Our pets occasionally scratch at their ears and shake their heads, and it’s perfectly normal. However, if your dog is constantly shaking his head or your cat is always scratching one of her ears, that’s an indication of discomfort and the presence of an underlying problem.
Causes of ear diseases and infections in pets
There are many causes of ear disease in dogs. Some common examples are:
- Bacterial and yeast infections
- Ear mites
- Ear wax or dirt build-up
- Foreign bodies
- Polyps or other masses
As you can see, it’s a pretty long list. Fortunately, these varied conditions all result in similar symptoms that you can identify.
Symptoms of ear issues
We don’t want our pets to be uncomfortable, so it is good to be aware of what these symptoms are and to be vigilant about noticing them early on. Things to watch for include:
- Excessive discharge from the ears
- Indications of pain
- Foul odor
It is a great idea to check your dog’s ears once a week. If you think your dog is developing ear disease, make an appointment with your veterinarian right away to avoid a severe infection.
Visiting a veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment
The external canal of a dog’s ear is shaped like an “L,” which makes it difficult to see deep inside without special instruments. By doing a thorough exam and looking deep into the canal and taking samples, your veterinarian can usually diagnose what is causing your dog’s problem. In more challenging cases, sedation, radiographs and cultures are necessary, especially if the condition has been going on for a long period of time.
The good news is that most ear problems, when caught early, can be treated with either topical and/or oral medications, and the problem usually clears up in a couple of weeks. If your dog is in pain and is resistant to treatment, pain medication can help make him more comfortable and amenable to care. If the condition is more severe or chronic, a longer course of treatment and more sophisticated testing may be necessary. We often look to veterinary specialists in these cases, most often either a dermatologist or a surgeon.
Preventing ear infections
What are some things you can do at home to help prevent ear infections? As stated, check your dog’s ears regularly. If your dog is also your swimming buddy, make sure to dry his ears thoroughly after a day in the pool or lake. Remember this at bath time, too.
You can also talk to your veterinarian and keep some prescription ear cleaner on hand. These cleaners are formulated to help dry the ear canal and keep unwanted bacteria and yeast at bay. In a pinch, hydrogen peroxide or some rubbing alcohol on a Q-tip or cotton ball can be used, but this is not something you want to do long-term. Before you begin any treatment, make sure to review with your veterinarian how to safely clean your dog’s ears.
Unfortunately, some dogs are just predisposed to developing ear problems. Dogs who have skin allergies and dogs with long droopy ears (basset hounds, for example) are more affected. These dogs require more maintenance in the way of regular cleanings to avoid severe infections.
Determining if it’s a medical emergency
Is an ear problem ever an emergency? Usually not. It is typically pretty safe to wait for an appointment with your veterinarian. However, signs such as asymmetric pupil size, a head tilt, circling or imbalance may indicate an infection that has gone deeper into the ear — and these signs should be considered an emergency. If your dog seems systemically ill and is not eating or is running a fever, these signs also suggest a much more serious problem and should be treated right away.
Please note: If you observe these more severe signs, it is important that you do not put anything into your dog’s ears prior to seeing a veterinarian. In these cases, the eardrum may be ruptured, exposing the sensitive inner ear structures to potential serious damage.
For all of you cat people out there, most of what we have discussed here applies to our feline friends as well, excluding (of course) the notion of cats as swimming buddies, and let’s not even talk about baths.