Ear Disease in Dogs: Part Two

If your dog suffers from ear disease, this blog’s for you! Ear problems can be so darned frustrating to deal with, primarily because they are so prone to recurrence. Part One of this series focused on the anatomy of the canine ear canal. If you haven’t had a chance to read this I encourage you to do so. Observing the length and slope of the external ear canal will help you understand why dogs are prone to otitis externa (inflammation in the external ear canal) and why it can be difficult to treat.

Why is it that some dogs go through an entire lifetime without a single ear problem, yet others become lifelong repeat offenders? Here are some predisposing factors:


Allergies are commonplace in dogs. Some develop allergies to food ingredients, others to environment allergens such as dust, pollens, and molds. While most allergic dogs have itchy skin, some experience inflammation within the ear canals as their only symptom. This inflammation causes production of excess cerumen (ear wax) which happens to be an ideal culture media for the growth of yeast and bacterial organisms.

Identifying and appropriately treating the underlying allergies are necessary to eradicate the chronic ear problems they cause. Doing so may involve a hypoallergenic food trial (strict adherence to a novel protein diet for six to eight weeks) or specific testing to identify which environmental allergies are at play (skin testing preferred to blood testing).

Underlying diseases that affect the skin

The lining of the ear canals is truly an extension of the skin, so it makes sense that diseases that cause skin inflammation may have the same effect on the ear canals. As discussed above, allergies are a classic example. Other diseases that can affect both skin and ears include seborrhea, autoimmune diseases, mites, and hormonal imbalances such as diabetes, hypothyroidism (inadequate production of thyroid hormone), and Cushing’s disease (overproduction of adrenal gland hormones). Treatment of the underlying primary disease is the best bet for resolving the ear problems.

Moisture within the ear canal

Small numbers of yeast and bacterial organisms reside within the normal ear canal. Add moisture to the mix and the populations of these microorganisms can multiply resulting in infection.

When water enters the ear canal it tends to stay put, thanks to gravity working in conjunction with the length and slope of the ear canal. No matter how much head shaking occurs or how many cotton balls are used to soak up the surface water, that ear canal is going to stay wet following swimming and bathing.

The options for dealing with this situation are to prevent the ear canals from ever getting wet (you try suggesting this to someone with a Labrador and a backyard swimming pool), or the consistent application of “drying agent” into the ear canals after they get wet. Ask your veterinarian for a product recommendation. The recipe for a homemade drying agent consists of one part white vinegar, one part water, and one part 70% isopropyl alcohol (avoid the 90% variety). Please do not use this concoction in your dog’s ears before discussing it with your veterinarian.

Gently place a wad of cotton balls within the opening to the external ear canals prior to bath time. Once they are place coat the outer surface of the cotton balls with some petroleum jelly to help repel water. Be sure to remember to remove them when bath time is over!

A growth or foreign body within the ear canal

Any time normal anatomy is disrupted by something that shouldn’t be there, infection is likely to result. The ear canal commonly responds to the presence of a mass or foreign body in this fashion. This is one of the reasons it is so important for a veterinarian to visually inspect the entirety of an infected ear canal using an instrument called an otoscope. Removal of the mass or foreign body is the key to treating the secondary ear infection.

Narrowed (stenotic) ear canals

The normal ear canal is a wide-open structure. When narrowed, it prevents normal air circulation and predisposes to accumulation of waxy discharge. Both of these factors create the perfect storm for infection to occur. Some dogs are born with stenotic ear canals. For others narrowing is a sequela to chronic inflammation that causes thickening of the tissues lining the ear canal. In severe cases, surgical revision to “open up” the ear canal may be necessary.

Are you wondering why I did not add “hairy ear canals” to this list of factors predisposing to canine ear disease? In the good ole’ days we used to torment dogs by stripping the hair out of their ear canals thinking this would prevent infection. Now we know that doing so actually creates inflammation that can then lead to infection. With rare exception, hair removal from the ear canals is a big “no-no”.

Stay tuned for Part Three of this series in which I will review specific diseases of the canine ear canal and their treatment.

Have any of the predisposing causes mentioned above been identified as the cause of ear problems in one of your dogs?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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11 Comments on “Ear Disease in Dogs: Part Two

  1. What about removing hair from the ears of poodles as a preventative? My vet says it is a must in preventing ear infections. My standard’s ears close completely with hair if it isn’t removed. When he came into the rescue organization from which I got him, his ears were horribly infected, but with regular hair removal and cleaning, they have been fine for years.

  2. Hi Rosie. Please stay tuned for my next two blog posts in which I will discuss drying agents!

  3. Doctor Nancy,

    I adopted a 3 year old Havanese 6 months ago. Would like to know how to administer a drying agent if needed. I see a bit of oily/waxy residue at the outside of her ears. Don’t believe I get any water in the ears when I bath her. And she hasn’t displayed any symptoms of infection. Next summer I’d like to take her to the river swimming. What I don’t know is what, if anything, I should do afterwards.

    Part 1 was so interesting and educational. Truly appreciate your sharing knowledge with us.

  4. I agree with the notion that diet is very much a factor with ear problems. I have three Cane Corso. I have no problems with their ears as long as they have no wheat in their diet.
    If i introduce wheat back into their diet ( in form of cookies etc) the itchy ear syndrome comes back. Take the wheat away & no gooky ears.
    A lot of dogs are allergic to wheat. Grains are not a natural part of a dog diet even thought Humans see it as such.

  5. Hi Jane. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. I recognize that there is controversy about grains in diets. Board certified dermatologists (I am a board certified internist) tend to agree that proteins are the major players in terms of triggering allergic reactions. The dietary trials they recommend to test the waters are novel protein diets containing things such as venison, fish, duck, rabbit, and even kangaroo!

  6. I was slightly alarmed to read that you described a ” hypoallergenic food trial (strict adherence to a novel protein diet ” when the majority of food allergies are to grains in dog food, which at best are empty filler and at worst, something nasty. When I talk to someone whose dog has ear problems, the first thing I recommend is a grain-free diet.
    I have one dog who gets ear infections every year or so; I use an ear cleaner for a few days (prescribed by my vet) and that often clears it up.

  7. “… With rare exception, hair removal from the ear canals is a big ‘no-no’.”

    Oh Nancy, you have made my day! I’ve been told over and over that I need to do this for Esme. She’s a maltese/poodle with hairy ear canals, and a big swimmer to boot. Not only that, we adopted her with an ear infection that fortunately cleared up right away with medication.

    I do have a drying agent. She hates it so I’ve been, shall we say, “somewhat lax,” about using it. I check her ears daily — she’s had no problems since. I’ve even plucked a couple hairs after being told there aren’t many nerve endings so it shouldn’t bother her. Wrong! It bothers her big-time. So glad I do not have to “torture” her further.

    Thanks for a great series of articles with a happy ending for us.

  8. One of my boys has a repeat ear problem. He lies on that side in dirt, so he gets the sniff test every morning. I do wipe out those ears, but he is what he is.

  9. Similar to jill, my sister’s doodle has extreme ear hair. I can’t imagine that leaving her hair in her ears would do her any good at all, despite her chronic ear infections :(
    Certainly not a breed designed to live without human intervention, though!

  10. Hi Dr Nancy,

    I’m so grateful for this article as it is so troubling for so many dogs and owners. I have a dog who swims and dives after the ball. I could never stop letting my dog swim b/c he loves it so much so management is the key for us, which I”m diligent about and he rarely gets an infection.

    On the other hand, I am training a doodle puppy right now who had so much hair in her ears that one couldn’t see anything, even using an otoscope was very difficult. The owners vet put this 4 month old puppy on ear meds twice in 2 months and when I got her the ears were all greasy from the meds which never made it into her ears. The puppy was getting quite fussy so when I got her, I had my favorite groomer remove the hair. What was underneath all that mess was a perfectly clean ear, no infection, no odor and a very happy puppy. I brought her to my vet and he checked her ears a couple of days later and said there was no infection. The owners vet said don’t pull the hair, she needs it. So, this puppy is the rare case you were talking about. Leaving this much hair inside this dogs ear was a bad thing b/c the water, a great swimmer BTW, that got in her ears just from playing in the water, NEVER dried out and the smell was wet dog smell, not infection.

    aka SheWhisperer

  11. I currently have two cockers with good ears, a rarity! They are a bit itchy but they get regular ear cleaning and I do the sniff test during cuddles just to be sure! Also, if they ever have to go to the vet for any other reason, I ask the vet to check the ears. Rescued cockers almost always arrive at shelters with ear infections (among other problems) and sometimes require ablation surgery.