Painful, itchy ears are no fun for our pets. Outer ear infections—otitis externa—frequently occur in dogs. Left untreated or poorly managed, otitis externa can spread to the middle ear (otitis media) and inner ear (otitis interna) and lead to permanent hearing loss. Thus, it’s wise for responsible pet parents like yourself to learn about ear infections in dogs.
Otitis externa can occur in one or both ears and is caused by factors that cause inflammation in the ear (e.g., parasites, foreign objects) or worsen the inflammation (e.g., bacteria, yeast). Breeds with long droopy ears, such as Cocker Spaniels, and dogs who have allergies or love to swim are prone to otitis externa.
Constant ear scratching is a telltale sign of otitis externa in dogs. Other signs include:
- Foul ear odor
- Head shaking
- Ear crusts and scabs
- Yellow or brown ear discharge
If otitis externa has gone deeper into the ear, you may notice balance and hearing loss.
To diagnose otitis externa, your veterinarian will first visually check your dog’s ears for inflammation and possible eardrum rupture; sedation will be necessary if your dog’s ears are painful. An ear swab will allow your vet to look for microorganisms like bacteria. Ear X-rays are warranted if your dog has balance or hearing loss.
Dogs with chronic otitis externa often have an underlying condition, like allergies or hypothyroidism. Allergy testing and bloodwork can help identify the underlying cause.
Treating otitis externa involves cleaning and treating the ear and managing any underlying diseases. Clean the ear before administering medication. Here are some ear cleaning instructions:
- Use the ear cleaning solution that your veterinarian prescribed.
- Gently lift your dog’s ear and drop in the prescribed amount of ear cleaning solution.
- Place a cotton ball in the ear canal opening and gently massage the base of the ear with your thumb and index finger.
- Clean the ear until the cotton ball comes out relatively clean.
- Let the ear dry for at least 10 minutes before administering the medication.
The medication will depend on the type of infection (e.g., bacterial). An anti-inflammatory is often included to relieve pain and inflammation.
Dogs with painful ears will need to be sedated or anesthetized for treatment. Chronic otitis externa, which can spread deeper into the ear and narrow the ear canal, may require surgical treatment.
Treatment must continue until all infection is gone, which can take at least several weeks and involve periodic rechecks. Treatment for chronic otitis externa may be lifelong.
You certainly don’t want your dog getting repeat ear infections. Here are some prevention strategies:
- Clean your dog’s ears as regularly as your veterinarian recommends.
- Keep your dog’s ears dry. Use drying agents if your dog swims a lot and prevent water from getting in your dog’s ears during a bath. This can help prevent swimmers ear in dogs.
- Pluck or clip hair that’s in and around the ear canal to keep the ears well ventilated. Consult with your veterinarian before doing this.
- Manage underlying health conditions.
- Painful, itchy ears can keep a dog from living a full and happy life. Be proactive about caring for your dog’s ears and seek veterinary treatment if you think your dog has an ear infection.
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