Downeast Dog News

Can You H(ear) Me Now?

By Loren Candito DVM DACVD | Aug 01, 2020

You know the tell-tale signs. The family dog has just spent a fun-filled weekend with the kids at the beach. Now he’s shaking his head and scratching at his ears. He has an ear infection.

Ear infections (otitis externa) are a common ailment among dogs, especially during the summer months. Otitis externa is inflammation (redness and irritation) and usually infection (with bacteria, yeast, or a combination of the two) of the portion of the ear canal from the ear drum to the outside entrance. This is a close equivalent of ‘swimmer’s ear’ in a human, rather than the classic ear infection of babies, where the infection is behind the ear drum.

For some dogs, this truly is a ‘swimmer’s ear’, where bacteria in the water gets into the ear canal and causes an infection. In these dogs, infections only occur after swimming. For other dogs, they seem to get infections when their ears get wet during swimming or bathing, but also get infections at other times. These dogs likely have underlying allergies.

Ear infections occur due to allergies to things in the environment (pollens, dust mites, etc.), ingredients in the diet (such as chicken or beef), or a combination of the two. When the body reacts to allergens, the skin surface becomes weaker, allowing normal bacteria to overgrow. Adding extra moisture to this situation, with swimming or bathing, in a dark, narrow ear canal, just exacerbates the problem.

For dogs prone to ‘swimmer’s ear’, there are a number of approaches to preventing or minimizing this condition. Avoidance is likely to be most effective, but keeping dogs out of the water is easier said than done. Some dogs are tolerant of a ‘swim snood’, which is a protective band they can wear around their head and ears while swimming, to prevent water from splashing into the ear canals. This option should be only used with dogs with the right temperament, under supervision. It will not keep water out of the ear canals of a dog that enjoys diving under water.

After swimming, one of the more effective tools is to flush the ear canals with a drying/acidifying solution. A 50/50 combination of white vinegar and water can be safe and effective as an ear canal flush. There are also a number of Veterinary approved ear flushes that are made for this type of situation. Check with your dog’s veterinarian to make sure you’re choosing the right option for your dog’s ear canals and to discuss ear cleaning techniques.

Ear infections are uncomfortable, and if left untreated, can lead to permanent changes within the ear canal or even neurologic signs like balance issues or hearing loss. Ear infections are diagnosed with ear cytology. Your veterinarian will take a swab sample from the ear canal and look at it under the microscope to determine the type of infection. Once the veterinarian knows what type of infection is present, he or she can prescribe appropriate medicated ear drops to treat the infection. It’s important to have your dog’s ears checked before the medicated drops finish, as many dogs will feel better and the ears will look better before the infection is fully cleared.

Directly addressing the allergies will be most effective for dogs with ear infections not solely related to swimming and dogs with additional allergy signs. If your dog also exhibits symptoms like biting, chewing, scratching, or licking areas of the body, or develops hot spots or infections on the skin, there is likely a food or environmental allergy contributing to this.

Food allergies are diagnosed with a strict 60 to 90-day elimination diet trial using a special prescription diet. Your dog’s veterinarian will be able to help you choose the best prescription diet to feed your dog and will help you find alternatives to treats and flavored preventatives during the trial.

For dogs that have seasonal signs or dogs where a strict prescription diet trial does not prevent the ear infections from occurring, environmental allergies are most likely. These dogs can be tested for their environmental allergies and treated with allergen specific immunotherapy (allergy injections). There are also oral allergy medications that may help prevent ear infections. Your veterinarian will be able to help you choose the best options for your dog to help manage the signs long-term.

Hopefully, with a little bit of attention, you can help your dog have a fun, ear-infection free summer!


Loren Candito DVM DACVD

Portland Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Care

Dermatology and Allergy Service