Your dog keeps repeatedly pawing at his head, shaking and scratching. Your sure nothing could possibly be wrong, but then you notice an odd odour emanating from the ears and they are completely covered in gunk! What could the problem be? Sounds like an ear infection. Ear infections are seen commonly in dogs, and can stem from a few different factors. Luckily, treatment is normally pretty straightforward unless cases are chronic or reoccurring. On the down side, like with everything else, there are complication/ health risks associated with having an ear infection. Keep reading for more useful information!
So how did your dog develop an ear infection in the first place? Unlike humans, the anatomy of the dog’s ear canal is quite different. There is a vertical AND horizontal ear canal, whereas humans only have a horizontal ear canal. The “J” shape of the dog’s ear canal can make it extremely difficult for debris to work its way out of the ear canal once present. Debris can include a build up of oils and wax which make it easier for bacteria and fungus to survive within the ear.
Furthermore, many times the body will also produce large amounts of wax in response to irritation; this is why allergies can also play a major role in ear infections. Once the wax is present, it creates a moist atmosphere and therefore the growth of bacteria or fungus begins.
Other reasons animals may develop ear infections may be due to hormonal imbalances, abnormal conformation of the ear, ear mites, hair growth within the ear canal (common in certain dog breeds) and foreign objects which can stay trapped within the ear and lead to irritation.
Treatment for ear infections is usually fairly simple! Once you bring your dog to the vet, they will normally require a professional ear cleaning, followed by a prescription for a topical medication. Sometimes your vet may also decide to take a swab of the affected ear(s) and look at any debris under the microscope. This allows your vet to understand which organism is causing the infection (bacteria, fungus etc…).
In some cases, when there is a severe build up of debris, the ear must be flushed thoroughly by the vet. This allows the veterinarian to get a good view of the ear drum. In this case, the animal must be sedated to ensure their own comfort and safety.
Once the treatment has been completed, it is usually recommended to bring your pet back into the vet clinic to have his or her ears re-examined. This will help the vet to ensure that the ear infection has actually cleared up and that treatment was successful.
In cases where the ear infection hasn’t cleared up or keeps reoccurring once meds have been discontinued, the vet will sometimes recommend a culture. The ear discharge is sent out to a lab to determine the exact organism causing these repeat or stubborn infections; therefore they can be treated with a more specific medication.
On top of a culture, the vet may also recommend further testing. The most common cause for chronic ear issues is allergies. If your animal undergoes specific allergy testing, the allergy can sometimes be controlled enough so that the ears begin to clear up.
If infections are quite severe and cannot be controlled by the above mentioned measures, then the vet might suggest surgery as a last resort. Sometimes the ear canal must be opened surgically to help debris work its way out easier and allow proper ear ventilation.
Other times, and only in very severe cases, the ear canal may be removed. This option is only normally performed if the ear canal becomes so scarred that it is almost completely closed; the animal usually has hearing loss at this point. Once surgery is completed, the patient feels better and has less pain, headaches, discomfort and itching/shaking. For this surgery, referrals to a veterinary specialist are normally needed.
As mentioned above, MOST ear infections are fairly easy to treat, but every ear infection carries a risk. If an animal has an ear infection, it predisposes them to other medical issues. One of those medical complications includes the middle ear infection:
Middle Ear Infection: These infections can occur if an already present infection reaches the middle ear. Middle ear infections may present themselves with certain complications, such as: head tilting, back and forth eye movements, lack of balance/coordination, and sometimes facial paralysis due to nerve damage.
If you see your dog shaking his head, pawing at the ears, or you happen to smell something a little off, chances are he may have an ear infection. Most ear infections are fairly easy to treat, although sometimes they can be stubborn or reoccurring. The majority of these stubborn cases are due to allergies. Unfortunately when ear infections are chronic and no longer respond to medical treatment, surgery may be a last resort option. If you notice any of the above symptoms, please call us at Lansdowne Animal Hospital to get more advice on what to do, your pet may need his or her ears examined by one of our vets.