September is a big time of year for ear infections. One of the first things many owners do when encountering their pet’s first ear infection is to go to the pet supply store and got some ear mite medication. After weeks of use it never seems to have fixed the problem. In this area ear mites are almost never the source of the problem except in the case of very young kittens and the rare adult cat. I have yet to see an ear mite infestation in an adult dog. Still, a quick look in the ears can lead to a diagnosis which can then be followed by appropriately targeted treatment.
Ear mites are generally easy to identify. When you look down into the ear with a magnifying otoscope you can see little white monsters stomping around on a bed of blackish exudate like micro Godzillas. I take great delight in battling them with an anti-parasitic medication called Revolution, which is just poured on the skin between the shoulder blades. Not only is it very safe and effective, it doesn’t require pinning down an angry cat and scrubbing its sore ears with semi-toxic, semi-effective medication acquired from the pet supply store. The money saved on emergency room visits for laceration repair for cat owners makes the modest extra expense for the Revolution well worth it.
More likely than not with dogs we are dealing with a combination infection involving yeast and bacteria which are normal inhabitants of the ear canal, but have grown out of balance due to some underlying issue like allergies causing inflamed skin or water softening up the ear canals. These infections usually cause very itchy ears that have dark brown goop coming out of the ear canals with characteristic smell that is unmistakable once you have encountered it. The smell sometimes attracts other dogs in the household to come lick at the ears of the dog with the infection. Often owners interpret this as the other dog being nice and cleaning the ears of the first dog. What it probably really means is that one dog has a stinky, yet somehow irresistibly delicious problem with his ears and needs treatment.
Yeast/bacterial infections in the ears are identified by looking a sample of the ear goop under the microscope. The first step in treatment is to use appropriate medications, often in the form of topical ointments that go in the ear, to actively address the source of the problem. Owners frequently tell me that they have been cleaning the ears for weeks but they don’t seem to be getting better. Ear cleaners alone do not stop the goop factory, they only help clear the goop out once it has been created. Medication is needed to stop the infection.
Ear cleaners do have an important role in the treatment process, however, because the medications are more effective when the ear canals are clean. There are lots of home remedies for ear washes out there, most of which involve some combination of vinegar, rubbing alcohol, and/or hydrogen peroxide. I recommend that every owner take a moment to imagine they have a very painful, raw ear canal. Next imagine what it might feel like to dump vinegar, rubbing alcohol, or hydrogen peroxide into that ear. After that exercise you should go to your veterinarian for a gentle, effective ear cleaner that won’t cause psychological trauma when used.
Even though ear problems are common in dogs (less so in cats) it is important to understand that there are several different things that cause similar looking problems. Don’t just assume you know what the cause of the problem is. Get a real diagnosis from your vet so you can treat the actual problem right off the bat.