The low-down on otitis

As your vet may have already explained, otitis is the term given to inflammation of the ear and can result in irritation and pain. This inflammation also makes a dog’s ear vulnerable to infection, and that’s the point at which owners tend to notice the symptoms in their pet.

A dog’s ear is made up of three different sections: the external ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. 95% of all ear conditions occur in the external ear canal, which is where the dog’s ear flap converges into a canal that ends at the ear drum. When we’re dealing with external ear canal problems, we’re dealing with a very special piece of skin, which is susceptible to all the same conditions as the rest of the skin.

How do I know if my dog has another otitis infection?

  • Flapping

    In dogs with long-hanging ears, you might notice that they start flapping them as a way of dealing with the irritation.

  • Rubbing

    Dogs with stand-up ears will be more likely to rub them with their paws to try to ease the irritation. They’ll also rub their ears up against your legs or furniture in order to relieve an itch.

  • Whimpering

    If a dog has a painful case of otitis, it might cause him to whimper, especially when you touch or inspect his ears.

  • Head tipping

    If irritation is due to something physical, such as a grass seed that’s become lodged inside the ear, you might notice your dog tipping his head as if he’s trying to get something to fall out.

  • Redness

    If a dog has otitis, you’ll see redness in the ear canal and flap, especially in the areas with less hair.

  • Soreness

    The ear is likely to be uncomfortable to the touch and can be very painful if an infection is established. Your dog may become head-shy and may even react aggressively if you try to examine his ears.

Even if your dog doesn’t have an infection, the initial inflammation means that an infection will often follow. The earlier you spot the symptoms, the better. Not only because it’ll help to ease your dog’s pain and relieve the itch, but because the earlier we can treat the inflammation, the less likely it is that an infection will develop.

What causes otitis in dogs?

As your vet may have already told you, inflammation of the ear can be a short-term issue or, more chronically, as a persistent or recurrent problem and otitis could appear for any of the following reasons:

  1. A foreign body

    A common cause of sudden ear irritation is something getting stuck in the ear canal, such as a grass seed. This is often the case with floppy-eared breeds, including Spaniels and Poodles. The umbrella-shaped nature of grass seeds means that they keep going inwards. Surprisingly, dogs with pricked ears whose ear canals seem more open and vulnerable, such as German Shepherds, don’t tend to get as many foreign bodies as dogs whose ear canals are well protected with a flap. There is no specific reason for this; however it’s thought those without a flapped stand a lesser chance of a foreign body becoming trapped once it’s made its way into the ear area, so it’s always good practise to check.

  2. Allergies

    If your dog’s ear infection seems to keep coming back, an allergic reaction could be to blame. The most common underlying cause of persistent and recurrent otitis is a skin allergy. A dog’s skin is where allergies show up most, and the areas that become the itchiest are the ears, rear, feet and face. In other words, when I see a dog that has persistent or recurrent ear disease, I know it’s very likely that he’ll display other symptoms of skin problems, such as dragging his itchy bottom or licking his feet. It’s important to recognise that these other skin symptoms are connected as part of a wider pattern, which will need to be dealt with in order to resolve the ear problem effectively.

    That’s why simply treating the infection isn’t enough; the ear issue will keep recurring if the underlying cause isn’t dealt with. I always refer to infections as ‘secondary’ when talking to owners, to help them understand that the infection is usually only the tip of the iceberg.

  3. Hormones

    In addition to allergies, there are other reasons why some dogs suffer from persistent and recurrent ear infections. These include hormonal conditions, such as an excess of natural steroid hormones, a lack of thyroid hormone or imbalance of sex hormones, as well as diabetes. In the same way hormonal changes during puberty can cause acne in teenagers, any type of hormonal imbalance will make a dog’s skin vulnerable to infection.

Types of infection

Your vet will hopefully have had a conversation with you about what causes ear infections, but most dog owners assume they’re caused by bacteria, and that their dog will need antibiotics. While some dogs do have bacterial infections, many are the result of a yeast called malassezia. It’s important to identify which type of infection it is, so that it can be treated it effectively.

There are also two different types of bacterial infections, one which is relatively simple to control, and the other which is complex and challenging due to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. So, not only do you need to work out if the infection is yeast or bacterial, you also need to find out what type of bacteria you’re dealing with.

Your vet has probably already taken a swab from inside your dog’s ear canal and looked at it under a microscope. This quick and relatively simple test helps to select the best treatment for each individual dog.

Treatment options

There are a range of treatments available for ear conditions, which your vet may have discussed with you, depending on the nature of the infection and the underlying cause. Ear drops are often enough for the less aggressive forms of ear infection, whereas a course of oral antibiotics or anti-yeast medications may be required for more virulent strains.

Different ear conditions need different levels of treatment. Sometimes, pet owners want more ear drops because they assume that they fixed the problem the last time. However, the majority of ear issues reoccur because the underlying cause wasn’t addressed. Tests, such as ear swabs and blood samples, are relatively easy to do and it’s the only way we can get to the bottom of this common medical problem and hopefully prevent recurrences.