Your dog's ears are critical to his daily routine. Of course, they're an important source of auditory information, but they also help maintain normal body temperature by radiating excess body heat. When a dog's ears become clogged with wax or discharge, they function poorly and become uncomfortable and often smelly. The good news is that most ear problems can be managed, and sometimes even cured, at home using commercially available products.
What to Look For
A quick examination of the ear flap and the auditory canal it protects will give you most of the information you need. Start by observing the external ear flap, or pinna, for abnormalities such as puncture wounds, hair loss, and irritations. Next, gently lift the flap up, flattening it against the top of your dog's skull to expose the ear canal beneath. This will give you a clear look at the inside of your dog's ear flap and into the entry to your dog's vertical ear canal.
If you need to get a sample of the discharge in your dog's ear, get a cotton swab. Using your nondominant hand, hook your dog's collar with your pinky and ring finger. Grab the tip of the flapped-over ear between your nondominant thumb and index finger. Now use your dominant hand to place the cotton swab in the entry of your dog's ear canal, using a gentle twirling motion. Don't go in further than half an inch, then slowly withdraw the swab while lightly swiping the sides of the canal.
What to Do
The following questions will help you identify the type of problem you are dealing with and, in turn, dictate the type of treatment you need to begin:
Did you see any wounds, hair loss, or irritation to the ear flap? If so, refer to the chapters directed at these specific issues.
What does the discharge look like? Normal ear wax may vary from slightly yellowish to tan in color, but with some dirt mixed in may end up looking darker. The normal amount shouldn't be copious. Anything more than 1/8 teaspoon for small dogs, 1/4 teaspoon for medium-sized dogs, and 1/2 teaspoon for large-breed dogs should be considered suspicious. Often, the appearance of the material in the ear canal is enough to suggest a diagnosis:
• Black and granular discharge, like coffee grounds, usually means your dog's ears are infested with ear mites. To treat them at home, purchase an ear flush, an ear mite medication, cotton balls, rubber gloves, and cotton swabs. Take your dog to a safe area where spatter will be easy to clean up afterward. Plan on treating the ears twice daily. Wear clothing that is easily laundered.
Now here's what to do:
- Squirt a generous amount of the ear flush directly into the affected ear canal and quickly (before your dog has a chance to shake the flush out all over you and the room) flap the pinna back down over the ear canal. Massage the ear thoroughly so the debris in the ear canal mixes with the flush you have just put in.
- Lift the pinna and swiftly (you know why) insert one of the cotton balls right down into the ear canal, packing it in until you feel that you might not be able to get it back out. Once again, massage the ear canal thoroughly to get as much of the debris-laden flush as possible to soak into the cotton.
- Lift the pinna and remove the soiled cotton ball. If the cotton ball appears to be too deep within the ear canal, try grasping the ear at its base, right where it meets your dog's head, and pinching it between your fingers, working it out like you would try to get that last bit of toothpaste out of an almost empty tube.
- Repeat the cotton ball maneuver until you are getting no more moisture and little to no more debris from the ear canal.
- Clean the outermost portion of the ear canal and the inside of the pinna with cotton swabs for more precision.
- Apply the recommended amount of medication deep into the ear canal and quickly (ditto) flap the pinna back over and massage the ear thoroughly to distribute the medication evenly throughout the ear canal.
- Use whatever means necessary to distract your dog for a few minutes to allow the medication to get absorbed by the ear canal before he has a chance to shake it out.
Usually the successful treatment of an ear mite infestation requires one daily flush/cleansing and twice daily medication. The trick to preventing a recurrence is to treat for one week, stop for the second week, then repeat the treatment for the third week. This coincides with the life cycle of the mites. However, different medications may come with different treatment recommendations.
• Yellow to green, pasty, and smelly discharge usually means your dog has a bacterial ear infection. You may be successful treating it topically at home, but many dogs with bacterial ear infections may need antibiotics, so if your dog seems sick in any way other than the obvious ear problem, consult his vet. To treat a bacterial ear infection at home, follow the above directions exactly, except substitute an antibiotic ear lotion or ointment for the ear mite medication. Also, keep in mind that in some cases the reason why the pus discharge is noticed is because an inner ear infection has caused a perforation in your dog's ear drum, releasing the pus from behind it into his outer ear. Because of this, your treatment of the bacterially infected ear should be very gentle.
This treatment does not require the week on, week off, week on treatment. Instead a ten- to twelve-day treatment course should do. If you don't notice any progress after three days, however, you should see your vet.
• Brown to dark brown discharge with a distinct, pungent, "fermenting" odor usually means that your dog has a fungal ear infection. These infections, which are caused by yeast organisms, usually arise after exposure to moisture while swimming or being bathed. They can usually be corrected using the treatment outlined above, but substituting an antifungal lotion or ointment for the ear mite medication. This could include any of the human vaginal yeast infection medications, such as Monistat. Like a bacterial infection, the treatment should only be necessary for about ten to twelve days.
When to Get the Vet
If your dog has a discharge that appears to be a mixture of some or all of the above and when your dog's rubbing, shaking, and scratching cause additional, more serious problems, call your vet. Some medications are effective in treating multiple symptoms simultaneously, and your veterinarian is the best source for these medications, particularly when the symptoms are complicated by self-induced trauma.