Quite a few bugs in your ear

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As duck season approaches and we spend more time on water retrievals, I am battling an ear infection in my lab Colt. Colt has had a few major ear infections before, and part of that is because he is a lab mix. Labs have naturally narrow ear canals, making them more likely to get ear infections. Also, because I work him as a bird dog, he spends a lot of time in the water which makes his ears prime real estate for bacteria and yeast. Retrievers, spaniels, and other hunting breeds are often overrepresented when it comes to ear infections.

How to Prevent Ear Infections in Dogs

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I doubt Benjamin Franklin was referring to how to prevent ear infections in dogs but he’s right on the money anyway. I normally follow a simple regimen of preventative care with my dogs’ ears and rarely (if I’m following my own instructions) do I have to deal with infections. 

  • Have a reliable ear cleansing solution 
  • Clean your dogs’ ear once every 1-2 weeks 
  • Any time your dog gets wet, their ears get cleaned
  • First sign of infection = time for reinforcements (this means a trip to the vet for antimicrobials)

There are about as many ear cleaners for dogs and cats as there are face cleansers for humans. So how do you tell a reliable one? In short, get it from your vet. There are over-the-counter versions, but they are not as strong or effective. I don’t want to waste my time or money on a product that doesn’t work and risk an infection for my dog, especially knowing he is prone to them. Most ear cleaners — at least the good ones — are only available from your vet’s office. Some are prescription only, but many are over-the-counter, meaning you don’t always need a prescription. 

Out of season, I clean my dog’s ears about every 2 weeks. That frequency is usually sufficient for my dogs. Some dogs need more frequent cleaning, once a week or more. This is because, like humans, some dogs produce more discharge than others. Routine cleaning for dogs is necessary because their ear canals make a right angle; they come straight out from the eardrum, then turn and come straight up. Their ears have a natural system to move debris out, but having to fight gravity can lead to issues especially if they create more discharge or water and foreign bacteria (like pond or marsh water) get added to the mix. 

To that end, any time my dogs get wet, this includes bath time, they get an ear cleaning. Your dog’s ears and skin have bacteria and yeast on them naturally that exist in balance with the body’s immune system. Adding extra moisture, like skuzzy pond water or even regular tap water will tip the scales in favor of the microorganisms. Bacteria and yeast love warm, moist, dark environments. They will proliferate and multiply, producing more discharge to hold them in place. As a result, now you’re on the road to a full-blown infection.

Signs of an Ear Infection in Dogs:

  • Red inflamed ear canal
  • Carrying one ear lower than the other
  • Head shaking
  • Scratching at their ears
  • Rubbing their ears on things
  • Crying when you rub their ears
  • Foul odors
  • Lots of visible discharge

If you notice your dog shaking their head, scratching at their ears, or rubbing their heads on the ground or the couch, take a look under the ear flap. Smell their ears; yeast has a distinctive sweet rot smell to it. Bacteria tends to have a foul, rotten egg smell. The ear may be red and inflamed or you may be able to see a lot of dark reddish brown or yellow discharge. All of these are signs of an ear infection.

Unfortunately, in this case, ear cleaner alone will not be enough to lick this. It’s time to see the vet. Do not clean your dog’s ears before going to the vet. We may need a sample to determine what kind of infection we are dealing with and how to best treat it. There are different kinds and subspecies of bacteria that can set up shop in a canine ear — not to mention yeast, and they can be resistant little buggers. 

How to Clean Your Dog’s Ears

The single most effective way to prevent ear infections in dogs is to clean their ears regularly and to clean them well. Fill both ear canals with solution and vigorously massage into the base of the ear (on the head itself below the ear flap. Visualize compressing and squishing that cartilage canal to dislodge sludge from the inside lining using the liquid to help. Do this for about 2 minutes. In an inflamed ear, this can be painful. Let your dog shake their head, because they’ll fling out a lot of grossness. Use cotton pads or cotton balls to wipe debris out of the ear but only as deep as your fingers can reach.

Do this repeatedly until they come out clean. DO NOT USE Q-TIPS OR COTTON SWABS. These items will only pack the debris down in the bend. Repeat every 1-2 weeks as needed, or as instructed by your vet. There should not be a lot of debris coming out each time you clean. If there is, you may need to clean more often or go see a vet.

Tier 1 Veterinary Medical Center in Palmer is Alaska’s only comprehensive animal hospital. We are available by appointment, in addition to accepting emergencies and walk-ins. With CT, MRI, and Ultrasound available on-site, our facility provides advanced treatment options for your pet. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.

Dr. Paige Wallace

Dr. Paige Wallace is the Urgent Care Coordinator at Tier 1 Veterinary Medical Center. Born and raised right here in the Mat-Su Valley, Dr. Wallace received her education and veterinary training through her service in the United States Army. She served as a Captain with the 218th Medical Detachment Veterinary Service Support, under the 62nd Medical Brigade. Dr. Wallace has extensive experience treating trauma cases in remote areas and with limited resources, bringing a wealth of knowledge and think-on-your-feet experience to the Tier 1 VMC team.