Scratch, scratch, scratch. 

Your dog’s collar tags jingle-jangle a metallic melody over the bass-like thumping of their tail—this familiar tune has kept you up half the night. You turn on the light and check on your dog, although you already know what you’ll see—and smell.

You lift their ear, and are met with a familiar ripe odor—despite finishing your pet’s most recent medication only weeks ago, their ear infection has returned. The team at Tamberly Animal Hospital understands your frustration. Ear infections are a seemingly simple but secretly complex condition with many causes, with many barriers to effective long-term resolution. Let’s take a look at what makes ear infections so ear-rational about treatment.

Defining chronic ear infections in pets

Otitis externa (i.e., inflammation of the outer ear canal in dogs and, less frequently, cats) is one of the most common reasons why pet owners seek veterinary care. When the ear canal becomes inflamed, pets experience significant pain, and attempt to resolve their discomfort through various actions, including:

  • Head shaking
  • Scratching 
  • Rubbing their head on furniture or the floor
  • Pawing at the ears
  • Head tilt

On visual inspection, the external ear canal may be red, swollen, or thickened. If a bacterial or fungal infection is present, the ear will have an unusual odor and possibly discharge.  

Ear infection causes in pets

Chronic otitis externa’s complex and cyclical nature makes distinguishing primary and secondary causes necessary. The often unavoidable causes of pets being more vulnerable to infection (i.e., predisposing factors), and the reasons why an infection seems to defy treatment (i.e., perpetuating factors) also must be determined.

Imagine chronic ear infection as a cycle that looks like this:

  • Primary causes — These conditions create the inflammatory environment needed for infection (i.e., a secondary cause) to take hold. Allergies, hypersensitivity, mites, autoimmune or hormone-related diseases, tumors, polyps, and foreign objects (e.g., grass awns) are primary causes for otitis externa.  
  • Secondary causes — Most owners and veterinarians first notice these causes—a bacterial or fungal (i.e., yeast) infection. As bacteria or yeast multiply, they create the actual “disease” state in the ear canal, and cause visible signs, such as scratching and discomfort.
  • Predisposing factors — All dogs and cats are susceptible to ear infections, but predisposing factors make some more likely to suffer. These include breed structure (e.g., floppy ears, narrow canals, hair inside the ear canal), environmental factors (e.g., bathing, or swimming) and other concurrent diseases.
  • Perpetuating factors — Inflammation and infection can alter the ear canal structure (e.g., tissue thickening, calluses, narrowed ear canals, eardrum rupture) and make ear infections difficult to fully treat. 

Why your pet’s ear infections return after treatment

Because most pets suffer with the acute otitis externa form (i.e., a one-time-only infection treatable with medicine), medication is typically the veterinarian’s first treatment choice. They will prescribe medication specific to your pet’s infection (e.g., bacterial or fungal), which is determined by an ear cytology or a culture and sensitivity test.

A pet’s ear infection likely returns because the initial medication treated only the secondary cause—bacteria or yeast—and not the underlying cause. Without determining and addressing the primary issue, your pet’s chronic ear infections will persist no matter how much you apply medication, or how often you clean their ears.

Allergies and chronic ear infections in pets

Allergies are the most frequent primary cause of chronic ear infections. Pets can suffer from environmental (e.g., pollen, grass, dust) and food-related allergies or sensitivity. Unlike humans, who express allergies through the respiratory system, pets manifest their allergies through the skin—and most frequently through their “ears, rears, and feet” (i.e., through ear infections, anal sac impaction or irritation, and chewing or licking the skin between the toes).

Chronic ear infection treatment in pets

If allergies are suspected, your Tamberly Animal Hospital veterinarian will make specific diagnostic and treatment recommendations. Because allergy testing is somewhat costly, many pet owners opt to treat their pets empirically, presuming the allergies are based on the clinical signs. Treatment options may include:

  • Ear medication — Antibiotic or antifungal medication is used to treat current infection and ear inflammation. Because some bacteria can become resistant, completing the entire treatment cycle is essential—do not stop treating your pet’s ears simply because they look better.
  • Anti-inflammatories — Painful pets may receive steroids for fast-acting relief.
  • Novel protein diet — If a food allergy or sensitivity is suspected, novel protein or hypoallergenic diets can alleviate allergy signs and prevent future triggers. 
  • Dermatology diet — Such a diet can effectively reduce allergy signs from both food and environmental allergies.
  • Surgery If your pet’s ear canals are narrowed or thickened from chronic inflammation, surgical correction may be necessary.
  • Follow-ups — Recheck appointments ensure your pet’s infection has resolved, their home care is effective, and they are monitored for recurrence.

How to improve your pet’s ear health

Although some predisposing factors are unchangeable (e.g., ear canal shape, breed conformation), you can take steps to help reduce your pet’s otitis externa risk, including:

  • Grooming — Pluck your pet’s ear hair, and keep hair around ear canals trimmed short.
  • Avoid water in the ears — Place cotton balls in your dog’s ears before a bath, and clean them after swimming.
  • Clean your pet’s ears often — Our veterinary team will advise you on proper, gentle, cleaning techniques, and recommend an effective cleaner.

When your pet’s ears are infected, you must follow your veterinarian’s treatment instructions to the letter. Chronic ear infection treatment will likely fail without diligent effort, so commit to each step, and always finish all medications as prescribed.

Are your pet’s ears stinky again? Don’t wait—schedule an appointment at Tamberly Animal Hospital. We can help end your pet’s—and your—suffering.