Otitis Externa

This article is designed to help you better understand your pet’s condition. This is not a substitute for a veterinary diagnosis; it intended for reference purposes and to supplement an existing diagnosis after a veterinary examination. If you have questions or concerns, please contact us at 740-432-5980. It is absolutely vital to have a veterinary diagnosis prior to following any of the instructions provided here.

1. What is Otitis Externa?

Otitis Externa is the medical term for inflammation of the external ear canal.  External ear inflammation and infection are usually secondary to some underlying issue, such as previous ear mite infections (ear mites are very common in cats, however extremely rare in dogs), allergies to food or environmental allergens, excessive hair growing in the ears, excessive water in the ears from swimming, or other hormonal and skin diseases.  Allergies and skin disease are the most common underlying issue for ear infections.  If these conditions are not addressed the ear infections will keep coming back. Some breeds also seem more prone to ear infections due to very floppy, heavy ear flaps (ie: Spaniels, Hounds, and Labs)

2. What agents cause ear infections?

Most ear infections involve bacteria called Staph. intermedius and/or yeast called Malessezia.  Both of these organisms are normal inhabitants of healthy canine ears.  However, a change in the environment of the ear may cause these organisms to multiply rapidly, resulting in an infection.  Less commonly, organisms not normally found in the ear can invade the ear and cause an infection.

3. How is this problem diagnosed?

We will usually diagnose Otitis Externa by taking a thorough history of your pet’s problem, examining the ears, and taking a sample of the discharge in your pet’s ear.  We will then take that sample and perform an in-house microscopic exam to identify exactly which organisms (yeast, bacteria, mites, etc.) are involved in your pet’s ear problems and prescribe specific treatment.  For extreme reoccurring infections on an animal that does not respond to treatment, we may elect to do a Culture and Sensitivity test, which is sent to a lab so that the specific bacteria or yeast may be identified.  Once the organism has been properly identified we can subsequently treat it with the appropriate drug.

4. How is Otitis Externa treated?

The ultimate goal of treating the ears is to change the ear environment back to its healthy state.  Usually we will prescribe both an ear cleansing solution and an ointment containing anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory agents.  The cleaning solution will help remove discharge and debris from deep in the ear, and provide a more desirable pH in the ear.  Applying the ointment after cleaning allows much greater effect as it has greater contact with the ear canal tissue.

Depending on the infectious agents involved and the physical exam of the ears, your vet may also recommend other treatments, such as flushing and cleaning the ears under sedation or adding oral antibiotics and anti-inflammatories to the treatment plan.

5. How are reoccurrences of Otitis Externa prevented?

Once a dog has had an ear infection, reoccurrences are common.  You can help prevent reoccurrences by cleaning the ears regularly with the ear cleansing solution.  Ears should be cleaned at least once weekly.  If your dog is a swimmer, clean the ears after swimming.  Use caution while bathing your pet, primarily around their face, to assure no water gets down into their ear canal.  Sometimes simply placing a cotton ball at the opening of your pet’s ears during bathing offers peace of mind that stray moisture will stay free of your pet’s ear.  However, as a precaution it is always best to clean the ears after bathing, just in case.  If your dog has excessive hair in the ears, have a groomer remove the hair regularly.  Bacteria and yeast like to stick to the hair and can make the ear prone to infection.  Most importantly, get into the habit of looking in your dog’s ears regularly so any new problems can be addressed immediately.


6. Important Points to Remember When Treating Ears at Home

  • Before placing ANY product into your pet’s ear they must be examined by a Veterinarian to ensure that your pet’s eardrum is intact and healthy.  Never place anything into an animal’s ear if there is a chance that their eardrum has been damaged.
  • Never place any product into your pet’s ear that is not approved for use in the ears of cats or dogs.  Remember we are trying to correct a pH imbalance in the environment of your pet’s ear.  Using inappropriate cleansers can disrupt this balance and actually make things worse.
  • Unless otherwise directed by your Veterinarian, even when using appropriate cleaners, limit cleaning to no more than once a week.  Your pet’s ears will never be a sterile environment, nor should they be.  Excessive cleaning can make things worse.
  • It is a very common mistake for misinformed owners to clean their dog’s ears at home with water, hydrogen peroxide, or alcohol.  Never ever do this, as water and peroxide can actually cause ear infections and alcohol can be very painful if the ears are scratched.
  • Keep in mind that ear infections in dogs are similar to athletes foot in humans.  Your pets ear canal is a dark warm area, if it becomes moist in that environment, bacteria and yeast are bound to grow.
  • Another common mistake owners make when treating ears at home is repeatedly applying over the counter ear mite medication to their dogs.  It is extremely rare for dogs to get ear mites, thus this medication will do nothing for your pet and repeatedly applying these products will further disrupt the pH of your pets ear and likely worsen the infection.
  • I have included a diagram of a typical dog’s ear canal in order to demonstrate their unique anatomy.  A dog’s ear canal is L shaped.  Many owners are nervous about cleaning out their dogs’ ears because they are afraid of hurting them, but as you can see here it would be very difficult to get a tissue and a human finger down far enough to actually hurt anything.  Remember the medicine cannot work if it s laying on top of debris in the canal and not touching the skin.

Guernsey Veterinary Clinic, Cassie Gombeda RVT

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Please feel free to call with any questions you may have!  We want our clients to be informed and our patients to be healthy and happy!  740-432-5980

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