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Healthy Paws: Ear Infections and Cleaning Tips

Healthy Paws

Editor’s Note: Healthy Paws is a column sponsored and written by the owners of Clarendon Animal Care, a full-service, general practice veterinary clinic. The clinic is located 3000 10th Street N., Suite B. and can be reached at 703-997-9776.

As we head into the D.C. area’s hot and humid summer we often start to diagnose ear infections more frequently. To understand a little bit about these, looking at the anatomy of the ear of the dog and cat can be very helpful:

We break the ear down to three basic regions:

  • External ear (horizontal/vertical ear canals)
  • Middle ear (within the tympanic bulla)
  • Inner ear (where the hearing organs are located)

Ear infections can thus be broken down into external ear, middle ear (more like what a human gets when they get an ear infection), and rarely inner ear infections. The incriminating bugs for these infections can range from yeast, bacteria or mites… and they are all treated differently.  This is why your veterinarian will typically take a swab from the ear and examine it under the microscope — they are trying to identify what organism(s) and in what numbers are present.  In some cases of bacterial otitis, a culture and sensitivity is needed to find out what specific type of bacteria is present and to help guide antibiotic selection.

The real kicker with ear infections is that there is almost always an underlying cause — meaning the organisms we find in those ears are rarely the primary problem (the exception would be mites). To keep the infections from coming back and to facilitate clearing of the infection, the underlying problem should be looked for and addressed (or at least a management strategy put in place).

Predisposing factors for ear infections include:

  • Allergies (environmental, fleas or food)
  • Anatomy (certain breeds have anatomical characteristics that cause complete occlusion of the canal when even mild inflammation is present)
  • High humidity/heat, swimming, retained water in the ear canal
  • Trauma to the ear canal (e.g.: overly aggressive cleaning or inappropriate hair plucking)
  • Polyps
  • Tumors
  • Foreign objects
  • Medical conditions (diseases that compromise or alter immune-system function)

Otits Externa (inflammation/infection of the external ear canal) is the most common presentation of an ear infection in both dogs and cats. These can crop up as a new (acute) infection, a recurrent infection or a chronic (never fully cleared) infection.  

Management of Otits Externa involves treating the infectious component as well as addressing the underlying factors as well. Ear cleaning is often a mainstay of managing both the infectious component as well as helping managing some underlying factors (such as allergies and anatomical predispositions or to dry the canal following a swim). Because we find that a lot of folks were never taught how to correctly clean their pet’s ears – we’ve put together a video!

When ear infections are appropriately identified and addressed, we can often prevent or minimize recurrences – though for some pets this means a chronic/maintenance strategy is put in place. In cases where an pet has had severe chronic inflammation & infection of the external ear canal, scarring/fibrosis and mineralization of the ear canal may occur – making medical management far more difficult (and sometimes impossible). In many of these cases surgical removal of the external ear canal is indicated to provide lasting relief to the patient – this is called a total ear canal ablation or TECA.

Otits Media (inflammation/infection of the middle ear) often goes hand in hand with chronic bacterial Otitis Externa and the ear drum in these cases if often ruptured or severely thickened/abnormal. In some cases, we need to manage pain/infection/inflammation before we can even see the eardrum – and in these cases follow up/rechecks are very important so that we can really evaluate what is going on down in that canal.

In addition to causing recurrent symptoms of the external ear canal, these middle ear infections can actually cause neurologic symptoms (generally problems with balance), or pain opening the mouth. Otitis media often requires systemic medications, but in many cases anesthetic procedures to thoroughly evaluate, obtain biopsies and/or cultures and clean out the middle ear may be needed to get them to clear and heal. In some cases, aggressive surgical procedures to open the tympanic bulla (bulla osteotomy +/- TECA) may be indicated.

So what are the takeaways from this?

  1. It’s important to determine if your pet’s ear infection is caused by yeast, bacteria or mites so that component can be treated correctly.
  2. It’s really important to identify predisposing or underlying factors so that they can be addressed or chronically managed.
  3. It’s important to look at your pet’s ear drum to assess its health. If the middle ear gets involved topical medications alone rarely work (and sometimes we need to initiate treatment to even get a look at that ear drum).
  4. Work with your veterinarian to come up with a chronic management plan to help prevent/reduce recurrences, and if you have any questions about the plan — ask your veterinarian!

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