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Ear We Go Again

Andrea McGregor - BVMS (Hons) MRCVS

As the pollen count soared over the summer and many humans reached for the antihistamines, we saw the yearly increase in cases of ear disease in our canine friends visiting the practice. So, what are the signs of ear disease, what causes it and what can we do to help? Andrea McGregor explains.

What Are The Signs of Ear Disease?

Ear disease is very common in dogs and often extremely painful. Signs can include:

A smell and/or discharge from the ear, which can also be red or warm.

Scratching and rubbing their ears, head shaking, apparent deafness or holding
their head on one side.

Tiredness, a decrease in appetite or pain when opening their mouths.

Discharge from their eyes or a dry nose if the middle ear is involved.

What Causes Ear Disease?

There are many triggers of ear disease. These include:


70% of recurrent ear disease is triggered by an allergy or sensitivity.

  • The lining of the ears is a continuation of normal skin so any condition affecting the skin in general can affect the ears.
  • Your dog may be sensitive to an ingredient in their food, household cleaning products, materials that their skin is coming into contact with or, very commonly, to something in the environment such as grass, trees or flower pollens, house dust mites, moulds and flea saliva.
  • Other signs such as rashes/redness elsewhere on the body, excessive licking and chewing of their feet and tummy upsets may be present.
  • Allergies cannot be cured, but a lot can be done to try to gain control of the problem.

Foreign Bodies

Grass seeds, hair, soil, sand and old dried ear medication can lodge in the ear canal and trigger disease.


Ear mites mainly affect puppies. On rare occasions mange mites or lice can cause ear disease.

Hormonal Diseases

E.g. an under-active thyroid gland can trigger ear disease.

Rare Causes

Diseases of the immune (infection fighting) system, abnormalities in skin development/ ear wax production or fungi can occasionally trigger ear disease.
Any dog can develop ear problems triggered by the above causes. Some breeds with very narrow ear canals (e.g. Shar Peis), hairy ear canals (e.g. Poodles), pendulous outer ears (e.g. Basset Hounds) and dogs that enjoy swimming can be predisposed.

Where Do Bacteria And Yeast Fit In?

They cannot cause ear disease on their own. However, if any of the above triggers upset the skin of the ear then they can take advantage and cause an infection. This is often the stage when signs of ear disease significantly increase and pets come to us for treatment.

What Can Be Done To Treat Ear Disease?

Treatment of ear disease involves two main steps:

1. Identifying the exact type of bacteria or yeast present and treating them appropriately

  • Many different bacteria and yeast can infect the ear, some of which are more resistant to treatment than others. Finding out the type of bacteria or yeast present allows treatment with the appropriate medication as soon as possible, decreasing the risk of more resistant infections developing.
  • We can do this by examining a sample of ear wax under the microscope. If we find an infection that can be treated by one of the more routine ear medications, we can prescribe an appropriate ear cleaner (to prepare the ear) and prescription ear drop (to treat infection and calm the lining of the ear). This is very important if your dog has had multiple infections as the bugs present can be different each time and harder to treat.
  • If we suspect a more severe bacterial infection, we can send an ear swab to our lab to grow the bacteria present and check which procedures and medications are needed to treat the infection.
  • If the ear is very waxy, swollen or sore it is often best to arrange ear flushing under general anaesthetic. This allows us to check if the ear drum is intact and allows any medication given at home to reach the lining of the canal.

2. Taking steps to identify the trigger (e.g. an allergy or hormonal problem) that has led to the infection

  • This may involve allergy investigations such as skin tests and diet trials, or blood tests to check hormone levels at a later date.

Why Are Follow-up Appointments Important Following An Ear Infection?

Even if the signs of ear disease have improved, the infection/swelling may still be present. This can only be assessed properly by examination in the depths of the ear canal by a vet and with more serious infections with repeated sampling. We may also suggest further investigations into the underlying trigger of the ear disease at this stage if appropriate.

Why Do We Suggest Regular ear Cleaning Following An Infection?

  • A healthy ear has a “self-cleaning” mechanism, wax produced at the bottom makes its way to the top and leaves the ear, removing excess yeast/bacteria and small particles trapped with it.
  • Ear infections damage this mechanism and wax and debris can build up in the ear so we may advise you on an appropriate long-term ear cleaner to deal with this and help to decrease the recurrence of problems.

Chronic Ear Disease

  • Repeated ear infections can cause irreversible damage and scarring to the ear canal.
  • Unfortunately we do see animals whose ears have reached a stage where they cannot be treated effectively medically.
  • In these cases there are surgical options which can greatly increase both the comfort and quality of life in these pets.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of ear disease with our team, please contact us at any of our practices.