Ear Infections: That Insistent Head Shake

Dogs and cats commonly have ear problems just like humans. Think about the nice warm, moist, deep dark hole that the ear canal is for the growth of bacteria and yeast, the two main microorganisms causing ear infections. The common ear infection in pets is referred to as otitis externa (inflammation of the outer ear).

Some dogs are more prone to ear infections than others. Conformation of the ears plays a large role in this. Dogs with large floppy ears often have problems because they have the perfect seal to trap in moisture and microorganisms (for example Cocker Spaniels). Dogs that like to swim often develop more ear infections because swimming leads to increased moisture in the ear (ex. Labrador retrievers). This being said all dogs can develop ear problems during their life even if their ears stand straight up and they never swim. Other factors that can contribute to the development of ear problems are a hot and humid climate, allergies, width of the ear canal, trauma or some foreign material in the ear canal.

Signs to watch for are:

Scratching of the ears
Head shaking
Redness in the ear
Brown/yellow/bloody discharge
Swelling, hair loss around the ear
Wiping the ear area on the floor or furniture
Insisting you scratch their ears
Loss of balance
Head tilt
Hearing loss.

As you can see there are many signs that can tip you off that your pet has an ear problem. One of the best things to do if you notice any of these things is to take a good look inside your pet’s ears and smell them to see if they are dirty or have a bad odour.

If you suspect your dog has an ear infection, the best thing you can do is bring them in to see a Horizon veterinarian so that the problem can be dealt with and appropriate treatment started.  Fortunately ear infections are not too difficult to diagnose. When you bring your dog in for an ear exam there are several things you can expect.  It involves performing cytology on the material in the ear. This requires taking a sample of the ear discharge with a swab, placing it on a microscope slide, staining it and evaluating it under the microscope. This allows the vet to identify if there is a microorganism that is responsible for the infection (ex. Bacteria or yeast). If there is a large number of bacteria or yeast present this leads to the diagnosis of an ear infection and appropriate treatment can be initiated (often including an ear cleaning solution and medicated ear drops).

It can sometimes be challenging to find the underlying cause of the infection. Ear infections can be a one off occurrence (ex. due to a swim in the river, a grass seed in the ear canal), or they can be due to an underlying allergy that is predisposing your pet to geting ear infections. These often pets that are seen for an ear infection, are treated and then a short while after treatment develop another infection. These can be frustrating to figure out, and may involve changing your pet’s environment and trying different types of hypoallergenic food if an allergy is suspected.

If your pet is showing signs of an ear infection, please call to book an appointment at one of our Horizon Hospitals:

Forest Lawn Veterinary Hospital              403-272-0115

Marlborough Veterinary Hospital            403-273-4664

McKenzie Towne Animal Clinic                 403-257-6105

Riverbend Animal Clinic                              403-279-8747


Article by:  Kayla Dykstra, UCVM, Class of 2015