dr Hilary Quinn: Ear infections are a common condition in dogs and cats four-legged friends and more


As a general practitioner vet, I see and treat a little of everything.

dog with stomach problems We’ll cover you. Kitty needs dental work? No problem – let’s plan it. Puppy needs her injections? Done and done.

But what do I see more than anything else? skin and ear diseases. In fact, Embrace pet insurance ranks skin infections (dermatitis) as the most common insured event, with ear infections (otitis) just behind as the third most common damage. My own practical experience speaks for itself.

Ear infections are equally distressing for pets and owners. Your dog (and less commonly, your cat) may be awake day and night, shaking their head, scratching and digging loudly at their ear, or even crying when their ear is touched.

This is a painful condition that almost always requires veterinary attention.

What are the signs of an ear infection?

The inside of the ear may be red, swollen, and smelly. There is usually discharge, which can be dark and sticky (as is often the case with a fungal infection) or more yellow/golden to even pus-like (as is often the case with bacterial ear infections).

Sometimes the auricle, pinna, feels hot or even thickened. The ear can be itchy or very painful. Sometimes dogs tilt their heads or hold the infected ear lower.

What causes an ear infection?

It’s important to note that ear infections in dogs and cats are almost always external ear infections. That is, they affect the external ear canal and eardrum (much like swimmer’s ear in humans).

Inflammation of the middle or inner ear, e.g. B. occur in children after an illness, are much rarer in our pets.

There are numerous predisposing factors that can lead to an ear infection. Perhaps the most important factor is allergies – either food or environment.

Allergies compromise the skin’s barrier, and that skin extends into the ear canal itself. Bacteria and yeast that normally live on the skin’s surface—without causing problems—can opportunistically colonize and multiply on the skin and ears. This leads to infection and all of the secondary symptoms mentioned above.

Another common cause is persistently wet or clammy ears. Labs that swim in their backyard pools every day or dogs that are groomed regularly and get water in their ears can develop an infection due to the excess moisture.

The anatomy of the ear canal can also lead to infection. Dogs with pendulous and thickened ears, like Cocker Spaniels, have a higher than normal incidence of ear infections. Some dogs, like bulldogs, have very narrow ear canals, which can increase the likelihood of infection.

Polyps or growths in the ear can also trap moisture or narrow the ear canal. Finally, foreign objects such as foxtails can become lodged in the ear canal and lead to infection.

How is an ear infection treated?

Ear cleaning can be an important part of treatment, especially for yeast infections that result in heavy build-up of wax that needs to be removed. Only use veterinary grade ear cleaners – I do not recommend alcohol, hydrogen peroxide or witch hazel for cleaning your ears as these are harmful to the ear canal.

Your vet will do an ear cytology — that is, look at a swab of ear discharge under a microscope. This confirms whether the infection is yeast or bacterial and therefore informs us which medications to choose for treatment.

Topical medications (“ear drops”) are prescribed that eliminate the infectious organisms. These need to be given once or twice a day, usually for a week or two.

For dogs that cannot tolerate the administration of ear drops at home, your veterinarian may be able to administer a long-acting ear medication at the hospital. This gel or lanolin based product is effective 2-4 weeks after application.

Oral antibiotics are not recommended as first-line treatment for external ear infections. They’re usually only used for middle or inner ear infections or severe antibiotic resistance where topical drops aren’t effective.

In some cases, your vet may prescribe steroids or similar medications (like Apoquel) to treat the itching and swelling. Not only can this help your dog feel better faster, but it can also help the topical medications work better.

Note: Ear infections are not contagious from dog to dog (unless it’s a rare case of ear mites, which usually only occurs in puppies and kittens). So don’t worry about having to keep your pup at home being treated.

How can I prevent an ear infection?

If your dog or cat is prone to ear infections, the best thing you can do is work with your veterinarian to determine the underlying cause. If your vet suspects allergies, consider an elimination diet trial or allergy test to determine if environmental allergies are present.

Keep your dog’s ears clean and dry. Regular ear cleaning can keep mild ear infections at bay in dogs prone to otitis.

Do not use cotton swabs or other small objects to poke the ear canal itself, as the eardrum is fragile and can tear easily. Instead, drop the ear cleaner into the ear canal, gently rub the outer base of the ear, and have your dog shake out the liquid.

Take a cotton ball or soft cloth and gently wipe the crevices of the inner ear.

Examine your pet’s ears regularly to look for changes that could indicate early infection. Sometimes a good ear cleaning or treatment with an over-the-counter antimicrobial like Zymox can help stave off a mild infection.

But if there’s persistent pain, discharge, and signs of inflammation, don’t wait to make an appointment with your vet. Ear infections that have been suppurating for a long time can lead to ear hematomas, irreversible changes in the ear canal and hearing loss.

The next time your pup asks for an ear scratch, do him a favor and flip his ear and look there closely.

Is it clean, free of dirt and odors? Yes? Well!

Sometimes a good old-fashioned ear massage is just what the doctor ordered.

dr Hilary Quinn is a small animal veterinarian in Santa Barbara. She owns and operates Wilder Animal Hospital and shares her own home with three people (her husband and two children) as well as two rowdy dogs, a very quiet kitten, two fish and six chickens. Contact them at [email protected]


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