If you own a dog, chances are in their lifetime you will contend with at least one ear infection. For some, that one infection may happen in the lifetime of their pet, or it could occur more often, potentially every month or two. Ear infections happen, as they are a part of life for some dogs, but when they continue to happen, it is not only costly to you as the owner, but it signals a deeper problem in your pet’s health. With a deeper understanding of the problem, options begin to appear that can improve the outcomes.
As a veterinarian, a large part of my daily practice was contending with dogs and cats with ear infections. It was uncommon to go through a day without treating one. A large part of our in-house pharmacy was dedicated to ear infection ointments, cleansing agents, and other remedies. No matter what we did, as a veterinary hospital, or what new antibiotic or treatment emerged, those ear cases kept coming in. They kept the door swinging and honestly, kept the bills paid. However, with a better understanding of the problem as an owner, the more you can do to keep the problems under control.
Ear infections in the dog are mostly bacterial in origin, but in many are accompanied by fungal or yeast components. Bacterial infections tend to create red, irritated ears with a discharge. An odor to the infection is commonly associated with yeast involvement or may indicate specific strains of bacteria. In other cases, ear mites may be the culprit, and are usually associated with a itchy ear, slight redness, and brown, crumbly type of discharge.
The main contributors to the recurrent ear infection in the dog:
- Ear position and anatomy
- Excessive moisture
- Retained hair in the canal
- Digestive imbalance
- Immune dysfunction
- Dietary considerations
Ear position is big predisposing factor to ear infection and can vary from breed to breed. Those dogs that have big pendulous ears, such as a Basset Hound, Labrador, or Cocker Spaniel, tend to develop more infections. Dogs that have more upright ears, either naturally or due to cosmetic cropping, develop less ear infections. The main reason for this phenomenon is that when the ears are pendulous and lying against the head, they can seal off the ear canal and limit air flow. This tends to retain heat and moisture, which is a breeding ground for bacteria. When the ears are more erect, more airflow occurs and less infections develop. This, by the way, is not a reason to have a cosmetic cropping surgical procedure done on your pet.
Excessive moisture is another predisposing reason. This excessive moisture can come from bathing or swimming, most commonly, and can impact any dog. The breeds that are most affected by retained moisture in the ears are the ones with the pendulous ears that lie along the side of the skull. This includes those breeds mentioned in the prior paragraph.
Retained hair in the canal is yet another predisposing condition and often tends to impact the smaller breeds, with the Poodle or crosses being well represented. These breeds tend to require frequent grooming visits to maintain their hair coats and likewise, often their ears are plucked of excessive hair. In some cases, this is not done adequately or frequently enough, and hair tends to accumulate, which blocks airflow, and leads to moisture, heat, and discharge accumulation.
Allergies and ear infections often go hand in hand. When a pet has an allergic skin condition, this allergic response is also reflected in the ears with increased redness, itching and sometimes a discharge. The increasing itching and irritation within the ears causes the pet to scratch more, which can then further traumatize the ear and canal, opening the door for inflammation and infections.
Digestive disturbances are often seen as being fairly remote from the ears, but more often than not, they are linked directly to chronic ear conditions. The digestive tract is responsible for digestion of food stuff and nutrient provision for the body. However, the GI tract can be viewed as a separate organ system due to the presence of the digestive microbiome. This is the population of normal bacteria that are present, which not only aid in digestion, but can influence inflammation in the body and the health of the immune system. When problems develop in this area, many patients do display allergy symptoms. It is not uncommon to have an allergy canine patient with itchy skin, but also ongoing digestive problems such as gas, bloating, or loose stools. There is a direct connection and many times, the digestive problems are the primary problem, with the allergies being secondary.
The immune system is directly linked to allergy conditions, as the immune cells are responsible for producing the redness and overall irritation that is present. When frequent ear infections or allergies are present, it is a signal that the immune system may not be as healthy as we desire. In some cases, the immune system could be depressed, weak, and not capable of responding to normal every day bacterial or viral invaders. This is not very common but can occur with some medications, poor dietary provisions, or the presence of stress or other health ailment. In other cases, the immune system is dysfunctional, not working properly and has a hard time responding appropriately. This is common in cases of digestive complaints, leaky gut syndrome, and allergies.
The diet can play a major role in many ear problems, especially if allergies are involved. The food that is fed to a dog can either work for them and support health, or it can have a negative effect. The one thing to keep in mind is that no two dogs are alike, and with that, likely no two dogs should be fed the same diet. The purpose of a diet is to ideally supply natural nutrients and calories to the pet to sustain and support life and health. Many diets that are fed today are commercial foods, processed to high levels, and saturated with chemicals, preservatives, and artificial nutrients. For some dogs, this type of diet is okay but for others, it can create problems. Not only do some dogs have a hard time digesting some of these food sources, but the sources of food can also pose allergic problems for the patient. Over time, this type of response can further add to the digestive concerns and inflammatory problems.
These are the main players in the dog that has ongoing or chronic ear infection problems. In a second article, we will look at better means of management that may create longer lasting benefits to your pet!