There are two reasons for your pet’s ear canal problems: chronic inflammation and infection. Inflammation, if left untreated, often leads to infection.
How can you tell if your dog or cat has ear inflammation or infection?
If your pet has hot, red, swollen or itchy ears without a lot of discharge, he most likely has inflammation, whereas if those symptoms are present with significant discharge, he probably has an infection.
InflammationThere are three main reasons for ear inflammation:
Allergies are quite common in dogs and cats. If your pet has ear inflammation, it could be he’s allergic to something in his environment or his food. Dogs with this condition will sometimes run their heads along furniture trying to relieve these miserable symptoms, scratch their ears incessantly, or shake their heads more frequently If your pet is exhibiting any of these symptoms you should examine his ears for the telltale signs of redness and swelling.
Similarly, when dogs go to the groomer, they are susceptible to getting water in their ears at bath time. This is another common cause of ear inflammation.
The most important thing to remember in preventing ear moisture issues is to keep your pet’s ears dry, clean and free of debris. In fact, the third major reason for ear problems is the buildup of wax.
Wax is normal in mammalian ears, but dogs and cats have varying amounts of it, just as humans do. Some dogs need their ears cleaned of wax daily. Others never have a buildup. Certain breeds produce more wax than others, such as Labradors and retrievers who are, by nature, swimmers.
It is important to determine how often your pet needs his ears cleaned so you can prevent this waxy buildup, which could lead to inflammation or infection. The only way to know is through observation.
Kitties are not immune from wax buildup. You should regularly check your cat’s ears for inflammation, as well as wax buildup. Some cats have dry ear canals that never need cleaning, and others should be cleaned regularly.
Outer Ear InfectionThere are two types of organisms that infect the outer, or external ear: bacteria and fungi.
The primary fungal culprit is yeast. Yeast are opportunistic pathogens, meaning they are present on the bodies of humans, dogs and cats all the time. It is only when the animal’s health is out of check that the yeast overgrows, causing an infection. So, if the immune system is functioning properly, yeast is not ordinarily a problem.
He could have an endocrine (glandular) problem, such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease, or even some sort of immunosuppressive problem.
- Pathogenic bacteria are not normal inhabitants of your pet’s body. They are bacteria your dog could catch from, say, contaminated pond water. That is, they are not normally present on the animal. The dog goes splashing through a pond, water splashes into his ear, and then an infection results.
- Nonpathogenic bacteria are the dog’s normal bacteria (typically staph species) that start to take over the ear canal, growing out of control. Dogs have a normal, healthy layer of good bacteria all over their bodies, which prevent pathogenic bacteria from taking hold, just as you and I are covered with normally helpful bacteria that can cause an infection if our immune system becomes compromised.
You don’t. The only way to find out is with an ear culture.
An ear culture is a lab test where your veterinarian swabs your pet’s ear and sends the sample in to a lab, which actually determines what organism is growing in there and what medication will treat it.
Ear Cleaning 101I am not a big fan of using alcohol to clean the ears because it can cause burning and irritation to already inflamed tissues. However, there are many easy to obtain preparations that are appropriate.
My favorite cleaning agents are:
- Witch hazel
- Organic apple cider vinegar and purified water, mixed equal parts
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Green tea infusion (using tea that has been cooled, of course)
- Tea tree oil greatly diluted in purified water (but NOT for kitties)
If you’ve never cleaned your pets ears before, ask your vet for a quick “how to” lesson next time you’re in for a visit. If your pet has recurrent infections or significant inflammation (if the ears are very painful when touched) it’s important your vet examines the canal before you begin a cleaning regimen. Some dogs may have ruptured ear drums, and special cleaners and medications are required for these pets.