One of the more common pet concerns is ear problems. Ear infections are typically manifested by the pet shaking and rubbing their head; a discharge or an odor from the ears and, infrequently, abnormal or aggressive behavior. So, what causes these problems and why are dogs and cats especially susceptible?
Ear infections fall into three categories. The first is fungal or yeast based infections, the second is bacterial and the third category is parasitic. Of the three, the parasitic ear mite infection is the least common and typically the easiest to treat. It is important to note that, it is not uncommon to have more than one of these issues occurring at the same time.
Moist dark areas tend to encourage the growth of fungus and bacteria, so any condition that allows for increased water content within the ear canal can and will lead to infections. Your pet’s ear canal differs from ours. Rather than being a short straight tube, it is long and “S” shaped. This curved anatomy offers areas where moisture can reside and the length inhibits the drying process. A “floppy” ear flap also slows the drying process and tends to trap that moisture. Some breeds have large amounts of hair in the canal which tends to wick moisture into the canal. Many breeds have small ear openings which inhibits drying of the canal.
The most common predisposing factor for the development of ear infections is allergies. Allergies tend to cause a narrowing of the canal due to an inflammation in the tissue that develops in the canal. Most patients have a combination of these factors which tend to encourage the development of otitis externa.
Diagnosis of an “ear infection” typically involves looking into the ear canal with an otoscope. This allows the veterinarian to view the canal to see if there is discharge and redness – both being signs of a problem. Typically some of the material will be removed and examined under a microscope to determine whether the infection is parasitic, bacterial or fungal based. This determination forms the basis for our treatment plan.
Treatment of otitis tends to be a two-pronged approach. The first step is to clean up the ears and remove all the debris so medications can get to the infection. Next, we attack the bacteria, fungus or parasite. This most commonly involves drops or ointments depending on what the causative agent is and what the ear canal looks like. In cases of bacterial infections, oral or systemic antibiotics may be utilized. Many times steroids are used to help resolve the inflammation in the canal to reduce the swelling and open up the canal.
Prevention of recurrence is the second step in ear health. This typically involves a maintenance protocol of cleaning the ears on a one to two times a week basis. The ear flushing solution acts to dry out the ear and discourage recurrence of the offending organisms. In many cases it is also important to address some of the predisposing factors such as allergies, hair in the canal, or the anatomy of a narrow ear canal. Long term success is dependent on addressing both the current infection as well as the other issues that may lead to future ear infections.