By Melissa Robinett, DVM, Bel Marin Animal Hospital, Novato, CA
If your dog won’t stop shaking his head and he looks miserable, he could be suffering from an ear infection.
To find out, gently bend the ear flap back and look at the outer ear canal. Compare the two sides. Normal outer ear canals will have smooth pink or lightly pigmented skin. Next, give it the sniff test. A normal ear will not smell unpleasant. If there is a sour smell, it could signal a yeast overgrowth. If the smell is more like a sewer, a bacterial overgrowth is likely.
The next step is to have his lower ear canal examined by your veterinarian. Dogs have a very long ear canal compared to humans, and when you lift the ear flap and look in, you are only able to see the outermost part of the canal. It is not uncommon for the outer ear canal to appear normal while the lower ear is packed with moist debris. In addition, an exam of the lower ear canal can uncover the presence of foreign material, like foxtails.
Your vet may take a swab of the debris to see what organisms are responsible for the infection. Bacteria and yeast are normal inhabitants of the canine ear and if the conditions are right, they can proliferate rapidly and cause the uncomfortable inflammation associated with ear disease. Of the two, bacterial infections can be more serious and difficult to eradicate.
In severe, longstanding infections, the ear drum at the bottom of the canal may become compromised to the point of perforation, resulting in a very painful infection involving the middle and inner ear.
OK, so your vet has confirmed your dog has an ear infection. What can you do to prevent a relapse? First, the ear must be medicated as directed and cleaned on a regular basis. Learn the proper technique for cleaning ears at home and use a good ear cleaner specially designed for this purpose.
If your dog’s ears seem to flare up after swimming (or bathing), use an ear cleaner with a drying agent after he goes in the water to help minimize the chance of a relapse, as excess moisture in the ear canal is a known trigger. Some dogs with recurrent ear infections may be suffering from a food related allergy or hypersensitivity. Ask your vet about a hypoallergenic food trial to see if this may be appropriate for your dog.
Finally, check the ears regularly as these nasty infections can flare up quickly!