought to you by the Patton Veterinary Hospital serving York, Red Lion and the surrounding communities.

Ear hematomas occur as a result of trauma caused by your dog shaking his head excessively or scratching at his ears.   They are also known as auricular hematomas. An ear hematoma is a pocket filled with blood that occurs on the ear, almost always on the flap of the ear.

Normally, a hematoma forms on only one ear but it is possible to see hematomas on both ears. Though hematomas are most often associated with inflammation and/or infection in the ears, this is not always the case. Sometimes, hematomas can form on ears that appear to be perfectly healthy.

Hematomas are unsightly, but when left untreated, many heal themselves. However, when they do it, the ear sometimes reabsorbs the blood unevenly, and the dog is stuck with a "cauliflower ear" for life.

Watch the video: Remedy for Dogs Ear infection that WORKS!

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