As a small animal vet, I see dogs every day to check their ears. Ear problems are common in dogs – the basic anatomy of the dog’s ear and certain breed characteristics are predisposing factors to ear infections – but luckily, much can be done to overcome these factors and prevent infection.
Monitoring and maintaining the ears is important to prevent infection. Ear infections are obviously uncomfortable for your dog. However, the problem can get more serious. If left untreated, infections cause worsening pain and damage in the ear, including open wounds, ulcers, swelling, and bleeding. Over time, this can become so severe that the ear canal becomes completely blocked by scar tissue. The blocked ear will still be painful and infected – and now virtually impossible to treat. The only recourse in this terminal situation is surgical ablation (removal) of the entire ear canal.
Untreated ear infections can also lead to neurological disorders, including head tilt, hearing loss, imbalance, and facial nerve paralysis. Dogs that shake their heads in pain are prone to hearing hematoma, where the force of shaking the head causes blood vessels in the auricle to burst and blood to fill the auricle. This painful complication typically requires surgery or the placement of a drainage tube for several weeks.
PROBLEMATIC EAR ANATOMY
The anatomy of the dog’s ear canal makes it the perfect place for bacterial infections. It’s a warm, dark, enclosed space with minimal airflow – like an incubator. When you add a little natural wax as a culture medium, you have the perfect environment for microorganisms to grow and multiply.
Breeds with long and / or heavy ears such as Cocker Spaniels, Springer Spaniels, and Bassett Hounds have ideal bacterial incubators. Some breeds tend to grow hair deep inside their ear canals, which reduces the flow of fresh air. Poodles, schnauzers, and Shih Tzus are good examples of this. With these breeds, it is important that the hairs on the ears be carefully plucked or extracted in order to open the ear canal. Trimming this hair won’t help as the deeper canal is still full of hair.
Dogs that are bathed frequently or like to swim may have excessive moisture in their ear canal. This makes the environment even more welcoming to unwanted microorganisms.
Allergies are a common condition in dogs. The hallmark of allergies in dogs is normal, healthy looking skin that appears itchy and inflamed. Guess what? The ear canals are lined with skin! And allergic inflammation increases the heat in the microbial incubator!
There are currently many safe and effective methods of treating allergies in dogs. If your dog has chronic ear infections, ask your veterinarian about possible allergies. You are unlikely to stop your dog’s recurring ear infections until their allergies are under control.
FREQUENT EAR EXAMINATIONS
The best way to ensure that your dog is enjoying the benefits of clean, comfortable, and healthy ears is to be attentive and engaged. Never ignore the ears.
If you’re one of the lucky ones whose dog ear canals are always calm, clean, comfortable, and odor-free, you may not need to flush or clean them regularly. For dogs with recurring ear infections, I recommend preventative cleaning once a week for the dog’s life. In most cases, unless directed to do so by your veterinarian, the ear canal can become irritated.
By cleaning your dog’s ears regularly, you can differentiate between a healthy ear and an ear that is prone to trouble. If your dog’s ear is normal, the cotton ball or cosmetic pad you use to clean the ear will only show a touch of beige wax and will have no odor. If an infection is brewing, the discharge is likely to be heavier, a different color, and may have a foul odor. These changes are your cue to see a veterinarian.
To safely and effectively clean your dog’s ears at home, I recommend using a reputable, commercially made solution. My favorite product is Epi-Otic Advanced from Virbac. I also like Phyto S Cleaner from Covetrus.
Whatever you choose, just make sure the solution is a detergent only. Some supplements may contain steroids or other medicines that are not suitable for routine cleaning of healthy ears. Ask your vet for cleaning recommendations.
It’s best to do the cleaning process outdoors or in a room with easy-to-clean walls, as the first step I recommend is to fill your dog’s ear canals with detergent, which you shake out and remove the liquid (and possibly Earwax) everywhere. Use a room temperature solution to make the process less alarming to your dog.
It can be a challenge, but the goal is to pour as much fluid into the ear as possible while preventing your dog from shaking it all out right away. A helper that your dog knows and trusts will help. If you can keep your dog from shaking until both ears are filled, he’ll enjoy the next part: Spend about 60 seconds massaging the base of the ears – thumbs up, fingers squeezing from below.
Sixty seconds is a long time in this busy world, but I assure you that it is an important part of the process. Most dogs enjoy this part so all is well. After 60 seconds, the solution can loosen any debris that has built up deep inside the canal, cleanse the skin in the ear canal, and generally freshen up the area.
After 60 seconds of massage, have your dog shake his head. This is a natural response to feeling all of that fluid in it. The centrifugal force created by the head shaking brings everything out of the depths of the canal, where you can safely and easily wipe it off with cotton balls or cotton wool cosmetic pillows.
Using this protocol, you can effectively clean up to the eardrum without the risk of breaking it. Feel free to use Q-Tips to clean up the crevices and folds that you may see in the outermost Part of the ear canal, however never Keep the tip of the Q-Tip out of your eyes.
Excessive moisture in the ear canal makes the environment more welcoming to unwanted microorganisms. Keep your dog’s ears as dry as possible. Carefully wrap the ear canal in cotton before bathing and rinse the ears with a good commercial detergent after swimming.