Whining, scratching and head shaking?

Canine chronic ear infections

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“It can be difficult for the casual observer to identify the beginning stages of an ear infection.” -James Hogg, DVM, Oregon Veterinary Services, Merlin

Twice in the last few minutes, Duke has plopped on his haunches and started digging at his ears. It’s a sure sign something is going on, and if it isn’t a case of those fearsome little foxtails, he may well have an ear infection brewing.

Danger signs of infection

It can be difficult for the casual observer to identify the beginning stages of an ear infection, admits Dr. James Hogg with Oregon Veterinary Services in Merlin. All too often, he says, veterinarians don’t get to see these dogs until there is a serious problem.

Ear problems are very common, Hogg says. “I see maybe five to seven cases daily of otitis, which is an inflammation of the ear. Some are acute cases like foxtails or foreign objects in the ear. Others are more chronic, often caused by allergies, with unhealthy tissue that wasn’t recognized early on. Soon you have a bad smell, swollen and red tissue, and a dog that is clearly uncomfortable.”

Both chronic and acute ear conditions can cause frequent head shaking, head tilts and scratching, explains Hogg. “Whenever you see an excessive production of ear wax, which can look black, brownish, yellow or white, it’s time to take your dog to the vet.”

Earache causes

An ear infection, or otitis externa, is an indication that your dog’s body is dealing with an underlying problem, vets say. The most common causes are internal reactions to environmental or food allergies. External causes include ear mites, foreign objects or water that gets trapped in the ear canal. These irritants can cause an overproduction of wax that allows naturally occurring yeast and bacteria to grow out of control. In extreme cases, the ears become so swollen that they may close completely, Hogg says. “That’s a problem that could result in hearing loss, in which case we might have to consider some surgical alternatives.”

Dr. Daphne Carlson with Riverside Park Veterinary Clinic in Grants Pass explains that dogs and cats have ear canals shaped like an L. “This means that anything that goes in the ear canal is very difficult to get out,” she says. “Bacteria and fungi live on the wax buildup within the ear, so anything that causes an overabundance of wax that cannot easily drain from the ear provides a perfect environment for excessive bacterial or yeast growth.”

Carlson says some breeds are genetically more prone to ear problems because of excessive ear hair growth (poodles and schnauzers), have heavy, pendulous ears, (cocker spaniels and hound breeds) or narrow ear canals (Shar-Pei). These conformation factors make it more difficult for air circulation and inhibit normal wax movement up and out of the ear.

Diagnosing otitis

“Our first step is to visually identify which part of the ear is affected and determine whether we can use an otoscope to look deeply into the ear canal under magnification,” Hogg says. “Some dogs need to be sedated for this procedure, which allows us to get a much better look and do a more thorough cleaning.”

Once the ear is open, they look for foreign bodies like foxtails, which are common in the Rogue Valley. But if the ear is tight and inflamed, he says, it is usually an indication of allergies. “We swab both ears and prepare a slide for the microscope, which can identify inflammatory cells, bacteria and/or the presence of yeast. Those are both relatively simple to treat by using antimicrobial medication for bacteria or antifungal for the yeast.”

Allergy treatment for dogs

With canine allergies, Hogg says 80% are flea allergies that cause dermatitis. “Your dog may not even have fleas but may have been exposed to one flea bite, and it’s the protein of the flea saliva that can cause flea allergy dermatitis. That treatment can involve providing flea and tick prevention monthly. Or it may be food allergies or seasonal allergies caused by pollens and other airborne irritants. In most cases we can prevent those with an injectable treatment every four to eight weeks or pills to change the way the immune system reacts to a protein as it is introduced into the body.”

Clean ears are happy ears

For some dogs, just having their ears cleaned is a great help, our experts say. Use a warm washcloth on the outer ear area and periodic hydrotherapy with an over-the-counter ear flush that is specifically meant for dogs. Do not use home remedies like alcohol or peroxide. After the flush, allow the dog to help remove the excess by shaking his head. A mild wax buildup can be removed in this way, they say, but any black, brown or yellow discharge and/or redness or swelling in the ear is a sign that a visit to the vet is in order. They also recommend keeping ears free from excessive hair growth, which can inhibit wax migration and healthy airflow inside the ear.

Carlson offers the following suggestions: “If your pet goes into any areas with foxtails, check them to make sure there aren’t any stuck in the fur, especially around the ears and feet. After going to the river, wipe your pet’s ears with a soft cloth to remove excess water. Manage your pet’s allergies by working with your veterinarian and treat ear mite infections early to prevent a full-blown infection. Keep an eye on your pet’s ears and watch for any signs they may be feeling uncomfortable.”


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How NOT to treat your dog’s ear infections

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Dr. Daphne Carlson of Riverside Park Veterinary Clinic in Grants Pass warns, “We often see owners try to clean the ears with different household products or other home remedies. Sometimes these materials can cause abrasive damage to the ears or dry the skin so much that the ear continues to be itchy and irritated. Putting anything in the ear without checking the eardrum first can cause serious damage.”

Always seek your veterinarian’s advice before attempting to clean or treat your dog’s ears.

  • Do not use cotton swabs, as they are not designed to accommodate the L-shaped structure of a dog’s ear. They can irritate the ear opening and push dirt, wax and debris further into the ear canal.
  • Use over-the-counter products meant specifically for dogs. Never use alcohol or peroxide, which can be highly irritating, or lanolin-based products, which may cause deafness. Mineral oil can trap dirt, bacteria and fungi in the ear.



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