Ears problems in dogs are estimated to affect up to 20% of our canine friends!
Clinical signs we often see are:
There are lots of causes of ear problems in the dog, but to understand the problems we must first look at the anatomy of the dogs ears.
The external ear of the human (the part of the ear that extends from the eardrum to the outside) is short, straight, and horizontal. This allows any fluid that might accumulate to drain straight out. The dogs ear canal is very different and is shaped almost like the funnel of the old gramophone player – which helps to amplify sound. One part of the canal is vertic al, then it makes a 90 degree turn towards the ear drum (the horizontal canal). This anatomy makes it difficult for fluid in the ear to drain out (because it has to fight gravity and travel upwards through the vertical canal before it can get out) and also difficult to get medication all the way down to the ear drum when treating infections. In addition many dogs have floppy ears eg spaniels, excessively hairy ear canals eg poodles, or narrow ear canals, which causes increased warmth, darkness and a moist environment that bacteria and yeast absolutely love!
Ear infections occur when bacteria and yeast from the skin are able to work their way into a weakened ear canal. The canal can become weakened from excessive moisture eg swimming, ear trauma eg grass seeds or allergies causing inflammation of the ear canal.
These are usually found in young pets as the mite is passed from the mother when feeding her puppies and the saliva causes intense irritation and frantic itching. Inside the ear canal there is a dark crumbly mass full of mites, eggs, dried blood and ear wax. This condition is easily diagnosed by the vet as the mites are visible when looking down the ear canal.
Often one of the first signs of allergies in the dog is inflammation and redness of the ear flap or ear canal. This causes the canal to become swollen and itchy leading to self trauma and often secondary infection due to damage to the lining of the canal allowing bacteria and yeast to invade.
One of the most common we see is barley grasses and seeds. This is especially a problem with dogs with hairy ears eg spaniels as the seeds stick to the fur and then enters the canal.
A vet needs to assess your dog with a suspected ear problem as the causes are numerous. Examination of the dogs ears with a specialised instrument, an otoscope, is imperative to visualise grass seeds, ear mites or tumours, plus it is important to ensure the ear drum is intact. Swabs may need to be taken to check for bacteria or yeast. Your dog also needs to be assessed to check for possible allergies or generalised health problems which may lead to ear problems
Treatment is obviously going to be aimed at the specific cause eg Ears mites are easily treated with ear drops or topical therapies; Foreign bodies eg grass seeds can be removed; allergy therapy needs to be instigated if needed to decrease ear canal inflammation. With ear infections it is initially important to clean the canal and remove wax and debris so we can visualise the ear drum, and treatment drops can then penetrate into the canal. Occasionally, if the ears are really sore, we need to sedate or anaesthetise the dog in order to do this. We generally treat most infections initially with broad spectrum drops to kill yeast and bacteria. Anti-inflammatories are also often needed to decrease inflammation and pain. However if the dog is not responding or has recurrent problems, we will need to take swabs of the ears for culture and check which drugs will target the specific infection. We routinely recheck all ear infections after 2 weeks of treatment to ensure it has cleared up. It is important to use the drops regularly as intermittent use of drops can cause the infection to linger and resistant bugs to grow which are very hard to treat.
Left un-treated not only will your beloved pet remain uncomfortable, but the canal can become more thickened and inflamed, the cartilage lining the canal can become hard and calcified and the ear drum can rupture causing infection in the middle ear and loss of hearing - extensive surgery would then be the only treatment. Regular cleaning with a specific dog ear cleaner which prevents wax build up, and early veterinary intervention when you notice a problem can help to prevent this!