After the sense of smell, a dog's ability to hear is the next most important of its special senses. Dogs' ears have evolved to enhance and sharpen an acute sense of hearing giving them the ability to hear sounds at much higher and lower frequencies than humans.
The ear canal consists of a long slender tube, which extends downwards and then inwards to the base of the skull where the ear drum is located. The canal is lined with a delicate layer of skin that produces wax. The skin continually migrates to the outside carrying wax and any debris with it. This is the natural cleaning mechanism of the ear.
Ears are also great places for problems to occur. Normally your dog's ears should look and smell clean and they should be free of wax and dry skin. There should be no hair loss or redness of the skin and no pain or discomfort. If any of these signs are present then a checkup is needed.
Infections occur commonly in ears
What happens when an ear gets infected?
Infections occur commonly in ears. The ear canal becomes inflamed and the delicate lining becomes thickened therefore it produces more wax. The normal cleaning mechanism breaks down and wax and inflammatory exudates accumulate in the canal and eventually fill it up.
Bacteria and yeast organisms thrive in this environment and cause more inflammation. At this stage the ear is usually painful and the dog will be shaking its head. Exudate is often visible at the opening of the canal and the ear will be smelly.
This process will continue to worsen unless treated. Infected ears do not get better by themselves. The end result after weeks and months is a narrow canal with thickened and folded skin, a ruptured ear drum and often a middle ear infection. Surgery is usually the only solution for these ears.
Infected ears do not get better by themselves
What causes Ear Infections?
Grass seeds are frequent causes of ear problems in spring summer. These are usually easily seen during a checkup and then removed with the patient sedated. Grass seeds will cause infection and migrate into the inner ear if not removed.
Ear mites will cause ear infection. They can be seen moving in the ear when viewed with an otoscope. They are quite contagious and will spread easily between dogs and cats. Fortunately they are easily treated.
Bacteria and Yeasts
Bacteria and yeasts are the most common agents involved in infection. They are usually secondary causes and follow a primary irritation. These organisms cause inflammation and ulceration of the ear canal resulting in wax and exudates buildup. They require specific drugs given over time to eliminate them from the ear canal.
Allergy is probably the most common underlying primary cause of inflammation in the ear. Allergy in dogs causes inflamed and itchy skin over many parts of the body often including the skin lining the ear canal. Sometimes inflamed ears are the only sign that the dog has an allergy. Bacteria then come along as secondary infections. Successful treatment requires that the allergy is treated along with infection.
How are Ear Infections Treated?
A sample of the exudate (debris/dirt) is examined under the microscope. Different types of bacteria, yeasts and mites can be identified this way. Sometimes with serious infections the sample is sent to the laboratory for testing to see which antibiotics will be most effective.
The ear is then cleaned under anaesthetic and the appropriate treatment is started.
Inflamed or infected ears are very painful
Why does my dog need an anaesthetic?
Effective treatment requires that all of the exudate be removed from the canal and that the ear drum be examined. Many antibiotics will not work if there is exudate present, and some can be harmful if the ear drum has been ruptured by the infection. Cleaning requires careful and gentle flushing of the ear canal and may be quite time consuming. The normal ear canal is very sensitive to touch. Inflamed or infected ears are very painful.
Any head movement during this procedure may result in damage to the ear drum. Anaesthesia is required to prevent pain and movement.
A follow up check is always required after treating an ear infection
Why are rechecks required?
A follow up check is always required after treating an ear infection to check the progress of healing. We do not stop the treatment until we are happy that the ear canal is 100% healthy. Stopping too soon will guarantee a recurrence of the infection and may set up a highly resistant infection.
How can I prevent infection?
Careful monitoring of the dogs ears for the early signs of inflammation and regular use of an ear cleaning agent will prevent most infections. Ongoing treatment of any underlying allergy is also important. Keeping the ears free of inflammation and wax buildup will ensure they remain healthy.