A vet checks out the ear of a dog.

Ear infections in dogs are an extremely common problem year-round. Some breeds, like Cocker spaniels, are predisposed to more chronic ear problems. In fact, “it is estimated that up to 20 percent of the dog population is affected by this disease.”

The following Q & A was conducted with Henry Cerny, DVM, MS of Yankee Hill Veterinary Hospital.

How do you know if your dog has an ear infection?

Common signs include head shaking, rubbing or scratching at the ear(s), an ear odor may be present and in severe cases your pet may have a head tilt.

What causes an ear infection?

In puppies and kittens ear mites are a common cause, while in adult dogs yeast (Malassezia) and bacteria (Staph, Strep, Pseudomonas, Proteus, E. coli) are the most common causes. It is important to know that if your pet has an underlying condition such as seasonal allergies or food allergies that ear infections may be a reoccurring problem.

How is an ear infection diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will examine the affected ear(s) with an otoscope which allows visualization down into the ear canal. This allows your veterinarian to determine the extent of the ear infection and diagnose if the ear drum is ruptured, any foreign bodies, polyps or other abnormalities. A swab is gently placed into the ear canal for cytology (microscopic exam) to determine what organisms (Yeast, bacteria, ear mites, etc) are present.

How is an ear infection treated?

First it is important to remember that ear infections can be very painful and you should never stick a swab down into the ear canal as this can push wax and debris deeper and even rupture the ear drum.

In the majority of ear infections, topical cleaning and treatment is all that is required. In more severe cases oral medications may be prescribed and sometimes surgery is necessary.

Think of the inflamed ear canal as a rash on your arm. You would never think of applying vinegar or alcohol to a rash since it would be painful. The same goes with an inflamed ear and the use of anything irritating should be avoided. Most commercial pet ear cleaners contain acids (acetic acid, boric acid, lactic acid) and SD Alcohol 40 which in a normal healthy ear do not cause discomfort, but in an inflamed ear these products can cause pain.

There are a few products on the market that are gentle and safe to use in an inflamed, infected and painful ear. The best way to clean the ear is to fill the ear canal with the rinse, place a cotton ball against the ear opening and gently massage the ear. The cotton ball will absorb the extra fluid and material so when your pet shakes their head you stay relatively dry.  Make sure the cotton ball is large enough so it cannot go down inside the ear as it may get stuck. Cleaning the ear will allow ointments or drops to contact the affected tissue and work better. Daily cleaning and medicated ointments or drops are used until the ear infection and inflammation are resolved.

Your veterinarian will schedule a recheck typically within 1-2 weeks to make sure the ear infection and inflammation have resolved and to discuss possible long term management or underlying causes such as allergies.

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