Dogs often are plagued by chronic ear infections, which can lead to serious complications, including hearing loss and neurologic issues. The veterinarians in south Austin at  Oliver Animal Hospital want to help by answering frequently asked questions about chronic ear infections in dogs in case your four-legged friend is affected.

Question: Why is my dog prone to ear infections?

Answer: Ear infections are a common problem for dogs, and some pets seem to be especially prone to them. Several factors contribute to the problem:

  • Ear structure — Whereas a human’s ear canal runs straight from the ear opening to the inside, a dog’s ear canal has both a vertical and a horizontal component, creating a “L” shape. This means material inside the ear can easily become stuck and accumulate, providing food material for pathogens.
  • Breed — Certain dog breeds are at higher risk for ear infections. These include breeds that have long floppy ears, such as the basset hound and beagle; those that have narrowed ear canals, such as the Shar-pei; and those that are prone to hair growth deep inside their ear canal, such as golden retrievers and labradoodles.
  • Lifestyle — Water-loving dogs are at higher risk for ear infections because water can become trapped inside the ear canal and promote bacterial growth and yeast proliferation.

Q: What causes ear infections in my dog?

A: Ear infections are most commonly caused by yeast organisms, such as Malassezia pachydermatitis, and bacteria, such as Staphylococcus spp. and Pseudomonas. These organisms are normal flora found in a dog’s ear, but when conditions cause these pathogens to proliferate, infection occurs. Underlying causes are typically responsible for triggering recurrent ear infections. These include:

  • Allergies — Allergies, such as environmental and food allergies, commonly cause recurrent ear infections in dogs. These conditions cause the skin barrier to break down and result in increased wax production in the ear canal. This allows the normal yeast and bacteria living in your dog’s ear canal to overproduce and thrive, causing infection.
  • Hypothyroidism — Multiple body systems are affected in hypothyroid dogs, causing a predisposition to skin and ear infections. 
  • Hyperadrenocorticism — This condition, also known as Cushing’s disease, causes excess circulating cortisol levels, which reduce the body’s ability to fight infection and predispose Cushingoid dogs to infections, including ear infections.

Q: What are ear infections signs in dogs?

A: The outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear can be affected by an ear infection, and signs vary depending on what structures are affected.

  • Outer ear — When the cells that line the external ear canal are affected, the condition is called otitis externa. This is the most common disorder seen in dogs, and signs include head shaking, scratching at the affected ear, discharge, foul odor, redness, swelling, and pain.
  • Middle ear — When the eardrum is penetrated by a foreign object or otitis externa spreads to the middle ear structures, the condition is called otitis media. Nerves that innervate the face and eye travel through the middle ear, so in addition to otitis externa signs, facial nerve paralysis, pupil constriction, eyelid drooping, and third eyelid protrusion can occur.
  • Inner ear — When otitis media spreads to the inner ear structures, the condition is called otitis interna, and signs include head tilt, lack of coordination, and nystagmus (i.e., involuntary rhythmic eye movements from side to side).

Q: How are ear infections diagnosed and treated in dogs?

A: Treatment depends on the infection’s severity and chronicity. Levels include:

  • Simple ear infections — Many ear infections can be resolved by a professional ear cleaning and a course of ear drops. An ear swab may be taken to determine the best medication for your pet, and your dog may be sedated for the ear exam and flush if their ear is extremely painful. They will also likely need a recheck once their treatment is finished to ensure the infection has cleared.
  • Chronic ear infections — If your dog’s ear infection doesn’t resolve or recurs frequently, further diagnostics may be needed to determine the underlying cause. Once endocrine disorders are ruled out, allergy testing or a food elimination diet may be recommended to determine if an allergy is causing their problem. 
  • Advanced ear infections — Chronic, long-term inflammation can cause scarring and tissue proliferation inside the ear canal. This can make resolving the problem difficult. Surgery may be necessary to prevent further damage. Procedures include a lateral ear resection to remove the ear canal’s vertical portion and an ear canal ablation to remove and seal the ear canal.

Q: How are ear infections prevented in dogs?

A: Not all ear infections can be prevented, but steps you can take to decrease your dog’s risk include:

  • Dry your dog’s ears — Dry your dog’s ears thoroughly after bathing or swimming.
  • Clean your dog’s ears regularly — Remove excess debris to help prevent ear infections. To clean your dog’s ears, follow these steps:
    • Use appropriate supplies — Don’t use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol since these can be irritating to your dog’s ears. Use sterile saline solution or a product recommended by the veterinarians in south Austin. In addition, avoid cotton tip applicators and synthetic cotton balls. Real cotton balls are best.
    • Fill the ear canal — Use the cleaning solution to fill your dog’s ear canal, and gently massage their ear.
    • Insert the cotton — Insert the cotton ball deep into the ear canal, and gently massage the ear again. 
    • Repeat — Continue to use the cotton until the material comes away clean. 
  • Monitor your dog’s ears — Monitor your dog’s ears closely so you can catch an infection in the early stages when it is easier to treat and manage.

Ear infections can be problematic, but discovering the underlying cause can help you manage these conditions. If your dog has a painful ear, contact Oliver Animal Hospital so we can determine a treatment strategy to relieve their suffering.