Being Alert to Canine Ear Conditions

We all know that sore and itchy ears are a common condition in dogs, but it might surprise you to know that these conditions can be the reason for up to 20% of veterinary consultations. Research shows that similar conditions amount to less than 6% of consultations in cats so, clearly, we need to be alert to ear conditions in our dogs.

Otitis – a general term for inflammation or infection of the ear – occurring in both humans and animals, can be extremely painful and is often frustrating to treat. It frequently recurs because tissue changes resulting from repeated episodes tend to increase the likelihood of further recurrence.

Most dog owners will spot the tell-tale signs: the dog tilts or shakes its head or rubs and scratches around its ears.

These actions flag up a problem and further examination may show hot spots, a smelly discharge and sometimes loss of hair around the ear. The important thing is to act quickly and prevent the problem from becoming entrenched.

What we’re seeing at this stage is known as a flare and usually indicates an underlying cause: inflammation that may have resulted from the presence of a foreign body or infestation of parasites. Our first thought is to seek some comforting treatment for the symptoms of the flare, but it is far better to plan treatment for any underlying causes to avoid further recurrence.

Vets refer to this as a PPSP system, involving primary, predisposing, secondary and perpetuating factors and, by understanding this, we come to realise that ear disease is far more serious than a minor discomfort to be dealt with by applying an ear cleaner bought from the supermarket shelves.

Some dogs are born with predisposing factors (such as narrow or hairy ear canals and allergic skin disease) but other lifestyle factors such as swimming can increase the likelihood of problems. It is usually a secondary challenge such as yeast or bacterial infection or the presence of foreign bodies (e.g. grass seeds or ear mites) that tips the condition over the edge and causes a flare.

Knowing that ear conditions are usually multifactorial gives us more incentive to spot the problem early and seek professional examination from a vet. The temptation to seek a ‘quick fix’ to ease our pet’s pain and discomfort by asking the vet to prescribe something strong to deal with the flare is counter-productive; don’t be surprised if the vet suggests waiting and doing some cytology to find out exactly what is going on inside the ear. Although this incurs extra cost (and sometimes a little extra delay) this is by far the best approach if we are to interrupt the cycle of recurrence; a little extra spent at this stage can avoid future additional costs as well as further pain and discomfort for the dog.

Not all dogs are happy to have their ears inspected, especially when they are sore and inflamed.

Some dogs are also ‘head shy’ and repeated visits can cause them to resist examination – adding further stress for dogs and owners alike.

Yet another reason to nip problems in the bud before they develop into something more serious. Veterinary nurses are extremely good at teaching owners how to clean dogs’ ears gently and effectively and it’s well worth asking for that assistance. If your dog will not allow you to administer drops daily, do tell your vet and discuss whether a longer-acting product might be more suitable.

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If you would like any further advice on our blog “Being Alert to Canine Ear Conditions”, please contact the OSCAR Helpline on our freephone number 0800 195 8000 or email

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