Taking care of your pet’s ears is easier than you might think. A few simple steps will help you prevent otitis externa, which is simply the medical term for inflammation of the outer ear.
There are two reasons for your pet’s ear canal problems: chronic inflammation and infection. Inflammation, if left untreated, often leads to infection.
How can you tell if your dog or cat has ear inflammation or infection?
If your pet has hot, red, swollen or itchy ears without a lot of discharge, he most likely has inflammation, whereas if those symptoms are present with significant discharge, he probably has an infection.
There are three main reasons for ear inflammation:
The most common reason for inflammation is allergies. Allergic responses to foods or agents in the environment cause inflammation throughout your pet’s body—eye/nose/throat inflammation, skin inflammation, bowel inflammation--just about any body system can be affected, including ears.
Allergies are quite common in dogs and cats. If your pet has ear inflammation, it could be he’s allergic to something in his environment or his food. Dogs with this condition will sometimes run their heads along furniture trying to relieve these miserable symptoms, scratch their ears incessantly, or shake their heads more frequently If your pet is exhibiting any of these symptoms you should examine his ears for the telltale signs of redness and swelling.
The second reason for inflammation in your pet’s ear is moisture, also known as “swimmer’s ear.” This often occurs in the summer when dogs enjoy being outside, playing in lakes, ponds and pools where they get water in their ear canals. If your pet enjoys being in water, this additional source of moisture, in combination with his warm body temperature provides the perfect environment for inflammation and/or infection to develop, unless you take steps to dry out his ear canals.
Even dogs that don’t swim, but live in high humidity areas, are susceptible to these ear conditions, just from the ambient moisture in the air. Other less obvious sources of moisture in your dog’s ears are playing in the rain or snow.
Similarly, when dogs go to the groomer, they are susceptible to getting water in their ears at bath time. This is another common cause of ear inflammation.
The most important thing to remember in preventing ear moisture issues is to keep your pet’s ears dry, clean and free of debris. In fact, the third major reason for ear problems is the buildup of wax.
Wax is normal in mammalian ears, but dogs and cats have varying amounts of it, just as humans do. Some dogs need their ears cleaned of wax daily. Others never have a buildup. Certain breeds produce more wax than others, such as Labradors and retrievers who are, by nature, swimmers.
If you have one of these breeds, you should get your pet accustomed to having his ears cleaned early on--from the time he is a puppy. Some breeds, such as bulldogs, cocker spaniels and poodles, can also produce an abundance of wax that needs attention daily.
It is important to determine how often your pet needs his ears cleaned so you can prevent this waxy buildup, which could lead to inflammation or infection. The only way to know is through observation.
Kitties are not immune from wax buildup. You should regularly check your cat’s ears for inflammation, as well as wax buildup. Some cats have dry ear canals that never need cleaning, and others should be cleaned regularly.
Outer Ear Infection
There are two types of organisms that infect the outer, or external ear: bacteria and fungi.
The primary fungal culprit is yeast. Yeast are opportunistic pathogens, meaning they are present on the bodies of humans, dogs and cats all the time. It is only when the animal’s health is out of check that the yeast overgrows, causing an infection. So, if the immune system is functioning properly, yeast is not ordinarily a problem.
If your dog is having chronic yeast infections, he probably has an overly warm, moist ear environment that you need to remedy. If you have been keeping your dog’s ears clean and dry and he still has chronic yeast infections, or an infection that just won’t go away, you need to look for an underlying immunological reason this is happening.
He could have an endocrine (glandular) problem, such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease, or even some sort of immunosuppressive problem.
The most common cause of ear problems in dogs is bacterial infections. Veterinarians classify bacteria into 2 groups: pathogenic and nonpathogenic.
- Pathogenic bacteria are not normal inhabitants of your pet’s body. They are bacteria your dog could catch from, say, contaminated pond water. That is, they are not normally present on the animal. The dog goes splashing through a pond, water splashes into his ear, and then an infection results.
- Nonpathogenic bacteria are the dog’s normal bacteria (typically staph species) that start to take over the ear canal, growing out of control. Dogs have a normal, healthy layer of good bacteria all over their bodies, which prevent pathogenic bacteria from taking hold, just as you and I are covered with normally helpful bacteria that can cause an infection if our immune system becomes compromised.
How do you know which type of bacterial infection your pet has?
You don’t. The only way to find out is with an ear culture.
An ear culture is a lab test where your veterinarian swabs your pet’s ear and sends the sample in to a lab, which actually determines what organism is growing in there and what medication will treat it.
If your pet has a one-time ear infection and your vet treats it with a medication without culturing, and it gets better, that is fine. But if it comes back, or if the infection becomes chronic, then you really need to insist on an ear culture.
It is very important to finish the medication, even if your pet seems better. Failing to finish the full medication regimen can lead to regrowth of resistant organisms, a much more serious problem.
Any time your pet is being treated for an infection, it is important to properly clean the ears and remove all sticky debris so the medication can reach the infected tissue. Ointment that builds up in the ear canal is nothing more than warm, sticky “goo” for the infection to grow in.
Ear Cleaning 101
I am not a big fan of using alcohol to clean the ears because it can cause burning and irritation to already inflamed tissues. However, there are many easy to obtain preparations that are appropriate.
My favorite cleaning agents are:
- Witch hazel
- Organic apple cider vinegar and purified water, mixed equal parts
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Green tea infusion (using tea that has been cooled, of course)
- Tea tree oil greatly diluted in purified water (but NOT for kitties)
You can use a cotton swab to clean the outside ear area, but never use them inside the ear canal. Use cotton balls instead, since they cannot be inserted too far into the ear. Cotton swabs can damage to your pets eardrums, whereas cotton balls don’t.
If you’ve never cleaned your pets ears before, ask your vet for a quick “how to” lesson next time you’re in for a visit. If your pet has recurrent infections or significant inflammation (if the ears are very painful when touched) it’s important your vet examines the canal before you begin a cleaning regimen. Some dogs may have ruptured ear drums, and special cleaners and medications are required for these pets.
The best way to clean the ear canal is to saturate the cotton ball with your cleaning solution and repeatedly swab out the inside of the ear, until you see no residue on the cotton ball. This may take one swipe or dozens—it completely depends on how much buildup is present in your pet’s ears. You might need to do this daily, weekly, monthly, or maybe even never, if you’re lucky.
Alternately, you can use a small squirt bottle to flush the animal’s ear, then use a cotton ball to wick out the solution. The problem with this method is, usually it causes the animal to shake his head, flinging the solution all over you, your clothing and your bathroom wall. So make sure you are not attempting this while dressed in your favorite duds.
As you can see, taking care of your pet’s ears isn’t as difficult as you might have thought! Just a few simple steps to keep his ears clean and dry will go far in preventing many of the outer ear conditions that most commonly afflict our precious companions.