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Ask Dr. Jenn: Does my dog have ear mites or an ear infection?

My dog is always scratching at his ears. They are smelly and there is a lot of brown junk in the ears. I have been using ear mite drops every day, but they are getting worse. What can I do?

July 8, 2022 4 min read
Ask Dr. Jenn: Does my dog have ear mites or an ear infection?

Although ear mites can be found in dogs and cats of any age, they are uncommon in adult dogs. Unless your dog has had direct contact with another animal with ear mites, it is unlikely that he has an ear mite infestation. The medication you are using will not be of any benefit if your dog doesn’t have ear mites and it can make the infection worse.

Ear infections caused by yeast and/or bacteria are much more likely in adult dogs. However, microscopic examination of the debris is the best way to differentiate the cause of infection. This is a test your veterinary clinic can perform in the clinic.

Once your veterinarian has determined what is causing the infection, she can determine the appropriate treatment. There are two important parts of the treatment – cleaning the debris out of the ear canal with a gentle cleanser and applying an ear medication to treat the infection. It is important to use an ear cleaner for animals. Water alone should never be used. Homemade concoctions with vinegar or hydrogen peroxide can be very irritating to the ears and oils such as coconut oil are of no benefit.

Because many infections are caused by both yeast and bacteria, most ear medications have three primary ingredients – an antifungal to kill yeast, an antibiotic to kill bacteria, and a corticosteroid to reduce inflammation and itch in the ears.  Some of the medications used in standard preparations can be ototoxic, meaning they can cause temporary deafness if they enter the middle or inner ears. Most ear infections occur in the external ear, which is separated from the middle and inner ear by the tympanic membrane, or ear drum and there is minimal risk of deafness. However, if the ear drum has ruptured, ear medication may enter the deeper parts of the ear and cause sudden hearing loss. This is another reason why it is important to see your veterinarian before starting an ear treatment. Your veterinarian will examine your dog’s ear canals to make sure the eardrum is not torn, and the prescribed medication is safe. If the eardrum is ruptured, she will determine the safest treatment for your pet.

If your dog is anything like my high-energy ball of fluff, ear cleaning turns into a rodeo! It’s almost impossible to do it by myself. Even when I have help, I sometimes forget a once or twice daily treatment. Lucky for me, there are new treatments available that can be done at the veterinary clinic. The veterinary team cleans my dog’s ears thoroughly and applies a special formulation of ear medication that treats the infection over a few weeks. It works great for most simple ear infections, and I don’t have to wrestle my dog every day.

We have talked about how to treat ear infections, but you are probably wondering why dogs get ear infections so commonly. There are a lot of different things that contribute to ear infections. First, unlike people who have a very short outer ear canal, a dog’s ear canal is quite long, and it bends halfway through, almost in an L shape. You may notice that your dog is more prone to ear infections in the summer when he has been swimming a lot. That’s because water can get trapped in the horizontal ear canal, creating a perfect environment for yeast and bacteria.

Allergies can also be blamed for frequent ear infections. When dogs have environmental allergies, it causes skin problems, including inflamed skin, infections, and a lot of itching. When you realize the ears also contain skin, it makes sense that dogs with allergies are more prone to ear infections.

Any dog can develop an ear infection, but I see infections much more frequently in dogs with floppy, heavy ears such as basset hounds, Golden Retrievers, and Saint Bernards, or hairy ears like poodles. Dogs with upright ears, like a German Shepherd, Siberian Husky, or Corgi can get ear infections, but the upright ears allow for more air circulation and less moisture build-up, leading to leas ear infections.

If you have a dog that loves to swim, has big heavy ears, or is prone to skin infections, clean the ears regularly – weekly or every other week – with a gentle ear cleaner for pets. Cleaning the ears may be enough to help prevent ear infections from developing. However, if the ears are red and itchy, debris continues to build up between cleanings, or if you notice a smell in the ears, your dog may have an ear infection. Skip the over-the-counter ear mite medication and make an appointment with your veterinarian.

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