Ear problems often go hand in hand with environmental or food-based allergies and sensitivities, and dogs who are prone to itchy skin and hot spots frequently suffer with ear issues as well. As with many skin conditions, a problem with the ears may be indicative of some other internal issues going on with another body system.
Certain types of bacteria and yeast are present naturally, throughout the body including the ears. They are part of the balance of life, but when environmental or other factors disrupt the balance, either one can grow out of control and an ‘infection’ results.
A conventional veterinary approach to ear problems often involves the prescribing of antibiotics as well as steroids and other medications, which can provide some immediate relief by suppressing the symptoms, but which tends to be only a temporary fix and doesn’t actually offer a true, long-term cure. Sometimes, a brief prescription of prednisone or other steroids can be helpful in breaking the ‘vicious cycle’ of a really persistent and very uncomfortable ear problem, especially when the dog risks doing serious long-term damage to himself by repeated scratching and head-shaking. The short course of Prednisone can then be followed by a holistic approach that looks at the animal’s diet, lifestyle and total system and then makes use of natural herbal and homeopathic remedies, in order to accomplish a true long-term cure.
Some veterinary specialists s actually perform surgery on the ears of dogs who are plagued with persistent, deep-seated and severe ear problems. The surgery, called ear canal ablation, removes infected areas of the ear canal.
The Symptoms of Ear Problems
One of the first signs that an ear infection is present, is the dog shaking his head and scratching excessively at his ears. Otitis (inflammation of the ear canal) is usually accompanied by redness of the ear flaps.
Often the sign of an underlying ear problem can be extremely subtle, such as a very slight tilt of the head, or one ear being held at a slightly different angle than the other. An odor that emanates from the ears is another tell-tale sign. The odor is usually a pungent, yeasty smell and is accompanied by a dark reddish brown buildup of waxy substance around the folds of the ears and deeper within the ear canal itself.
Some dogs can be in such discomfort that they can cause damage to their ear flap (pinna) from the scratching and repeated shaking over time. Such damage can be a nightmare to overcome, because the repeated head-shaking can knock off the tiny scabs that form along the bottom of the pinna, causing yet more bleeding. Any attempted cleaning or treatment of the ear itself almost always results in even more shaking right afterwards as well. Sometimes, a ‘civil war bandage’ which fastens the dog’s ears to the side of his head, is recommended for ear flap scabs and bleeding, with the intention being to have a scab stay on long enough for healing to take place underneath – but of course keeping the ears down in this manner is even more detrimental for the inner ears where the underlying problem exists, because it prevents any air from circulating. A better approach than bandaging is to apply generous amounts of thick calendula cream, Aquaphor baby ointment, or other moistening, lubricating cream, to keep the tips of the ear flaps softened and reduce the buildup of scabs.
In severe cases of prolonged scratching and shaking, a hematoma (swelling, caused by a buildup of blood & fluid under the skin) can develop in the pinna, however this is thought to be due primarily to a type of auto-immune disease which weakens the blood vessels of the pinna, making them more prone to rupture .
The Causes for Ear Problems
Anatomy or Breed: Certain breeds with ears that hang down, like setters, spaniels and retrievers, can be pre-disposed to infections and yeast buildup because these longer ear flaps provide an internal ear environment that’s dark, potentially more moist – and perfect for the growth of yeast and bacteria. While some breeds are routinely subjected to ear-cropping in the United States, this is almost entirely a cosmetic (and in the opinion of most, a cruel) surgical mutilation with its roots in the ancestral jobs of certain working breeds, but which has no relevance in the life of a modern dog - and only very mildly helps to combat ear problems, if at all.
Diet: Food (or environmental) allergies are especially likely to be implicated in ear problems when both ears are involved. An excess of grain and / or sugar in the diet is one of the most common causes of ear infections in dogs. The sugar actually feeds the yeast which lives naturally in the body and causes a yeast overgrowth, which results in the dark, yeasty-smelling buildup that can occur inside the ears.
Lifestyle: Those dogs who regularly swim in lakes, the ocean or swimming pools (dock-diving or swim therapy for example) can be more prone to ear problems than those who don’t go near the water. Any dog who swims should have his ears gently dried afterwards, using a soft towl or cotton wool to remove the excess moisture. This alone can prevent many ear infections from building up, because yeast and bacteria love to reproduce in dark, moist places.
Dogs who spend a lot of time outdoors and are lucky enough to run in the woods or other grassy open spaces, are slightly more at risk of a foxtail or other type of grass seed working its way into the ears. This can cause severe pain and discomfort and often require surgical removal although in some cases, a vet may suggest pouring mineral oil or another substance into the ear to soften the seed and allow it to be shaken out by the dog – however it’s essential that a correct diagnosis is made before this approach is taken and it should only be attempted under veterinary supervision.
Parasites: Parasites such as mites can invade the ear canal but these are relatively uncommon. Sometimes, allergic ear problems can be mistaken for ear mites. If they do invade, a confirmed case of ear mites can be treated with Neem or plain mineral oil. Chronic and persistent ear ailments that do not clear up using simple measures, require veterinary attention. Contact your holistic vet for a moderate treatment option.
Achieving & Maintaining Ear health
Cleaning: Most dogs’ ears do not require regular cleaning and can mostly be left alone. In fact, it’s better to leave normal, healthy ears alone and not attempt to clean them for the sake of it, because this in itself can disrupt the delicate pH balance and natural environment there. Some dogs require occasional cleaning to remove debris, or a specially designed drying product to help eliminate excess moisture from the ears after swimming.
Minor amounts of debris can be removed with a clean, dry cotton pad alone, which is the best solution for maintaining ears that don’t have a deep-seated problem of any kind. Never try to clean beyond the areas of the ears that you can actually see.
Diet: A grain-free diet is almost always helpful in combating chronic yeast infections. Grains contain natural sugars which yeasts can feed upon, and multiply. In most milder cases, eliminating grains and cleaning the ears of any built up debris will set your dog on a path to long term ear health. If antibiotics are prescribed for a persistent or stubborn ear infection, consider supplementing the diet with a good probiotic supplement containing acidophilus to help maintain the balance of good bacteria in the dog’s system. Live-culture plain yogurt with lactobacillus and acidophilus can also help to offset the side-effects of antibiotic therapy.
A raw or natural, minimally processed diet can be very helpful in combating ear problems, because it provides the natural, whole-food nutrition that the dog’s immune system needs in order to regain strength. Removing toxic chemical preservatives and excessive gluten, by-products and fillers can have a marvelous effect on most of the body, including the condition of the ears.
Topical Treatments: A number of good, natural commercial products are also available from pet-supply & health food stores. Altering the pH of the ear is a primary step in combating yeast and bacterial infections. A basic ear cleaner can be prepared at home, and work double duty to correct the pH and kill any contaminants residing there: Make up a solution with 1 cup of luke-warm water and 2 tablespoons of one or more of the following: hydrogen peroxide, apple cider (or white) vinegar or plantain tincture. This mixture can be used to wipe out excess debris from visible areas of the ear.
Topical treatments can be used routinely, or on an as-needed basis, to clean the ears - usually by applying the product onto a piece of cotton wool and very gently wiping out excess wax and buildup. It’s essential not to push anything into the ear canal beyond the visible outer folds of the ear, because doing so can cause extreme and very painful damage to the delicate internal workings of the ear. Never poke Q Tips or anything else right inside the ear canal and don’t squirt or pour large volumes of these topical applications into the ears; a small amount on a cotton ball is usually sufficient.
Calendula Lotion is nice product for topical use because it’s very healing and has wonderful healing properties, as does comfrey, which can also be applied to the ears.
Products containing Tea Tree Oil are helpful, as are those containing tea tree’s slightly less intense cousin, Niaouli. Gentian Violet, is a purple dye that’s used as a stain for microscopy - and medically as a bactericide, fungicide, and anthelmintic. Gentian is superb for cleaning the ears. Mullein Oil is an excellent ear product that’s recommended by some holistic veterinarians for basic ear infections. Colloidal Silver is also another option worth considering: a few drops can be applied into the ears daily for about seven to ten days, until some relief is seen.
Homeopathic Remedies Useful for Ear Problems
Pulsatilla is helpful for acute flare-ups with sensitivity and redness, along with a yellowish discharge. Pulsatilla animals like to sit near open windows, hate getting their paws wet and won’t go out in the rain. They also tend to have a very sweet (and slightly needy) disposition.
Hepar Sulph is useful for irritable animals who don’t like to have their inflamed ears touched.
Sulphur is often recommended for long term, stubborn skin conditions and also has some success in ear infection treatment. Excessive scratching or pawing at the ears may be an indicator for sulphur.
Silica is worth considering to help ‘push out’ a foxtail or other foreign object form the ears.
Phosphorus is a good option for those dogs who suffer with cuts or hematomas to the pinna; it’s an excellent remedy for many types of bleeding.
For animals that have a severe, malodorous discharge that causes hair loss around and under the ears, Tellurium is helpful. The ears are extremely sensitive in the Tellurium patient, and the discharge may have a fish-like smell.
Treating ear problems (especially those that are stubborn and persistent) can be a very frustrating exercise. Deep seated infections can take a very long time to truly clear up and in most cases, an ‘attack from all angles’ is necessary. But natural remedies and a truly holistic approach that also considers diet and lifestyle combined with natural remedies, can be pivotal (and more effective than conventional medicine alone) in achieving a lasting cure.
As with any persistent health condition, always consult your veterinarian to be sure that a more serious underlying illness requiring expert medical attention, is not the cause. Always discuss home treatment options with your holistic vet.
NB: Thanks to Lucy for her wonderful article. I would like to highlight the fact that ear "infections" are usually not (primary) infections. They are primarily inflammations with secondary infection. Often the implicated organism is already a normal resident of the ear (or skin, or...). Treat the underlying immune imbalance that causes the inflammation and the secondary infection will resolve. Good ear hygiene is also important. At least that is my approach to this dis-ease.--Dr. Jeff
Please note: The information provided here is intended to supplement the recommendations of your veterinarian. Do not disregard veterinary advice or delay treatment based on information on this site. Nothing can replace a complete history and physical examination performed by your veterinarian. -Dr. Jeff