Ask the Vet
Coping with recurrent Ear Infections
Question: My two year old Cocker Spaniel gets ear infections every few months. Is there any reason for this and how can it best be controlled?
Answer: Dogs are particularly susceptible to ear disease which has become one of the more common reasons that dog owners take their pets to their vet. Domestication and selective breeding have led to enormous variation in dogs’ ears’ conformation, not only among breeds but also within breeds. A variety of ear shapes has been created, such as the pendulous ears of the Basset Hound, the erect prick ears of the Keeshond and the folded ear flap of the Bulldog. And, while excellent for collecting sound, the long canine ear canal can also accumulate wax and foreign bodies (such as grass seeds) or become diseased. While cats’ ears can also become diseased, dogs’ ears have a tendency to be more problematic due to their anatomy. A large number of dogs have narrow or hairy ear canals, and many dogs’ ear structures make them susceptible to ear infection. Cocker Spaniels, which have pendulous ear flaps, and the hairy ear canals of Poodles are two that spring to mind. Additionally, a number of dogs are prone to allergic skin disease, which increases the risk of them developing ear infections. Factors such as these combine to make dogs vulnerable to ear conditions.
A dog has numerous folds in the upper section of its vertical ear canal. As the canal descends there is a right-angled turn, where it becomes narrower and continues horizontally to the ear drum. Wax and other substances are continually produced along the entire length of the canal to keep the lining supple and healthy. Wax and debris must travel upwards – against gravity – to escape, which is a difficult process, even when the ear is healthy. In the diseased ear, this natural cleaning process breaks down and, depending on the severity of the condition and the number of episodes, it may not return to normal. Although unlikely, a single ear infection can significantly affect the ear canal and, if not managed, a recurrent ear infection may lead to permanent damage. This might include a narrowing of the canal or a breakdown of the ear’s normal self-cleaning mechanism. Such cases have developed into chronic ear conditions that are further prone to infection, and this can ultimately result in the need for surgical removal of the ear canal, which leaves the animal hard of hearing.
The first step you should take is to visit your vet again, who in more severe or recurrent cases will often recommend investigative tests to check for underlying skin disease. The anatomy of the ear is such that most dogs will get the occasional ear infection because the enclosed poorly ventilated canal attracts debris and presents an ideal breeding ground to micro-organisms. But ear diseases tend not to be caused in isolation, and the majority of recurrent problems are due to conformation and/or underlying skin diseases such as allergies, parasites, hormonal conditions. It is important that you are extra vigilant and look out for early warning signs of pain, itching, scratching or rubbing at the ear. If you have any cause for concern, always visit your vet promptly – untreated ear conditions are likely to become more complicated and expensive to treat. If you lift up the ear flap and notice a pungent smell, that the skin is red, the discharge is ‘pussy’ and the flap is inflamed, these are all warning signs of impending ear conditions. Regular ear cleaning is frequently recommended and helps by removing wax, debris and micro-organisms from the ear canal, which can accumulate as a consequence of allergic skin disease, recurrent ear disease and regular bathing or swimming. It is important to stress that well meant but inappropriate ear cleaning, such as using cotton buds or over-plucking hairs, can cause problems. Human products should not be used on animals. Your vet is best placed to advise you on which product to use for your dog and how to administer it effectively - your dog’s ears are sensitive, they are easily damaged, and surgery is a radical step that everyone wants to avoid.