Ear Problems and Infections in Dogs

Ear problems are the second most common reason dog owners take their dog to the veterinarian, according to a survey by Veterinary Pet Insurance.

Wet ear canals can predispose a dog to ear infections. When bathing your dog, keep water out of her ears by inserting cotton wadding into the ear canals. Similarly, it is important to dry your dog's ears after she has been swimming. If water gets into an ear, wipe the opening gently with a cotton ball. If you know from prior visits to your veterinarian that your dog's eardrums are intact, you can instill an ear solution that contains a drying agent. Commonly used drying solutions include ClearX, Panodry, and Vet Solutions Swimmers Ear Astringent. A drop of white vinegar will also help prevent “swimmer's ear.”

Foreign material in the ears causes irritation and, later, infection. Grass seeds and awns frequently cling to the hair surrounding the ear openings and then drop into the canals. Because the ear canal has an L shape, foreign bodies can become lodged down in the canal and it can be difficult to thoroughly clean the ear without sedation. To avoid this, always groom under the ear flaps, especially after your dog has been running in tall grass, weeds, and brush.

It is common in professional grooming parlors to pluck hair out of the ear canals. Serum then oozes from the hair pores. The serum makes an excellent medium for bacterial growth. This may be one reason why ear infections are more common among Poodles, Schnauzers, and other breeds that are professionally groomed. It is recommended that you do not allow hair to be plucked from this area unless there is a medical reason to do so. In some cases, the hair forms a wad that obstructs air flow and keeps the ear canals moist; avoiding this would be a valid medical reason to remove the offending hair.

Cleaning the Ears

Routine ear cleaning is not required. A small amount of light brown waxy secretion in the ear canals is normal, and some ear wax is necessary for the health of the ears. However, the insides of the ear flaps should be cleaned whenever there is a accumulation of wax, dirt, or debris. Gently wipe the skin with a cloth that has been dampened with mineral oil, or better yet, with an ear cleansing solution such as Oti-Clens, Epi-Otic, or a similar product. Ear cleaners can be purchased at pet supply stores or through your veterinarian. Do not use alcohol, ether, or other irritating solvents; they can cause intense pain and inflame the tissues.

If there is an excessive accumulation of wax in the ear canals that appears to be the blocking air flow; if the ear appears to be red, inflamed, and moist; or if there is discharge from the ear, take your dog to the veterinarian for treatment. The ears are either infected or likely to become so.

After an initial cleaning at the veterinary clinic, you may be instructed to instill a cleansing solution at home. Apply a few drops of cleaning solution to the canal and massage the base of the ear to loosen wax and debris. Then gently wipe out the ear canal with cotton balls.

Never insert cotton-tipped applicators or swabs down into the ear canals, because this pushes wax and cellular debris further into the ear. This is a common cause of ear infection.

How to Apply Ear Medicines

Ear medicines should be applied only to clean, dry ear canals. Some ear preparations come in tubes with long nozzles; others use medicine droppers. Restrain the dog so that the tip of the applicator does not accidentally tear the wall of the ear canal. Fold the ear flap over the top of the dog's head. Insert the end of the nozzle or medicine dropper into the ear canal only as far as you can see. Squeeze in the amount of ointment or number of drops recommended by your veterinarian.

Most infections involve the part of the ear canal next to the eardrum. It is important that the medicine reach this area. Massage the cartilage at the base of the ear for 20 seconds to disperse the medicine. This makes a squishy sound.

Do not use ear preparations or drying solutions unless you know for sure that the eardrums are intact, as determined by a veterinary exam using an otoscope. If a preparation is inserted into an ear canal with a perforated eardrum, it will enter the middle ear and damage structures essential to hearing.

Ear medications should be instilled once or twice daily, or as directed by your veterinarian. Antibiotics commonly prescribed to treat external ear infections include Panolog (neomycin, nystatin, cortisone), Liquichlor (chloramphenicol), Tresderm (neomycin, thiabendazole, cortisone), and Gentocin Otic (gentamicin). Gentamicin can cause ototoxicity or hearing loss, especially if your dog has a ruptured ear drum. Only use this medication under veterinary guidance.

This article is excerpted from “Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.