My dog Henry used to get the worst ear infections. I dragged him from vet to vet trying to figure out what was going on with him and what I needed to buy and do to make it better. His ears were so swollen and irritated him so badly that he would shake all day and itch them until they bled. When he would shake, my apartment looked like a crime scene with droplets of blood on the sheets, walls, sofa, and window panes.
I hated that he was in pain and I hated that I was constantly Cloroxing my house (I felt like Dexter), but I didn’t know what to do. Nothing seemed to work for him, and I was losing patience with the veterinary system. One would say he had allergies while another would say he had a yeast infection; one would give him droplets while another would give him a cream. Groomers refused to work on him and said he needed medical attention before they could clean his ears. I felt helpless.
And if your dog has an ear infection, you, too, probably feel helpless. Here are three small steps you can take to quickly get your dog on the road to recovery.
Know the signs and symptoms
How do you know if your dog has an ear infection? Look at her. If she’s scratching her ears and shaking her head and/or you notice redness and swelling, her ear is probably infected and she’s probably in a lot of pain. A pungent odor and waxy buildup from the ears is another sign of infection. My dog even lost balance as he walked due to his ear infection – which was adorable at first but scary a few times later – and I knew I needed to do something immediately.
"Ear infections can be caused by a number of things, including debris or parasites in the ear, excessive hair growth, or other irritation of the ear canal," says Dr. Denise Petryk, DVM and in-house veterinarian for Trupanion. And since a dog’s ear has both a vertical and horizontal ear canal (making it almost "L-shaped"), it’s especially difficult for debris to exit once it makes its way to the bottom part of the "L," making dogs even more prone to ear infection.
Dr. Petryk says dogs with floppy ears like Golden Retrievers and Cocker Spaniels have an even greater chance of getting ear infections because their ears are moister, darker, and damper than other dogs’ ears and more likely to harbor bacteria and yeast. (Henry has long, floppy ears, and I can tell you firsthand that Dr. Petryk is spot-on. His ears are a playground for bacteria.)
Ear mites primarily cause ear infections in puppies while yeast and bacteria do in adult dogs. Dogs who spend a lot of time outside in the woods or open spaces are also more likely to get ear infections from things like grass seed or plant awns. And if it recurs – like it did for Henry – it’s probably an underlying condition like seasonal allergies or food allergies.
Consult your veterinarian
As much as you’d like to treat her ear infection from home and help her feel better ASAP, it’s always best to talk to your vet first to find out what’s going on in her ears. Remember, your dog is in pain so the longer you play doctor and consult PetMD to figure it out on your own, the longer she’ll be hurting and the longer you’ll be cleaning up blood. And never use rubbing alcohol or stick a Q-tip far down your dog’s ears: it can be painful, push wax and debris further in, and rupture her eardrum.
"Understand that there exists a normal population of microflora (bacteria and yeast) in the ear canals at all times," explains Dr. Jim Lowe, technical services veterinarian for Tomlyn pet products. "One can never ‘sterilize’ the ear canal. Unhealthy ear canals (i.e. excessively moist, excessively waxy, excessively hairy or debris-filled) are perfect places for the flora to overgrow. The canals are a deep, dark culture media for organisms that are already there."
The vet will examine the ear with an otoscope – a tool to let her really get in your dog’s ear and see what’s causing the irritation – and take a swab to determine specifically which organisms are causing discomfort. Once your vet examines the swab and finds out whether it’s yeast, bacteria, or mites that are causing your pup pain, she will prescribe topical cleaning or an oral medication to kill the irritant and teach you how to properly clean your dog’s ear.
When my dog met the vet of his dreams – the one I use now in New Jersey and adore because he cured Henry – the vet showed me how to clean his ear. Henry was in heaven with the ear massage he received; he purred like a cat. He told me to fill Henry’s ear with the rinse and place a cotton ball against the ear and massage it gently, making sure the cotton ball absorbed the rinse and cleaned the ear effectively but didn’t get too far in his ear canal to get stuck. He also stressed the importance of regularly cleaning Henry’s ears no matter how much he hated it or hid under the bed. He also prescribed oral medication to decrease the swelling on his ears and wrapped Henry’s head and gave him a cone to wear to stop him from shaking blood all over my apartment and clothes. We went back two weeks later for a check-up, and, happily, haven’t been back since that visit.
Prevent future infections
To prevent ear infections in the future, Dr. Petryk says it’s important to check your dog’s ears for symptoms and clean them regularly. As I pet Henry at night, I constantly take a peek in his ears and make sure there’s no buildup. When my boyfriend gives him a bath, he is extra cautious around his ears, making sure little to no water gets in them as trapped moisture can cause infection.
"If your dog’s recurring ear infections are a result of allergies, make sure your dog is maintaining a consistent diet and/or receiving other appropriate care to keep the pet allergies under control," says Dr. Petryk. A raw or grain-free diet may be the way to go for your dog if he’s constantly battling yeast and ear infections.
Although I was frustrated for months and felt his ears were always going to be swollen and cause him discomfort, I refused to give up and I’m glad I persevered. Many dogs have long, floppy ears, but that doesn’t mean they need to be kept indoors or their ears need to be cropped. If you keep an eye on your pup and stick to daily maintenance of his ears and overall well being, you’ll have a happy, healthy dog and clean, bloodless apartment.
Image: Soggydan Benenovitch