One of the most common reasons owners bring their dogs into my veterinary clinic is to deal with an ear infection. Diagnosing and properly treating ear infections is one of my most satisfying daily tasks that I do. Let’s take a look at what an ear infection looks like and learn more about why they happen (or keep happening).
What Are The Symptoms Of An Ear Infection?
Most people will notice there’s a problem with their dog’s ear when they are shaking their head incessantly. However, there are so many subtle signs that owners may not be aware of that include:
- Another dog in the house licking the ears of the affected dog
- Tilting the head towards the side of the problem
- Pain when the head or ear area is rubbed
- Scratching at the affected ear; sometimes you won’t see the scratching but you’ll see the aftermath of red scratch lines on the head or neck
- Funky smell from the head of your dog
- Pawing at the ears and then licking the foot that did the pawing
Why Do Dogs Get Ear Infections?
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because of floppy ears. Floppy ears by themselves don’t make a dog get ear infections. There’s more to it than that.
In my experience, there are two main reasons why dogs get ear infections:
- They got water down in the ear and it didn’t get cleaned out. This can happen if a dog goes swimming, gets a bath, or even just rubs his ears on the ground after it rains or snows.
- Allergies. This is more common. The vast majority of allergies are environmental but food allergies can cause an ear infection as well. The ear canal is a dark, warm area that normally contains a small amount of microorganisms living happily without causing any issues. When the body reacts to an allergy, wax glands inside the ear canal will produce more wax and that increased moisture in the ear is a perfect place for those once docile microorganisms to multiply.
I have families of Basset Hounds that come to visit me at my clinic but its rarely for ear infections. Based on common beliefs, my Basset Hound patients should be coming to see me all the time for ear issues but they don’t.
How Do Vets Treat Ear Infections?
I’ve likely treated hundreds of ear infections and I’ve developed a routine that works well in most cases.
Here’s what I do:
- Start by establishing if the problem is in both ears or just one – I have to look deep in the canal to the bottom of the ear canal where infections start. Sometimes an owner is convinced it’s just one ear but the exam shows that the second ear is developing one as well.
- Take a sample of the discharge to look at under a microscope. I do this by swabbing a sample onto a microscope slide and then “staining” the slide to highlight any debris. Both bacteria and yeast are visible with a standard microscope.
- Yeast infections are the easier infection to treat in most cases. If the dog’s ear flap (pinna) is lichenified, I make sure the ointment medication is placed on this area as well. If the yeast infection looks really bad or there are other areas of yeast infection on the skin, I will also send home oral medication for this.
- Bacterial infections frequently will have a different look and smell to them. They are also harder to treat in many cases. Oral and topical medicines will be used and a culture of the ear may be needed to identify both the organism and the proper antibiotic to use.
- I also clean the ear at the time of the exam. Further ear cleanings may not be necessary based on the cause and the severity of the ear infection. Your veterinarian should let you know.
- Follow-up exams may be needed to make sure that the infection has totally gone away, especially if ear infections have been an issue in the past.
Why Is My Dog’s Ear Infection Not Going Away?
I can usually narrow a non-responding ear infection down to 3 potential causes:
- The treatment wasn’t done long enough
- Most infections need at least 7 days of medicine but could take as long as a month or more to go away
- Bacterial infections can be very difficult to get rid of, especially if the dog has had chronic issues to the point where the ear has thickened
- There are ear medicines now that are meant to be “one and done” treatments. They can work well in certain circumstances but sometimes more treatment may be needed.
- The treatment wasn’t the right one in the first place
- This most commonly occurs when bacteria is present and wasn’t seen during the first exam or that bacteria was resistant to the original medication prescribed. A culture will likely be needed in this case.
- The treatment wasn’t done properly
- When applying a topical ear medication, always be sure to put the tip of the tube down into the ear as far as it will go. If you’re not sure have your veterinary technician show you how this is done. When a dog shakes its head, centrifugal force will pull the medicine to the outer part of the ear. If it’s not placed deep enough to start with, it will never get where it needs to.
- Is there hair on the inside of the ear as in a poodle or poodle mix? Normally I don’t care about this hair except when I have to treat an ear infection in this type of dog.
I don’t include allergies here as a reason for why ear infections don’t go away. With allergies, the ear infection can be appropriately treated but come back in a month because of the severe allergies of the dog. It’s a predisposing cause, not the reason why the infection isn’t going away.
How Can I Prevent Ear Infections In My Dog?
Controlling allergies will be the top way to prevent ear infections in your dog. Despite this, there will still be dogs that are still somewhat prone to getting 2-4 ear infections a year. So how can you reduce or eliminate these ear infections?
- Clean the ears once a week with a commercial ear cleaning solution. I tell my clients to pick a day of the week and make that ear cleaning day.
- Make sure you put the tip of the bottle into the ear canal and squeeze the solution to get it deep into the ear.
- Rub the base of the ear to mix it around and then go ahead and let your dog shake their head. Shaking the head uses centrifugal force to pull out the fluid from deep in the ear to the outside. You should do this outside or in a room that’s easy for you to clean.
- If your dog goes swimming or gets a bath, make sure you clean the ears afterwards in the above method.
- If your dog still continues to get ear infections, ask your vet for a medicated ear cleaning solution. These have an anti-yeast medication within them that can help to control the population of these organisms that so frequently cause ear infections.