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Ear Problems in Dogs and How to Treat Them

Ron Hines DVM PhD 4/17/03

One of the most frequent problems veterinarians see in their practices are inflammations and infections of the ear. The Latin term for this is otitis. There are three reasons for this and all three are due to breeding over the years that dogs have become manís best friend.

The first was the advent of dogs with floppy ears. Floppy ears trap moisture and air within the ear canal; making it an ideal place for bacteria and yeast to grow. This results in otitis. I tend to think of Cocker Spaniels, Setters, Basset hounds, Beagles and, Shar Peis, when I think of this condition.

The second most common cause of ear problems is the high prevalence of inherited skin allergies in dogs. When we become allergic to things in our environment we suffer from nasal, and lung congestion as the body produces histamines.

In dogs, however, allergies manifest themselves as skin itching and irritation. The ear is lined with very sensitive waxy skin, which also becomes itchy in allergic dogs. These dogs scratch and rub at their ears causing inflammation and the release of exudates that grow bacteria and molds. This also results in otitis.

Labrador retrievers, Setters, Cocker Spaniels, West Highland Terriers, Schnauzers and Wheaten Terriers come to mind when I think of this condition. Flea infestation will mimic generalized allergies in all breeds and also leads to otitis.

The third most common cause of ear problems in specific breeds is the presence of thick hair within the ear canal. For reasons unknown to me, certain breeds have been developed that have luxuriant hair growth within their ear canals.

This hair traps debris, moisture and earwax within the ear canals, which again sets up condition for bacterial and fungal (yeast) growth. Breeds associated with this problem include Poodles, Maltese, Pekingese, Spaniels, Schnauzers, Lhasa Apsos and Shih Tzus.

In Florida, I see quite a few ear problems in large breed dogs that are associated with swimming in swimming pools and stagnant fresh water.

I also see ear problems associated with abnormal ear wax formation. In these dogs, the normally straw colored oily wax is replaced with a cheesy coagulated material that builds up within the ear canal. I believe this is a genetic problem. Obesity can also limit the amount of air circulation within the ear canal.

Whatever the cause of your dogs ear problems, there are some general guidelines that apply to all. The first is to keep the problem in perspective. It is bothersome to your dog and you, but it can be cured or controlled. The first thing to do is to attempt to eliminate the cause. If fleas are present, use one of the modern methods of flea control such as Advantage or Frontline.

If other allergies are suspected, try a hypoallergenic diet available through your veterinarian. Use it for a minimum of 90 days. Hair growing within the ear canals can be plucked out with forceps. This is not as painful to the dog as you might think.

A caring veterinarian or groomer should be able to supply you with a pair of hemostats (forceps) and instruct you in using them to remove the offending hair. Conditions within the ear can be change to discourage the growth of bacteria and yeast. Most of these make the ear canal more acid.

Yeast and bacteria do not grow well in an acidic medium. I like a recipe for ear washes that combines propylene glycol, boric and salicylic acid. These are available in 8 and 16-ounce containers from your veterinarian.

The ear canal should be filled with this liquid and then vigorously massaged. When you finish, allow the dog to shake his head rigorously to sling out the wax and debris. Often, this treatment is sufficient to cure the dog or keep the problem under control. Remember that dogs that have had an incident of ear problems are quite at risk of having them again. You may want to continue weekly applications of these otic solutions indefinitely.

Often, your veterinarian will send you home with eardrops or a tube of ear ointment. These ointments contain antibiotics to kill bacteria, antifungal compounds to kill yeast and corticosteroid to decrease inflammation and itching.

All these medications bring fast relief. However, with continued use, new, resistant bacteria emerge. I never prescribe the same antibiotics twice in a row - I alternate these products to reduce the incidence of resistance. Emerging resistance is why, whenever possible, I use ear washes rather than ear ointments and drops.

People are in intimate contact with their pets and several of my clients have developed infections of resistant bacteria that I attribute to pets over treated with antibiotics.

If and when medical treatment is not enough, there are two surgical procedures, which are very successful in curing ear problems. If the middle and inner ears are still intact, the ear canal can be surgically shortened and bent downward to facilitate good drainage.

This procedure is called a Zep Otoplasty or just Otoplasty. If the middle and/or inner ear is already involved a more radical surgery called ear canal ablation is quite successful in bringing permanent relief to your dog. The quality of life after these procedures is very good and I do them frequently in my practice.