Otitis Externa in Dogs

Sheepdogs have large, floppy and hairy ears that invite otitis externa.
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If your dog is shaking his head or scratching his ears, he may be suffering from otitis externa, an ear infection in the external ear canal. Otitis externa can affect any breed of dog, though WebMD reports that as much as 80 percent of all infections occur in breeds with long, drooping ears. Other predispositions also play a role. Regular cleaning of your dog’s ears can help to reduce the risk of infection and avoid discomfort and the need for treatment.

Common Causes of Infection

Infection of the outer ear canal often occurs when conditions in the ear canal changes, resulting in a rich environment for bacterial growth. Environmental changes include excessive wax buildup, increased hair that blocks the circulation of air to the ear canal and a buildup of water in the ears due to swimming or bathing. Such changes create a nutrient-rich host for bacteria or yeast, resulting in infection. Other common causes include genetically narrow ear canals, food or skin allergies, underlying medical conditions, parasites or a foreign body inside the ear canal.

What Is Your Dog Doing?

While an occasional shake of the head or scratch of the ear is common and nothing to worry about, regular scratching or head-shaking can indicate a possible ear infection. You may notice that your dog’s ears are red, inflamed or have a black or yellowish discharge. You may also notice a bad odor. If the infection has spread into the middle or inner ear, resulting in otitis media or otitis interna, your dog may experience anorexia, head-tilting, lack of coordination and vomiting.

Certain Breeds Have Greater Risk

While otitis externa can affect all breeds, certain ones are predisposed to infection for various reasons. Dogs with large, floppy ears, such as cocker spaniels and poodles, are at increased risk due to the excessive hair in the ears and little airflow. Dogs with narrow ear canals, such as the Chinese Shar-pei, are also at increased risk. Dogs with known food or skin allergies may also be at risk for external ear infections due to the changes that occur in the skin as part of an allergic response. Water dogs, such as retrievers, have increased risk if water becomes trapped in their ear canals.

Treating the Infection

Treating otitis externa is essential for preventing the spread of infection into the inner ear. Untreated infections can lead to perforated ear drums and permanent loss of hearing. Your vet will examine your dog using an otoscope. If a discharge is present, the vet will run samples to determine which bacteria may be present. Otitis externa treatment involves the administration of daily eardrops or topical ointments. Which drops or ointments you will need to use will depend on the underlying cause of infection. In most cases, treatment can last from two to four weeks. Don't attempt to treat a dog yourself.

Reducing the Risk of Chronic Infections

Many dogs, especially those in high-risk categories, suffer from chronic otitis externa. In this case, regular ear care is essential in reducing the risk of infection. Talk to you veterinarian about the proper method for cleaning your dog’s ears on a regular basis. Let the veterinarian trim away any ear hair that may be blocking the ear canal. If allergies are a problem, work with your vet to avoid the allergens responsible for the allergic response.