Canine Ear Infections

Posted by  on June 22, 2010

Does your dog scratch his ears and whine?  Does she shake her head a lot?  These are symptoms of a possible ear infection, and it’s your job to relieve his pain and prevent the infection from coming back.

If you dog scratches his ears a lot, it could be a sign of an ear infection

Canine Ear Structure

The ear is divided into three sections.  The innermost portion, known as the inner ear, is involved in both hearing and balance, while the middle ear and external ear are strictly for hearing.  The external ear is made of cartilage that collects vibrations from the air and directs them down the ear canal to the eardrum.  It is important to note that a dog’s ear canal is long and takes a sharp turn just before the eardrum.  For this reason, the ear canal can be easily cleaned without danger of puncturing the drum.

Behind the eardrum is the middle ear, made up of the tympanic cavity.  This cavity contains the tympanic nerve, the vestibular window, and the cochlea, as well as three small bones known as the malleus, the incus, and the stapes.

The inner ear is a series of fluid-filled ducts and sacs within a bony shell-shaped labyrinth known as the cochlea.  Vibrations conducted to the inner ear by the three bones of the middle ear are converted to nerve impulses which allow the brain to interpret sounds.  The cochlea contains 10,000 hair cells which are important in the vibration-to-nerve impulse conversion.  The cochlea winds around the cochlear nerve, which carries these impulses to the brain.

A membranous labyrinth inside the bony labyrinth controls equilibrium and balance.  Infections of the inner ear may cause problems with either balance or hearing, while infections of the middle or external ear will only cause problems with hearing.  When ear infections become chronic, the problems may become permanent.

Types of ear infections

Bacteria and yeast are the most common causes of ear infection in dogs.  Dogs with heavy, floppy ears are the most susceptible to infection due to moisture being trapped inside the ear canal.  Hair growing inside the ear canals can make the moisture problem worse; therefore, these hairs are often plucked when the dog is groomed.

Ear mites are common, especially in young dogs.  When mites are present, you will typically see what looks like dirt inside the dog’s ear canal.

Allergies to food or environmental factors can cause fluid to build up in the ears, and when the fluid stagnates, bacteria can invade.  Tumors of the dog’s wax glands and swollen lymph nodes can also provide a breeding ground for infectious agents.  Foreign objects stuck in a dog’s ear can trap wax in the ear canal, causing fluid to build up and become infected.  Sometimes this can happen when the dog plays outside, but it can also be the result of a mischievous toddler wanting the dog to play with baby toys.  Children should always be supervised when they are with your dog.

Canine ear infection symptoms

If your dog has an ear infection, he or she won’t usually be shy about letting you know about the problem.  One of the biggest symptoms of an ear infection results from the accompanying build-up of wax and fluid.  This build-up causes discomfort for your dog, and he or she will take action to be rid of the pain.  He may shake his head often or cock his head to the side.  He may scratch one ear or the other disproportionately.  If the infection is severe, he may have trouble keeping his balance.

Other symptoms include redness, inflammation, and tenderness.  When the dog is scratching or shaking his head, he may whine or growl because of the tender areas.

Finally, foul-smelling wax being discharged from the ear is a sure sign an infection is present.

Treating canine ear infections

For an active infection, your vet is likely to prescribe antibiotics for your dog.  These may be in the form of ear drops or oral medication.  It is important to follow the label directions and use any antibiotic until it is gone.

While you are waiting for the antibiotics to take effect, you may be able to relieve some of your dog’s pain at home by using warm compresses on the ear.  Using cod liver oil or the oil inside of a vitamin E capsule as ear drops may also be helpful.  Adding apple cider vinegar diluted in water to your dog’s food may keep an infection from getting worse if your dog starts having symptoms overnight or over a weekend when you can’t get to the vet.  Add two Tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to a cup of water to get the proper strength.

Is there a trick to giving my dog ear drops?

Your dog’s ear canal is shaped like an “L”, and the medication needs to get into the base or horizontal portion of the “L” in order to do any good.  This does take a certain amount of skill and practice.  First, pull the ear flap straight up and hold it with one hand.  With the other hand, squeeze the drops into the ear canal.  Hold the dog still for a few minutes while the medication runs down the vertical portion of the canal to the horizontal portion.  Massage the dog’s ear until you hear a squishy sound indicating that the medication has reached the right spot.  When you let go, the dog will shake his head and may even shake out some wax and debris that has been bothering him.

Do ear infections go away on their own?

While some ear infections may clear up without medical treatment, many will not.  Because the consequences of chronic ear infections are so serious, it is worth your while to get treatment at the earliest possible moment.  Untreated, an infection will advance down the ear canal, moving ever closer to the inner ear.  Once the inner ear is infected, the dog may have permanent hearing loss and balance problems.  In extreme cases, the ear canal may swell closed, requiring surgery to open them back up.

Prevention of ear infections

To keep your dog from developing ear infections over and over again, the best thing you can do is to keep your dog’s ears clean and dry.  This is doubly important for dogs with long, floppy ears such as Basset Hounds.  It may be more comfortable for your dog if you use warm products to clean his ears, but this is not required.  If you choose to warm the cleaner, do so in a bowl of hot water, rather than in the microwave to prevent over-heating.

Although there are cleaning solutions specifically made to clean’ your dog’s ears, rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide may be just as effective.  Position your dog in the corner of a couch or armchair and sit close to him or her so he can’t squirm away from you.  Soak a large cotton ball in whatever cleaning solution you will be using.  Lift the ear flap and wipe the dog’s ear flap and the visible portions of the ear canal with the cotton.  When the cotton becomes soiled, soak another piece of cotton and repeat until the cotton comes away clean.

Cotton-tipped swabs may be used in the same manner to get between the folds of the dog’s ear canals, but should not be inserted into the ear farther than you can see.

If your dog has a lot of ear hair, it should be plucked to prevent moisture from building up in the ear canals.  Dip your fingers in corn starch, firmly grasp a few strands of hair between your finger and thumb, then pull firmly to dislodge the hair.  Continue plucking a few hairs at a time until all of the hair is removed.  This will not cause your dog any pain as long as you pull only a few hairs at a time.

When you are finished, reward your dog with treats, affection, and play time so he comes to look forward to this important task.