Pet Vet: Ear canal issues prevalent problem for pups

Alice is a 4-year-old golden retriever who lives with Karen, her caretaker. Alice has had a very good life, spending most of her time with Karen both inside and outside the house.

She is walked every day for at least two miles and is very active. Unfortunately, over the last nine months she has had a problem with her ears. The problem has never gone away, although with some treatments it has shown some improvement but total resolution has escaped her.

She does not complain about her ears, but it is obvious by her head shaking and rubbing her ears on the ground that this problem really does bother her. Karen is looking for some relief for Alice.

We have discussed ear disease in dogs in this column in the past, but I do believe this is an important subject. Ear disease is a fairly common problem in dogs and one that can cause our companions great discomfort. And, summertime is the high season for ear problems in our canine companions.

Alice apparently has what we as veterinarians term “chronic otitis.” This is a condition of long-term inflammation of one or both ears and as a result of this long-term inflammation, changes in the ear canal can occur. An important point to understand about ear disease is that it can be a primary or a secondary problem. Primary ear disease, or otitis, usually involves infection — with bacteria, yeast or both — that has occurred without an underlying problem. Secondary otitis results in the same types of infections, but happens as a result of another problem allowing an infection to get started in the ear.

An allergic response is a common instigating cause for secondary ear disease in dogs and, incidentally, golden retrievers are a high incidence breed for this type of otitis. The tissue lining the ear canal can be especially sensitive to environmental entities such as pollen grains. When exposed to these allergens, the ear tissue will become inflamed and reddened and ripe for invasion by bacteria and/or yeast. Another important point to understand is that bacteria and yeast in small amounts is normal in dog ears, but with an allergic response, these organisms can invade the ear tissue and set up an infection that then worsens the inflammation and irritation as the process progresses.

Ear disease can result from conformation problems within the ear, another primary problem leading to a secondary otitis. The ear canals may be very tortuous or twisting; they may be very narrow, either case leading to lack of good air circulation and then wax accumulation and ultimately infection. Whatever the cause, dogs with ear problems need to be evaluated by a veterinarian to determine the nature of the otitis, be it primary or secondary.

Evaluation for otitis involves an exam of the ear canals using an instrument called an otoscope. Dogs have very long ear canals especially when compared to humans, and as a result, the cones used for canal examination need to be fairly long. Sometimes otitis is so painful that a thorough examination of the dog’s ear canal is not possible without the benefit of general anesthesia. With proper anesthesia, we are able to both evaluate the condition and extensively clean the ear canals without pain and discomfort to our patient.

It is very difficult in cases of otitis involving lots of debris in the canals to thoroughly clean out the debris. This difficulty arises because of the previously mentioned depth of ear canals in dogs and the discomfort that can occur when we try to clean canals that are already painful with infection. The solution to this problem again is anesthesia. Cleaning is a very important part of treatment as it removes the debris from the canals, allowing the appropriate medication to reach the point of action.

Deciding what is the appropriate medication for treatment is probably the most important step in curing ear disease in dogs. Along with relieving a primary problem in the case of secondary ear disease, medication will be necessary to treat any infection associated. The ears will need to be cultured for bacteria and the debris examined under a microscope to look for yeast. Conformational problems in the ear canal may need to be handled by surgery, and those cases with underlying allergies will need to have the allergic response addressed along with the ear treatment.

These cases can be involved, but with diligent effort by you as caretakers and with proper veterinary care, otitis, even chronic cases, can be resolved.