There are a lot of things I am asked on a fairly regular basis. Some questions are especially common in and away from work – people call and ask at the clinic, and people who find out I’m a vet ask me in everyday life. Sometimes it’s a common question because it’s a common problem, sometimes it’s a common question because it’s a common occurrence that nobody understands. . . Either way, I’m keeping track! And I’ll be sharing some of the questions, and my answers, here.
DISCLAIMER: PLEASE DO NOT EVER USE THIS BLOG AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR CALLING OR SEEING YOUR OWN VETERINARIAN.WE DON’T MIND GETTING A DOZEN CALLS A DAY ABOUT DIRTY EARS. SERIOUSLY.
Today’s question is inspired by a question I was asked by someone who reads this blog (hi, Kate! *waves*)… my dog has a dirty ear, and it bothers him, what should I do?
I get many variations on this question – my dog won’t stop scratching his ear, my dog’s ears are dirty but I don’t think he minds, my groomer says he has an infection, blah blah blah. . . Ears are one of the most common reasons for a dog to come in for an exam, especially during the summer. Ears are also one of the most common things to be brought up during an annual vaccination appointment. Usually because the owner has noticed scratching, but sometimes because when I look at the ears I see signs of infection.
Dog’s have pretty intricate ears, with lots of nooks and crannies and a significant turn in the canal before you get to the end, where the tympanic membrane is. Some dogs have floppy ears that cover up the inside from the air. Some dogs have lots of hair in the canal. Some dogs like to stick their head in water and therefore get water in their ears. All of these things combined make for a moist, warm environment where yeast and/or bacteria like to grow. Which makes the ear itchy, so the dog scratches it, and then the ear gets inflamed, which makes it even warmer inside, so the yeast/bacteria grows even more. . . vicious cycle!
Some dogs never have problems with their ears. Some dogs have such severe problems with their ears they end up needing their ear canals removed. And then there’s everything in between. My dog likes to swim, and has floppy ears, so I clean his ears every so often to prevent an ear infection from setting in. If you think your dog’s ears need cleaning, the important thing to remember is: Do Not Clean With Water (see previous paragraph about moist environment!). Get an ear cleaning that says “Drying” on its label – it will dry out the ear quickly, so you don’t have wet ear canals. Your vet’s office probably sells some good ones. The other thing is not to stick cotton swabs in the ear – you could irritate or damage the canal. I like to soak a cotton ball, stick it in the ear, then massage the ear base to squish the liquid around. Whatever works for you, short of sticking a cotton swab down in there. Some people squirt the liquid right in, and let the dog shake out the dirt, or cover their finger with a tissue to wipe out the crud.
What if you think your dog’s ears are infected? You should see your vet, and get some medicated drops to clear it up as quickly as possible. Chronic inflammation of the ear canal can cause it to narrow and be even more prone to infections that are even more difficult to treat. The other risk of untreated ear infections is if the dog shakes his or her head a lot, they may rupture blood vessels in the ear flap, and then blood fills up the ear and causes it to swell. This is called an aural hematoma, and it’s pretty uncomfortable for the dog and usually requires some surgical intervention. Which, you may imagine, is more expensive than a simple exam and some drops early in the infection!
So, the bottom line? If your dog is scratching at its ears, or shaking its head, or the ears seem red and smelly. . . make an appointment with your vet! Think the ear is just dirty but you’re not sure? See your vet! We don’t mind examining healthy dogs with dirty ears, promise. Fairly positive the ears are just dirty? Get some cleaner and try cleaning it, and if it doesn’t seem to help, SEE YOUR VET!