Ear Infection: The Number 1 Reason Dogs Visited the Vet in 2011

Ear Infection: The Number 1 Reason Dogs Visited the Vet in 2011

Story at-a-glance -

  • Ear infections are always near the top of the list of conditions that send dogs and their owners to the vet each year.
  • Ear infections are different than simple ear inflammation. The symptoms are the same except there is almost always a gooey discharge when infection is present.
  • There are fungal and bacterial ear infections. The most common fungal agent is yeast. Ear infections can be caused by both pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria.
  • Accurate diagnosis of ear infections is important. An ear culture will identify the type of bacterial organism involved and the best medication to treat it.
  • Preventing ear infections in your dog – even if he’s prone to them – is easier than you may think. It’s about being consistently diligent in cleaning and drying your pet’s ears as often as they need it.

By Dr. Becker

According to Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), in 2011 policyholders spent over $46 million treating the 10 most common conditions in dogs and cats. At the top of the list of doggy disorders, once again, are ear infections.

Top 10 Dog Medical Conditions in 2011

1.  Ear infection 6.  Intestinal upset/diarrhea
2.  Skin allergies 7.  Arthritis
3.  Skin infection 8.  Bladder infection
4.  Non-cancerous skin growth 9.  Bruise or contusion
5.  Upset stomach 10.  Underactive thyroid

Inflammation of the Ear or an Infection?

VPI received over 60,000 claims in 2011 for canine ear infections. The average claim was $98.

It's actually pretty easy to prevent ear infections in your dog, thereby saving him the suffering, and saving yourself a hundred bucks.

Generally there are two causes of ear problems – chronic inflammation, and infection. Untreated inflammation can lead to infection.

If your pet's ears are hot, red, swollen or itchy, but there's little if any discharge, chances are the problem is inflammation. If one or more of those symptoms are present with obvious discharge, it's usually indicative of an infection.

Fungal Ear Infections

Ear infections are either bacterial or fungal.

The most common cause of fungal ear infections in dogs is yeast. Yeast is constantly present on the bodies of animals, but when the immune system isn't in prime condition, yeast can overgrow and cause an infection.

Most dogs prone to yeast infections need to have their ears cleaned and dried frequently. If the problem seems chronic or there's a persistent infection that just won't go away, there's very likely an underlying immunological cause which must be identified and resolved.

Bacterial Infections

More common than fungal infections of the ear are bacterial infections. Bacteria are classified as either pathogenic or nonpathogenic.

Pathogenic bacteria are abnormal inhabitants of your pet's body, picked up from an outside source, for example, contaminated pond water.

Non-pathogenic bacteria are typically staph bacteria that are normal inhabitants of your dog's body. Occasionally these bacteria can overgrow and take over the ear canal. Any sort of normal, helpful bacteria can grow out of control and cause an infection in a pet with a compromised immune system.

Diagnosing Ear Infections

Your vet can diagnose a yeast infection with cytology, or looking at a smear of the ear debris under a microscope.

There are too many types of bacteria to be able to diagnose what bacterial infection is occurring via cytology. The only way to accurately diagnose a bacterial infection is with an ear culture. Your vet swabs your pet's ear and sends the contents to a lab. The lab determines what type of organism is growing and what medication will most effectively treat it.

For pets with a one-time ear infection, many vets will prescribe medication without culturing. If the medication resolves the infection, that's fine. However, if the infection doesn't resolve, recurs, or becomes chronic, you need to insist on an ear culture to identify the exact organism involved and the appropriate treatment.

It's very important to finish the medication your vet prescribes, even if your dog's ear infection seems to clear before the medication is gone. Stopping the medication early can lead to regrowth of resistant organisms, creating a much more serious problem for your pet.

Also, if your pet is being treated for an ear infection, it's really important to keep the ears clean and free of all sticky, gooey debris so the topical medication you put into the ears can reach the infected tissue. Otherwise, you're just adding to a puddle of warm, sticky ear goo the infection will continue to thrive in.

Preventing Ear Infections is Easier than You Think

Some dogs are much more prone to ear infections than others. If your dog has a tendency to have problems with her ears, I recommend checking them daily or every other day at a minimum.

Wax or other debris left in your dog's ear canal is the foundation for infection.

The rule is to clean your pet's ears when they're dirty. If there's lots of wax accumulating every day, they need to be cleaned every day. If your dog's ears don't produce much wax or collect much crud, you can be less vigilant and clean them less often.

If you think your pet might already have an ear infection, it's important to have your vet check him out before you begin a cleaning regimen. Infections often lead to ruptured eardrums, in which case special cleaners and medications will be required.

For taking care of healthy canine ears, my favorite cleaning agents include:

  • 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 (for dogs only – never cats)

Notice alcohol isn't on the list. That's because it can cause burning and irritation, especially if there's inflammation.

Ear Cleaning Methods

Use cotton balls only to clean the inside of the ear canal. You can use cotton swabs to clean the outer area of the ear, but never inside the canal, as they can damage your dog's eardrums.

The best method for cleaning most dogs' ears is to saturate a cotton ball with cleaning solution and swab out the inside of the ear. Use as many cotton balls as necessary until when you swab, there's no longer any residue on the cotton ball.

Depending on your dog's ears, this could take one cotton ball or a dozen – it just depends how much gunk has collected inside the ear canal.

Another method for cleaning your dog's ears is to squirt a small amount of solution directly into the ear, then follow with cotton balls to wick out the liquid and accumulated gunk. However, this method isn't a favorite with most dogs. They tend to shake their heads wildly, flinging ear cleaning solution all over you and the surrounding area.

Cleaning your dog's ears isn't difficult – you just have to remember to do it consistently (as often as your individual dog requires it). Just a few minutes spent cleaning and drying your pet's ears as necessary will make a huge difference in the frequency and severity of ear infections – especially in dogs who are prone to them. 

If you're interested in seeing me demonstrate ear cleaning on my own dog, Rosco, you can view the video and read the step-by-step instructions here.

+ Sources and References