Keeping Pets' Ears Healthy

Prevention Tips & Treatment Options



Ear infections are common in the pet population, especially in humid summer months that invite water play. Fido, the mixed breed, may keep running his cheek up and down the side of the couch, trying to find relief for his itchy ears; or the tabby, Fluffy, waits until bedtime to begin intensely scratching her ears beside the bed, interrupting a family member’s sleep. Whether a pet is plagued by a chronic condition or is a bewildered first-time sufferer, such infections disrupt a pet’s health and well-being. Causes vary, as do treatments, but prevention is always the best medicine.

Indicators of Ear Trouble

Contact a holistic or integrative veterinarian to identify the source of the problem and devise a course of action to prevent a possible infection from escalating if a pet is demonstrating one or more symptoms: scratching the ears with their paws or rubbing them along the carpet or furniture; an offensive odor emanating from the ears; dirty appearance of ears—visible brown, black or yellow debris in the ear canal; red, inflamed ears; or whimpering, crying or withdrawing when the pet’s ear is gently touched.

Primary Causes & Treatment Options

During a routine appointment for an ear infection, a veterinarian may inspect the ear canal with an otoscope for inflammation and will collect a swab of debris to identify the source of the problem. Sometimes there are multiple culprits; it is fairly common for both yeast and bacteria to be present.

Bacteria and yeast infections tend to be more common in dogs, because of their anatomy. Hair grows in the ears of many dogs; when combined with floppy or drooping earflaps, a dark, moist environment is created in which bacteria and yeast can flourish. Breeds with this tendency include cocker spaniels, basset hounds, schnauzers and poodles.

A very common cause of ear infections is skin allergies, and treatment can be more challenging than handling a comparatively simple bacterial or fungal infection. While humans may exhibit a runny nose or itchy eyes from an allergic reaction, a cat or dog commonly reveals its skin allergies by inflammation in the ears. Factors may be food-related or environmental or both.

Identifying an animal’s allergies is a priority; often, a simple change in diet can solve the problem. Especially for pets with chronic ear infections, avoid the discomfort of repeated infections by requesting a professional diagnostic allergy test to identify possible environmental and food allergens. Such testing may involve three separate methods: a blood test for sensitivity to either food or environmental sources; intradermal exposure to environmental allergens (pricking the skin with a small source of allergen to see the reaction); or trials eliminating possible food or regional environmental allergens. As a last resort, some pets may also benefit from allergy injections as part of immunotherapy to desensitize them to specific allergic reactions.

Once the source of an infection has been identified, appropriate steps will be recommended.

If bacteria or yeast is the issue, topical treatment may include both a medicated ear cleanser and an ointment. Medicine will vary from antibiotic to antifungal or antiparasitic, depending on the diagnosis, or be a broadspectrum medication. Often, when owners begin to see an improvement, they stop the medication prematurely, as applications are typicallyEar Health in Cats and Dogs not a pleasant task. It is important to continue to treat the pet’s ears as any prescription indicates. Upon completion, the veterinarian will likely want to recheck the ears to confirm success.

With certain severe ear infections, additional steps may still be necessary, including oral antibiotics or, if the pet continues to experience discomfort, an anti-inflammatory pain reliever. Traumeel Pure Ear Drops is a homeopathic anti-inflammatory that provides temporary relief for ear discomfort and minor ear inflammation. Zymox Otic Enzymatic Solution can be used to treat acute or chronic ear inflammation caused by either bacterial or yeast conditions. If a pet’s ear infection is not treated early and properly, it can, on rare occasions, lead to more severe problems that require surgical intervention.

Other Possible Causes

Ear mites (tiny arthropods that can reside in a cat’s or dog’s ear canal) are more common in cats. They are visible under the vet’s microscope and require specific treatment.

Occasionally, a foreign object lodged in a pet’s ear canal can be the cause of an infection. A vet’s ear exam should reveal the troublesome presence.

Certain diseases also affect ear infections, such as thyroid or immunesuppressing diseases. Cats with diabetes also tend to be more prone to ear infections. The family vet knows the pet’s history and can advise treatment that addresses the underlying cause.

Natural Prevention is Key

To prevent infection in the first place or to minimize future problems once a pet’s ear infection has been successfully treated, follow these simple steps.

• Thoroughly clean the pet’s ears once a week with a cleanser recommended by the family veterinarian. Do not put a Q-tip in their ears; use a cotton ball.

• Pluck the pet’s ear hair periodically (a groomer can also do this).

• Minimize water in the ear canal after swimming trips by using a vet-recommended ear product containing a drying agent like salicylic acid to reduce the moisture in the ear canal.


Dr. Matthew J. Heller is an integrative veterinarian and owner of All About PetCare, in Middletown, OH.

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