Why Does My Dog's Ear Infection Keep Coming Back?
Ear infections in dogs are so common that about 16% of dogs that go into the vet are dealing with this problem. Many are swabbed, diagnosed, get better with treatment, then come right back. Why does this happen again and again, and what can you do to prevent this?
Ear Infection Symptoms and Why They Keep Coming Back
Is your dog a victim of ear infections that keep coming back?
Almost all dog owners have dealt with ear infections at some time. They are painful but are usually easily treated in just a few days. The symptoms are easy to notice, especially if you have a dog that has suffered from this problem over and over—recurrent otitis externa.
Symptoms of an Ear Infection
• Foul odor from the ears
• Shaking head excessively
• Rubbing head against the wall, furniture, or carpet
• Scratching at the ears
• Head tilt
• Drainage from the ears
Ear infections can keep coming back for several reasons:
- If you have a Cocker Spaniel, Springer Spaniel, Labrador, Shar Pei, Basset Hound, or one of the other dogs with abnormal ears, this problem is a pretty common one. Some breeds suffer from long and heavy ears that keep the ear closed all of the time, others have narrow canals (stenotic canals, like those of Shar peis and English bulldogs) that do not leave the ear open, and others, like the Poodle, have ear canals full of hair.
- If your dog is not one of the breeds anatomically predisposed to problems, but still has recurrent ear infections, he may be suffering from food or inhalant allergies. An ear infection may be the only sign present in some dogs with a food allergy.
- If your dog swims often, especially if she has ears those floppy ears that do not get much air, she is more likely to get a new ear infection as soon as the other one is cleared up.
- A dog with a foreign body (like a foxtail) that was never removed will keep having ear infections despite treatment.
- If your dog´s infection (bacteria, yeast, or even mites) is never really taken care of, it will seem to go away but will be back.
Cleaning the Ears and Treating the Infection
The first time your dog has symptoms of an infection the treatment is pretty straightforward. When you notice the symptoms I describe in the section above, have your dog´s ears examined by your veterinarian and make sure that the ear drum is intact.
How to clean your dog's ears:
- Fill the ear with a cleaning solution. I recommend a homemade solution of white vinegar—a mixture of 1/3 vinegar to 2/3 water.
- Fill the ear with the cleaning solution. The amount will vary by the size of the dog, but add enough that it is overflowing.
- Massage the ears, especially the base of the canals all the way down to the head. You should hear the liquid as you move it around in there.
- Stand back—your dog is going to shake her head and the wax and other gunk in the ear canals are going to be loosened by the vinegar and will go everywhere.
- If your dog does not make a mess, even with an ear infection, you might need to repeat this. Make sure to give the ear canals a deep massage.
Vinegar will make the ear acidic and if it is a mild ear infection that change may be enough to take care of the problem. To take care of it as quickly as possible, be sure to purchase the antibiotics or yeast medication that your vet recommends.
(If your dog has been pawing at her ears and they are already scratched up DO NOT use the vinegar until the scratches are healed up. You can apply aloe vera gel to wounds to decrease the swelling and help them heal.
The dose of medication your vet recommends will vary so follow the directions. Some medications will contain antibiotics, others a medication to combat yeast, and others will contain a steroid to decrease itching and swelling.
Keeping the Ear Infection From Coming Back
There is a lot of controversy on what works best to prevent this happening again and again. The reason for all of the controversy is that there are no simple answers.
For a healthy dog, ear cleanings are not necessary, but if your dog is prone to infections, I would recommend that you clean the ears every week. If you take your dog swimming, it is a good idea to put some of the ear cleaners in before you even bring the dog home.
Some vets recommend that you do not mess with the ears since the cleaning might provoke an infection. Frequent plucking of hair (as in Poodles or some other breeds that do not shed) may also provoke recurrent ear infections.
As far as a medication to use in a chronic situation, I cannot recommend one that works every time. If you use a medication prescribed by your conventional vet (an antibiotic/antifungal/steroid combination) your dog may end up with a resistant infection and calcified ear canals.
What If It Comes Back Anyway?
Okay, you follow the instructions, treat your dog, but a few weeks later she starts shaking her head.
The ear infection is back.
If this problem comes back as soon as it is cleared up, especially if the dog is not one of those breeds that suffer from recurrent ear infections, there are several possibilities:
- Food allergy
- Inhalant allergy
- Parasite or foreign body that was not taken care of the first time
- Excessive grooming
Take her in for another exam to rule out a foreign body, and have the ears swabbed for mite infestation.
If it is a simple infection, I recommend that you try an elimination diet. An elimination diet is designed to help you decide what your dog is allergic to. Start out with just one new protein source, feed it for a month or so, and if the ear problems clear up introduce another source. If the ear problems come back, stop feeding the new protein source.
If the ear infection only happens in the spring or summer, it is possible that it will clear up with a new diet but then come back next spring. There is nothing you can do but wait and see. When your dog starts licking her paws, scratching, and then develops an ear infection, you can try atopy injections (for inhalant allergies) or alternative holistic therapies.
Surgical Repair: The Last Step
If the ears develop infections no matter what you try, the only alternative is a surgical change. Many holistic veterinarians are against this procedure but for dogs with polyps or chronically swollen ears this might be your only answer.
The ear canals are totally removed and your dog is left with his ear drum exposed.
This is a last-chance procedure.
If your dog has recurrent otitis externa, how often do you clean the ears?
Is There an Answer for All Dogs?
For all dogs, I recommend keeping the ears clean and dry. This is the best chance of keeping your dog from getting ear infections over and over.
I would also recommend trying a grain free diet. The carbohydrates in grains might make the condition worse, so whether you want to use one of the commercial foods or a homemade raw diet I would do this immediately. This may or may not work, depending on the cause of her problem.
I wish I could tell you that one medication is always going to work in all cases. Traditional vets will prescribe an antibiotic like gentamycin or an antifungal medication, as well as using a steroid against the inflammation and swelling. Holistic vets might try garlic, witch hazel, or probiotic yogurt.
Why are there so many different treatments? It is because nothing works all of the time.
No matter who does the prescribing, treating ear infections that keep coming back is just a hit and miss procedure. If you have an experienced vet available, follow his or her recommendations.
And be sure to keep the ears clean and dry as described above.
Questions & Answers
We have a Great Pyrenees who has constant ear infections the only time he doesn't is when he is on antibiotics. We have have taken chicken and chick bi-products from his diet which help for a month or two. His ears are so sensitive that even when he scratches or shakes his head he cries. Any suggestions?
My ten year old, male Blue Heeler has chronic ear infections and has already had surgery. He is on a daily dose of Prednisone which is taking a toll on him. His ears and hardened and he can no longer hold them up. Could you please suggest something that doesn't have such terrible side effects as Prednisone?
It is possible that your Blue Heelers ears are hardened because of the chronic infection, not because of the Prednisone. Have you looked into what is causing this recurrent infection? Does the dog have signs of inhalant allergies or food allergies?
There is not a good medical substitute for prednisone, and, as you are noticing, the drug has a lot of side effects. The best chance for your dog is to determine what is causing the infection to come back and fix that. Consider trying to change his diet first.