Learn How To Recognize, Treat & Prevent Pet Ear Problems

Does your pet frequently shake his head or scratch his ears?

Is your cat’s head tilted to one side or does she resent having her ears touched?  How about an unpleasant aroma emanating from your dog’s ears that attracts the interest of your other household pooch?  All are signs of ear inflammation or infection, both of which can have serious and potentially irreversible consequences if left undiagnosed and treated by a veterinarian.

Ear problems are one of the most common reasons pets present to veterinarians for diagnosis and treatment.  In 2012, otitis externa (inflammation of the outer ear and ear canal) ranked second on the list of diseases diagnosed by veterinarians according to Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI).

Therefore, it’s crucial that pet owners strive to keep the ears as clean and healthy as possible.  Promoting ear health doesn’t mean that owners should exclusively focus on the ears.  More important is to commit to keeping the whole body healthy so the ears stay disease-free.

Why are dogs and cats more prone to ear infections?

Unlike humans, dogs and cats have an ear canal structure that lends to water retention instead of drainage.

Humans have a horizontal ear canal connecting the outside world to the innermost boundary of the ear drum (tympanic membrane) through a single, straight passage. Dogs and cats have both a vertical canal and a horizontal canal. The vertical canal opens up to the environment at the base of the inner ear flap (pinna), then angles downward to connect to the horizontal canal.

Since the horizontal canal is already dark and warm, adding moisture creates a pool-like microclimate which permits the growth of infectious organisms (bacteria, mites, yeast, etc.).

What are some causes of ear problems in animals?

The ears are just an extension of the skin into the skull, so they are similarly affected by ailments of the skin and are also prone to trauma.

Skin problems that also affect the ears include:

Inflammation – allergies (contact, food, seasonal, nonseasonal, etc.), exposure to environmental extremes (thermal and sun burns, frostbite, etc.), other

Infection – bacteria, yeast, mites, other.  Bacteria and yeast already live on the skin and can proliferate when the microenvironment is appropriate for growth.  Mites are commonly picked up from the environment and can also naturally exist in the skin in some pets.

Trauma – irritation from surfaces which the ears contact while lying down or rub against while a pet walks, penetrating injury from environmental objects (plant awns, branches, etc.) or animal bites.

Metabolic diseases – Cushing’s syndrome (overproduction of corticosteroids from the adrenal glands), Diabetes mellitus (reduced of deficient insulin production from the pancreas), Hypothyroidism (under-functioning thyroid glands), kidney or liver disease.

Cancer – Benign or malignant cancers can develop in the ear canal or flap or metastasize from other bodily locations.

If I suspect my pet has an ear problem, what should I do?

With any concern for ear or skin problems, pet owners should pursue a physical examination by veterinarian and consent to appropriate diagnostic testing.

Diagnostic tests permit your veterinarian to rule in or out disease conditions and may include:

Ear cytology – A swab of the ear discharge is placed onto a glass slide for microscopic  exam to search for bacteria, yeast, or other organisms.

Ear culture – A swab of ear discharge is placed into growth medium and incubated in a laboratory setting to potentially grow bacteria and yeast.  If an organism grows, it can be identified and Minimum Inhibitory Concentration (MIC) testing then determines the type of drugs to which the organisms are sensitive (susceptible to treatment).

Biopsy – Tissue from a mass or affected area of the ear is collected for microscopic examination (histopathology) or other testing to establish if there are cellular changes consistent with cancer or other diseases.

Blood and Urine Testing – Cushing’s syndrome, Diabetes mellitus, Hypothyroidism, kidney or liver disease, elevated blood triglycerides, and others can be associated with skin and therefore ear problems.

What can I do to prevent my pet from having ailments of the ear?

Use a veterinary prescribed ear cleaning solution to irrigate (flush) your pet’s ears. Besides diluting and flushing out populations of bacteria, yeast, and mites, these solutions typically work by changing the ear canal’s pH to kill microorganisms or deter their growth.  Irrigate the ears after swimming and bathing.

Keep your pet’s ear hair trimmed short or plucked by a grooming professional. Long ear hairs can irritate the ear canal or mop up environmental allergens and debris (along with just looking unsightly).

Have your pet’s ears examined with an otoscope as part of the physical examination performed by your veterinarian every six to twelve months or as needed. Ask your veterinarian about the presence of any ear discharge environmental debris, visible areas of inflammation, stray hairs seen in the canal, or any other concerns.

Feed your pet a human-grade, whole food based diet instead of dry (kibble) or canned feed-grade foods that contain ingredients that have been deemed inedible for human consumption and are more likely to contain toxins, such as mold based mycotoxin, which is immunosuppressive and carcinogenic (cancer causing). Protein and grain ‘meals’ and ‘by-products’ are more likely to contain inflammatory triggers that can predispose your pet’s ears to irritation and infection.

If your pet’s ear issues cannot be appropriately addressed by your veterinarian, then pursue an evaluation with a veterinary dermatologist. One can be found in your area through the referral of your veterinarian or via the American College of Veterinary Dermatology website.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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