What is Otitis Externa?
Otitis externa is the general name used to describe an infection of the outer ear. Infections caused by yeast or bacteria are one of the most common problems in dogs. Ear mites can also lead to a secondary infection, especially in young puppies. Foreign objects (such as grass seeds) that lodge within the ear canal can cause irritation and damage that will also lead to otitis.
Breeds with large or especially hairy ears seem more prone to ear infections, but they can happen to any dog at any age.
What are the signs?
Ear infections are very painful, often with the ear canals very inflamed and sensitive. Dogs will regularly shake their heads, scratch their ears to try and remove debris and discharge. Affected dogs will often cry out when patted on the head. The ears themselves will often become very red, inflamed and smell. A discharge may be present and can be either dark browny red or yellowish cream.
Different bacteria and yeasts will cause different signs, so not all ear infections look and respond the same.
What can I do?
Most ear infections will not clear up by themselves. In long term infections the external ear canal will thicken and discharge may not be able to reach the surface. This moist, warm environment is a breeding ground for yeast and bacteria and will often lead to the infection travelling inwards towards the ear drum. In severe cases the ear drum can be ruptured.
If an ear infection is secondary to a foreign object within the ear canal, the infection will not resolve until the object is removed.
Both ears need to be checked by a vet.
What will the vet do?
The ear canal needs to be examined. The degree of inflammation, amount of discharge, presence of a foreign body and whether the ear drum is intact need to be assessed.
If the ear is very inflamed and sore, this may need to be done under sedation or after anti-inflammatory treatment.
In the majority of cases a swab will be taken and a sample taken for microscopy. This allows the vet to find out what organisms are present in the ear at that time; yeast or bacteria or both. If certain types of bacteria are present, it can be important for the vet to send a sample for culture and sensitivity, to determine the best treatment.
Sometimes there are underlying causes for ear infections such as skin allergies. These need to be investigated as sometimes dogs will respond well to treatment but then have recurring episodes.
Prevention of ear infections is difficult, but there are ways to minimise their impact on your pet. Regular use of a cleaning solution to stop the build up of wax and debris can be effective at taking away the environment where yeast and bacteria can multiply at will. The removal of excessive hair from around and within the ear canal can also play an important role, especially in dusty environments.