Ear canal inflammation is one of the most common issues that veterinarians see. What do we mean by “inflammation”? The word, inflammation, refers to a state of being red, swollen, hot and sore.
The medical term for inflamed external ear canal is “OTITIS EXTERNA”.
When the dog's ear canal is inflamed, it is commonly in response to an allergy. Inflammation breaks down the normal skin composition, which is otherwise a good barrier to infection. Once the ear is inflamed, it is a poor barrier and allows infections by yeast and/or bacteria. (These critters normally live on the skin in low numbers and usually don't cause problems). But when this skin is inflamed, it’s hot and moist and a great place for bacteria and yeast, who then take this opportunity to thrive and cause further inflammation & discomfort.
So, really, allergies cause inflammation and inflammation sets up the conditions for infection.
Now, finding out what the dog is allergic to is difficult. Sometimes it's just a passing thing or the dog grows out of it. Sometimes it’s a dietary ingredient that can be avoided and this may help decrease the likelihood of recurrence. Food allergy may be involved in 20-30% of cases. (Talk to the vet about how to decide if food is a culprit.) But switching the dog’s food is not a treatment for the present condition if the ear is red/sore/infected right now. Usually, the current discomfort needs medication. The remaining 70-80% of cases are likely environmental allergies, and some of those are seasonal.
Ears are usually treated with TOPICAL medication which is placed directly into the ear and onto the affected skin. Topical medications have a very low likelihood of having side effects (much lower than medications taken into the body by mouth or by injection.)
In those dogs that have frequent recurring ear problems, it is worth talking to your vet about hypoallergenic diets AND/OR using a maintenance ear solution with a corticosteroid that keeps inflammation down. The anti-inflammatory ear solution can be very helpful to keep the ear comfortable in those patients who get inflamed again every time we stop medications …
Frequently asked questions:
What about ear cleansers? Ear cleansers (designed for dogs' ears) are fine, but won't get rid of inflammation or an infection. And if the dog continues with an ongoing yeast infection, he/she will continue to produce that dirty looking brown/black wax. It's not dirt. So a cleanser won't solve it.
Can we use vinegar & water to get rid of yeast infections? Sure, a 50:50 solution of vinegar and water can be used in a dog's ear and it will change the pH to discourage some of the yeast growth, but the ear will continue to be sore and inflamed. The vinegar and water won't get rid of the inflammation, and the reason it has started in the first place. (allergy, usually).
Does swimming cause ear infections? No, water in the ear does not cause infections or inflammation. It's possible some dogs, who already had a bit of a problem, could be worsened a bit by having a lot of moisture added to the ear.
Is it contagious? Most ear infections are not contagious. (Ear mites are the exception but are quite rare in dogs. They only get ear mites from lying very still, for long periods of time, with another animal who has these mites. These are more common in kittens, who usually get them from their mothers during their first weeks of life.)
Is it because the ears are long and floppy? The conformation or shape of the ear does not seem to truly influence whether a dog will get ear infections. However, again, if they are already prone to problems, then maybe the floppy, heavy ears might have a harder time due to extra moisture being trapped in the ear canal.
What about the dog who doesn't respond to treatment?! - These cases are frustrating. They are rare, but some cases are actually resistant to common medications, and then others might respond well, but only for a very short time before they reoccur so quickly, it's hard to recognize any positive response. Special cases need extra attention, different diagnostics, medications and sometimes long term care or even surgery.