Ear infections are very common in dogs. Typical symptoms include but are not limited to head shaking, scratching, swelling or closure of the ear canal, discharge, odor, inflammation at the ear flap, and formation of a hematoma or fluid filling in between the two layers of the ear flap.
Many different things can trigger ear infections. Allergies are a common predisposing issue. The lining of the ear canal is just an extension of the skin. So anything that causes skin inflammation can result in an ear infection. Certain activities such as swimming can predispose a patient to ear maladies.
Water in the ear canal, an already dark and warm environment, can allow yeast and/or other pathogens to flourish. Many breeds of dogs have ear conformations that predispose them to problems. Patients with long floppy ears are more prone to issues because their ear canals are not well ventilated, and can easily trap moisture. Hairs growing within the ear can also collect dirt, wax, and moisture and act as a contributing factor for infection.
Ear cleaners are now more tailored to specific ear problems. Malasezzia or yeast is a common ear malady. Prescription ear cleaners can help to more specifically target this organism and prevent its reoccurrence. Many cleaners can help to balance the pH within the ear to prevent the growth of bacteria and yeast. Drying agents also help to prevent growth of several pathogens. Ear cleaning plays a pivotal role in resolving ear maladies. In advanced cases, your veterinarian may want to clean your dog’s ear under sedation.
Medication can be compounded to a specific patient's malady and can be given in a time-released formulation. This means that a single treatment can be given while at the veterinary clinic that lasts for two weeks. This is especially beneficial for patients with ear therapy administration challenges.
Diagnostics can help with identifying the underlying cause of an ear infection. Cytology can help in evaluating for ear mites, fungus, and bacteria in the form of rods or cocci. An ear culture can help to indicate the causative pathogen(s). This can be very beneficial and important for patients that don't respond well to treatment or have unusual underlying organisms. Scoping can aid with finding foreign bodies such as foxtails, or evaluating for strictures, cysts, and masses.
Cold laser therapy can help to decrease inflammation and pain, as well as aid in tissue repair. This treatment not only helps to speed healing but it can also assist in preventing reoccurrence of ear infections and can potentially help to avoid the need for ear surgery. Since incorporating cold laser into our practice, I have had several patients with ear canals so inflamed that an ear cone couldn’t be inserted. After 1-3 laser treatments the canal was open. These are dogs that in the past would not improve enough with steroids or other anti-inflammatory medications, and might have required surgery to open the ear canal.
For some canines with chronic ear problems, care strategies are aimed more at reducing or controlling symptoms as opposed to eliminating the problem. Routine ear cleaning to remove debris and allergens is an important part of this. This also allows for earlier detection of flare-ups. Antihistamines help by making the body less reactive to pollens and other allergens. Avoiding water in the ear canal, or the use of drying agents is also beneficial. Oral medications such as antibiotics or anti-inflammatory can also be important. Fish oil also can aid in reducing inflammation. Hypoallergenic diets or allergy immunotherapy can also be helpful.
If left untreated, ear infections can become very serious. Ear hematomas, or fluid pockets can form in between the two layers of the earflap. An infection can pass from the ear canal across the eardrum to the middle ear. When this occurs, hearing and balance can be affected, and can result in permanent damage. Your veterinarian plays a critical role in helping to resolve and prevent ear infections for your canine companion. Early treatment leads to less pain and a quicker return to normal activity for your pet.