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Ear Infections in Cats and Dogs

Ear infections can easily become chronic, so early treatment and proper care is important.

May 24, 2018 5 min read
Ear Infections in Cats and Dogs

Ear infections are a very common problem in dogs and cats. There are many different causes and numerous treatment regimens to affect a cure. Hygiene is of major importance both in curing the problem and most importantly in prevention of recurrence. Ear infections can easily become chronic in nature, so proper therapy early in the course of the disease is important, along with long term commitment to keeping the ears as clean as possible at all times.

Dogs and cats ears differ from human ears in several significant ways. The main difference is the shape and length of the ear canal. It is longer in animals and has a downward and then inward direction. Cleaning them requires more effort than in people. Because the external ear canal in animals takes a downward and inward path, when you clean the ears you will gently be pulling up on the external ear to straighten this canal out and allow deeper penetration of medication.

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Pets commonly give their owners a clue that their ears are bothering them. Most pets will either have discharge, odor, or will be shaking their head more than usual. Sometimes the ear flap will become extremely swollen-this is called an aural hematoma. Pets that have a foreign body in their ear like a fox tail will be shaking their head extensively and frequently paw at the affected ear.


Ear disease is caused by many different and predisposing factors, some of them working in combination:

• Anatomy - deep ear canals and long floppy ears are predisposing causes because they set up a warm and moist environment that bacteria and fungi thrive in.
• Breed - Some breeds like Cocker Spaniels are commonly affected because of allergies, long floppy ears, and inbreeding.
• Allergy - In addition to causing itchy skin and hair loss in general, allergies can also cause ear problems.
• Low Thyroid - On occasion low thyroid hormone can cause ear problems
• Parasites - Ear mites are also a cause of ear disease, especially in cats
• Drug reactions - Any drug can cause a reaction that inflames the ear, so if your pet is taking medication for a condition, you might want to keep close watch on their ears for any signs of inflammation.
• Hygiene - Debris in the ear canal can cause an infection
• Immune system diseases


Since there are many causes to ear disease an accurate diagnosis is essential to relieving the problem. Several diagnostic tests are routinely used:

A routine physical exam is used on every pet that is presented with ear problems because ear infections can be a sign that there are problems elsewhere in the body. This exam is an essential part of the diagnostic process and might include routine blood work.

Ear swabs are used to obtain a sample of discharge for microscopic analysis. Microscopic analysis of the discharge helps determine if your pet's problem is bacterial or fungal related. This analysis is performed by taking some of the discharge from the ear canal, staining it blue with a special stain, and observing how many bacteria or fungi are noted. A culture of the discharge from the ear is sometimes used as an aid to determine what bacteria or fungus is causing the problem. Since many organisims are usually grown in a culture, and some of them are normal inhabitants, this test is not always advantageous. The otoscope is an important tool that allows us to visualize the anatomy of the external ear canal, including the ear drum. It is also used to retrieve foreign bodies, usually foxtails, from the ear canal, and to check for tumors. Checking for proper thyroid levels is also an important test in every dog that has recurring problems, such as in Golden Retrievers.

In addition to these procedures, allergy tests are also utilized when they are suspected as the cause of the problem. A blood sample may also be taken to test for allergies to food, commonly found material inside of your house, and plant like materials found throughout our area in the outdoors. Your doctor will let you know if this test is needed.

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Each ear infection requires specific treatment depending on the results of the physical exam and diagnostic tests. If there are underlying problems your doctor will prescribe medication to prevent them. In the overwhelming majority of cases medical care is all that is needed. Surgical correction of an ear infection is usually used only after medical care has been unable to control the problem.

For the majority of ear infections proper cleaning and routine topical medication will correct the problem. In some pets the ears are so inflamed that its painful to clean the ears. In these severe cases sedation may be used along with flushing. A warm cleansing solution is used to remove debris and infection from deep within the ear canal by flushing action only. Learning how to clean your pet's ears is crucial. Once you have an ear infection under control, which takes 3-7 days in most cases, your goal should be to clean your pet's ears once or twice each week in order to prevent recurrence. Infections that continually recur are very painful and substantially decrease your pet's quality of life.

Your doctor will routinely prescribe two medications. The first is used to gently clean the ear canal and remove debris and infection. The second medication is a combination preparation that kills either bacteria, fungi, or parasites. These medications usually contain an anti-inflammatory preparation to help soothe the ear. Occasionally your doctor will prescribe oral medication to clear up the infection and to decrease the inflammation in the ear canal.

Many dogs have hair inside of the ear canal. This hair is removed to facilitate cleaning and to let air circulate into the ear canal. This should be done routinely, which for most dogs is once monthly. These ears are typical of a pet that needs the hair removed from its ears and a thorough cleaning.

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