Does your dog shake his head and flop his ears from side to side? Does he ever cry or pull away when you touch his ear? He could have an ear infection.
Ear infections (otitis externa) are the second most common reason that dogs see a vet, according to a study done by VPI pet insurance in 2013. Most of the ear infections that we see at my practice are secondary to skin allergies (the #1 most common reason pets see a vet).
Inhalant allergies lead to skin inflammation and itching. Allergies are not curable (only manageable) and they tend to recur at the same season of the year if they are due to pollen and molds. Typical presentations for both allergic skin disease and ear infections seem to occur more commonly from spring to fall. The skin irritation can lead to secondary infections of many kinds, bacterial and fungal.
Most people don’t stop to think about the ears being lined with skin and they are also somewhat closed, dark and warm- a perfect place for an infection. A normal canine ear does not smell foul or have discharge from it. The skin around the ear canal should be the color of the rest of your dog’s skin and be smooth. Redness, discharge, odor and pain are all abnormal and should spur you to call your vet.
I get a lot of emails asking me how to treat ear infections at home, but sadly, these are not something you can handle by yourself. Even if you have an ear drop that you got from a vet the last time your dog had an ear infection, it is a very bad idea to reuse it without talking to the vet that prescribed it. Ear infections can become chronic and resistant. Resistant bacteria are ones that are not killed by commonly available antibiotics and they are not something that you want in your home under any circumstances.
If your dog is one that has allergic otitis, your vet can prescribe something to treat the infection at hand and give you something that is safer to use intermittently to maintain healthier ears. Discard any antibiotic containing medication at the end of the treatment course, so you will not be tempted to use it again. The next time you need it could be a year down the road and the original medication will have only partial efficacy and the bacteria can “learn” how to survive it. I have cultured these resistant strains from the ears of dogs that have been incorrectly managed at home. For the safety of your dog and your family, do not try to treat ear infections at home.
So if you see your dog shaking his head and/or scratching at his ears, it is time for a visit to your vet.