Chronic (i.e., recurring) ear infections can negatively affect your pet’s quality of life. Without prompt and targeted treatment, what begins as a minor battle can rapidly become a full-on war against resistant bacteria, damaging inflammation, and middle ear disorders.   

If your pet suffers from chronic ear issues, don’t give up—help is on the way with this guide from Walnut Creek Veterinary Hospital.

Ear-resistably vulnerable pets

Why do some pets get repeated ear infections, while others never so much as shake their head? Your pet’s ear conformation, or structure, holds much of the answer. Long, lobular ears that close off the ear canal create a dark, warm environment for bacteria to grow. Without consistent air flow, the ear canal retains moisture, and creates an hospitable environment for itch-inducing fungal organisms like yeast. Breeds predisposed to ear infections include:

  • Basset hounds
  • Cocker spaniels
  • Golden retrievers
  • Labrador retrievers
  • Poodles and poodle mixes (e.g., Goldendoodles, labradoodles)

In addition, dogs with naturally narrow ear canals or inner-ear hair (e.g., poodles, shih tzus) are prone to recurring infections. 

Chronic ear infection causes in pets

In pets with chronic ear conditions, the infection and irritation seem to return as soon as treatment is complete. So, what’s going on? The most common reasons why ear infections return include:

  • Improper treatment — This can include attempting to treat your pet at home, inappropriate antibiotics, or applying  medication inconsistently.
  • Foreign object — The body will react to a grass awn or seed in the ear canal by creating inflammation, which can cause discomfort and infection that will persist if the foreign object is not found. Abnormal tissue growths and tumors may also create discomfort and a hiding place for bacteria.
  • Resistant bacteria — Bacteria can develop antibiotic resistance against popular medications, especially if treatment is inconsistent or frequent. If your veterinarian suspects resistant bacteria, they will recommend an antibiotic culture and sensitivity test to determine an effective treatment.
  • Inadequate cleaning — If you are not correctly or completely cleaning your pet’s ears, you may be forcing debris further inside, or damaging the eardrum.
  • Ear mite infestation — Cats, and less frequently dogs, can suffer from microscopic ear mites, which cannot be removed through cleaning or traditional ear medication and need to be killed with a miticide treatment. 
  • Allergies — Environmental and food allergies are expressed through the skin, creating inflammation and an ideal opportunity for ear infections. Until the allergy is identified and addressed, infection and inflammation will always return. 

Ear infection signs in pets

If your pet has chronic ear infections, you no doubt think you know the signs, but because early recognition can reduce your pet’s discomfort and misery more quickly, you should be familiar with all the potential indications, which may include:

  • Head shaking 
  • Scratching or pawing at ears
  • Facial rubbing
  • Head tilting
  • Unusual odor 
  • Dark brown debris
  • Yellow or green discharge
  • Swollen or thickened external canal
  • Scabbing, scratch marks, or bleeding
  • Misshapen or fluid-filled ear flap (i.e., hematoma)  
  • Balance issues, which indicate inner involvement 

Accurately diagnosing pets with chronic ear infections

When your pet visits Walnut Creek Veterinary Hospital for an ear infection, our evaluation will begin with an examination of your pet’s vertical and horizontal ear canal. Our veterinarian will use an instrument called an otoscope to visualize the eardrum, and identify inflammation, eardrum rupture, foreign objects, growths, or accumulated debris. If your pet’s ears are painful or sensitive—as they often are in chronically affected pets—this exam may not be possible without sedation.

We will take swabbed samples of your pet’s ear tissue and debris, and review them under a microscope for bacteria, yeast, or parasites. If bacteria are present, we may perform a culture and sensitivity test to test specific antibiotics against the bacteria.

Treatment for chronic ear infections

Based on the severity of your pet’s ear infection and the underlying cause, long-range treatment can vary. However, most treatment plans involve:

  • Pain management — Treating painful ears is challenging, so we always ensure that the pet receives proper pain medication, such as an anti-inflammatory or a short steroids course, to calm the ear tissue and relieve tenderness. 
  • Address the infection — We will administer antibiotics or antifungal medication as a one-time dose, or for daily treatment at home. 
  • Thorough ear cleaning — Removing debris and discharge from the ear canal is essential for treatment success and pet comfort. Depending on your pet’s condition and pain level, we may recommend a deep ear flush under anesthesia to ensure a completely clean canal. 
  • Allergy medication — If allergies are to blame, we may prescribe medication to reduce your pet’s allergic response.
  • Diet change — Food allergic pets require a specialized diet and an exclusive feeding trial to determine the allergen ingredient.

Dogs and cats with permanent tissue damage may be candidates for a total ear canal ablation surgery (TECA). The TECA removes the vertical ear canal and creates a new opening for the horizontal canal, which may sound extreme, but can be life-changing for chronically painful pets. 

Preventing pet ear infections

If your pet is prone to ear infections, promote good ear health with these techniques:

  • Weekly cleaning — Every week, gently clean your pet’s ears using a cotton ball soaked in cleaner. Avoid using cotton swabs, which can be painful, without veterinary instruction.
  • Hair removal — Poodles, shih tzus, and similar breeds need their ear hair plucked regularly by a groomer to prevent debris accumulation.
  • Dry ears completely After swimming or a bath, clean your pet’s ears and use a drying agent to remove moisture.

If your pet is experiencing ear infection signs or suffers from chronic ear issues, don’t be ear-ritated—contact Walnut Creek Veterinary Hospital, and let us get to the true cause, and alleviate your pet’s discomfort.