Ear problems are really common in dogs. Ears should be clean and not smelly. If you notice any discharge, excess wax, redness, smell or itchiness it could indicate a problem. Other symptoms include head shaking, scratching, face rubbing or holding head on one side. Loss of balance is a sign of a more serious inner ear problem and needs urgent veterinary attention.
Bacterial infections are common. These can be anything from a mild redness to a more severe and debilitating infection. A dog’s anatomy can predispose them to a bacterial overgrowth. Overly long or hairy ears or ears with a particularly narrow canal suffer from a lack of air circulation so moisture builds up allowing bacteria to grow more readily (a bit like athlete’s foot in humans!). Dogs that swim a lot can also be predisposed due to excess moisture down the canal. Dogs that have a sensitive skin can be susceptible to bacterial infections as the ear canal is essentially an extension of the animal’s skin. Bacterial infections are usually treated with topical ear drops for a 1-3 weeks course depending on severity. In severe or refractory or recurrent cases we may take an ear swab to culture the bacteria to make sure we area using the correct antibiotic. There is an especially nasty bacteria called pseudomonas which causes a very nasty infection. These bacteria are often resistant to the more common antibiotics and can take months to clear up rather than weeks. If your dog is susceptible to bacterial otitis externa (inflammation of the outer ear) then the vet may advise a regular ear cleaner to help prevent infection. We would never advise using water to clean out the ears as this can exacerbate an infection. Similarly, if your dog doesn't have any ear issues then leave them alone-only use a cleaner if it is advised by your vet.
Otitis media or interna is a bacterial infection of the middle or inner ear and usually means the ear drum has been ruptured. This can start with the usual symptoms of head shaking or scratching but progresses to more serious signs with loss of balance and head pain with pyrexia. The vet can often ascertain whether the ear drum is intact at examination, but it is not always possible if the dog is in a lot of pain or there is a lot of discharge down the ear canal obscuring the ear drum. We wouldn't treat this infection with topical drops but would go with oral treatment and pain medication.
Yeast infections can occur for the same reasons as bacterial infections and you will often get both together. For this reason, most ear drops prescribed will contain an antibiotic and yeast treatment together.
Ear mites are seen fairly commonly. They are microscopic but can be seen on a veterinary examination with an auroscope as tiny white dots. They live in the ear canal feeding off ear wax and have a rapid life cycle taking just 3 weeks from hatching to breeding adult. They tend to produce a dry black ear discharge and cause intense itchiness. They spread between dogs by close physical contact. A lot of the topical flea preparations treat and prevent ear mite infestations.
Foreign bodies such as grass seeds tend to cause acute severe symptoms that area usually one sided. These can be diagnosed with a veterinary examination and removed with or without sedation.
Growths such as warts, polyps or tumours can result in a more chronic ear problem. Sometimes they can be easily visualised on examination but if there is a lot of ear wax or inflammation then they can be harder to spot. These can be tricky to remove especially if they are a long way down the ear canal and major surgery is required.
Dogs with thin hair or white ears can be prone to sun damage especially on the ear tips. Skin block is advised to protect against skin cancer.