Nearly all ear Problems in dogs (infections, itchiness, haematomas etc.) are secondary, not primary!
It’s an all too common story. I see it all the time.
I’ll get a phone call that goes something like this:
“Hey Doc, my dog’s got an ear infection again. I’m wondering if you can help, because she’s been to the vet so many times with the same damned problem. She gets better for a while with the treatments I give her, but then it comes back…”
It’s frustrating for the owner (and for the vet).
The key point to understand is that there is a deeper reason for these recurring ear infections, itchy ears, head rubbing, head shaking problems.
It’s a secondary problem in nearly all cases. There is a primary issue in the body that causes changes in the ears. There are a range of things that can be the true cause (and it can be a combination of several things, too).
Let’s dig into primary causes, and what you can do about them.
The shape of your dog has a profound effect on ear health. If you look at all breeds of canids (dogs, wolves, foxes) in the wild, they have pricked ears. Ears that stand up, ears that are open, with exposure to the air. When animals become domesticated, the ear conformation changes for two reasons.
The first reason is that when you select for ‘tamer’ dogs, dogs that are easier to live with, dogs that are less like wild wolves, foxes or dogs, then in a very short space of time, this selection pressure leads to a very different shape of dog. This is illustrated by experiments in Russie where they selected foxes only on temerament – breeding the ones that were quietest, and friendliest with humans. The tamest ones. Within only 7 generations, characteristics such as white patches on the face and body, and floppy ears started to show up in these foxes.
Floppy ears mean that there is less air circulation in the ear. Less air means more moisture. More moisture makes the ears (specifically the ear canals) a more attractive environment for bacteria and yeast to grow in. So by selecting for dogs that are less of a pain in the bum (and having talked to clients who have full blood or part blood dingoes, they are highly intelligent, high drive, and a lot more effort to live with than domestic dogs), you get floppy ears. And this increases the probability of ear infections.
This is exacerbated by the way that humans then breed for extreme features – think of bloodhounds, with their massive, very floppy ears. They have a lot more ear problems than pricked ear breeds. It’s also interesting to note that nearly all the working breeds have pricked ears. Collies, GSD, etc. I have a theory that when you breed drive out of dogs, you breed in characteristics such as floppy ears. Drive is hard to live with. So people wanting an easy pet, and people breeding these types of dogs, tend to select for easier dogs, dogs with less drive, and this leads to floppy ears.
Floppy ears also dry poorly when they get wet.
Another conformation issue is breeding for certain types of coats- like poodles. This leads to a lot of hair growth in the ears, which also makes the ears damper, and provides a great environment for bacteria and yeast to grow in.
A third one is that some breeds or individual dogs have very narrow ear canals. Again, this means they tend to be moist, and are not well ventilated.
What can you do about this? Select a prick-eared dog! Not much you can do to change the shape. However, with floppy eared dogs, you can check the ears very regularly, use ear washes regularly (10% organic non-pasteurised apple cider vinegar in water is a fantastic ear wash), and take steps to minimise any other primary factors. And many floppy-eared dogs will be fine if they don’t have any other primary issues.
Inhalation allergies can cause itchiness and inflammation of the skin anywhere on the body of your dog. One very common area is the skin of the ears – both the ear flaps and the ear canal. Inflammation makes the skin hot and moist. A perfect environment for bacteria and yeast to thrive in. Another problem with chronic inflammation from primary allergies and secondary infections) is that over time you get thickening of the skin, which then makes the ear canal narrow, making the primary problems even worse.
Allergies are right buggers to treat. First thing is to get off all processed foods, onto a fresh whole foods diet low in carbs.
Then you’ll also need to get to a good holistic vet and formulate a holistic treatment plan that may include CBD, local raw honey, daisy oil, homoeopathy, flower essences, acupuncture/acupressure, herbal medicine, supplements etc.
You may need to go to a specialist and have a proper allergen test done. The desensitisation injections protocol they can make up based on these results can be a good safe and effective treatment. Avoid prescription medications (especially Apoquel and Cytopoint. If your dog is in a bad way, cortisone may be required to prevent self-harm.
Processed foods are full of carbs. Carbs heat up your dog’s metabolism. Guess what? Yeast and bacteria love warm, moist conditions, AND yeast loves carbs a LOT. Many dogs with recurrent ear problems, especially if they are secondary to allergies, will improve a lot when you get them off processed foods and onto a fresh whole foods diet (preferably raw). I recommend BARF raw from Better Pets and Gardens or IGA
Vaccinations often cause disruption to the immune system, triggering or worsening allergies and other systemic chronic health problems. The C3 vaccine lasts at least 5-7 years (often longer!). The bottom line is this – NEVER re-vaccinate your dog without a titer test first to see what the antibody levels are like.
Grass seeds are the classic one here- they get down in the ear canal, irritate the skin, inflammation sets in, and then the bacterial infection gets a perfect environment to thrive in. This is an acute problem, and dogs are usually very uncomfortable as soon as the seed gets in there. Usually only one ear, too.
This one is a bit rare, but Sometimes if the neck is restricted or misaligned one ear can have a chronic infection that won’t resolve until you release the problem in the neck.
Always seek out the primary cause!
Otherwise you’ll be pouring antibiotic and steroid ear drops into those problem ears again and again and again. And in some cases, if the ear conformation is awful, or if the dog has had a chronic issue for a long time, or if they get a multidrug-resistant bacteria, major surgery can be required. The intent of the surgery is to open up the ear canal, so air can get in. It’s a major surgery and should be a last resort.
If you have an ear infection that has been treated many times, it is ALWAYS a good idea to take a swab and test to see which antibiotics the bugs are sensitive to.
One other thing that can be secondary to many of these primary causes is an aural haematoma. Your dog shakes their head excessively because their ear is uncomfortable. This bursts blood vessels in the ear flap, and it swells up like a balloon.