One of the more common reasons for a visit to the vet is an ear infection.
Dermatologists now agree that apart from ear mite infections, most of the bacterial and fungal ear infections we see are secondary to an underlying skin problem. The most common skin problems that cause this are allergies (such as food allergy or inhalant allergy) but sometimes hormonal changes such as an underactive thyroid can be the predisposing cause. Only rarely do we see infections from swimming in dirty water or from foreign material such as grass seeds in the ear. Hairy ear canals, narrow ear canals and floppy ears will contribute to the problems as well but it must be remembered that not all animals with these features will get ear infections.
So what happens is that the lining of the ear canal becomes inflamed, it produces more wax and then the ear canal acts like an incubator – there is a source of nutrients (the wax) for organisms who invade from the skin and it is a lovely protected and warm environment to grow bacteria and fungi.
Usually the first ear infections we see are caused by a fungal organism called malassezia but as time goes on and they get repeated infection we get nastier bacteria growing here.
So the aim of treatment is to treat them early rather than wait till we get difficult bacteria involved. If a dog or cat is predisposed to ear infections they may need ongoing regular cleaning to keep them from getting bad again.
Sometimes despite this they still get infections that need more intensive treatment, ie ear drops, sedation and flushing, sometimes antibiotics and very occasionally even surgery is required.
Sometimes I am asked the question of whether a client needs to routinely clean the ears of their pet. The answer is, some do and some do not. If you find that when you wipe the inside of your animal’s ear, it looks dirty, then your pet may be one that does need ongoing cleaning. It probably has a low grade allergy and will always produce more wax which acts as a culture media for bugs.
The ear canal is basically a cartilage tube which runs from the pinna (the part of the ear that sits up) to the ear drum. The canal runs vertically and then turns a bend and runs horizontally to the ear drum. In dogs and cats it is nearly impossible to rupture the ear drum when cleaning the ear, ear drums rupture from infections that are not effectively treated. So you can safely clean ears though it is advisable to get one of the staff to give you some advice about the technique so you can effectively clean the ears.
A final comment about ear mites. These are a small parasite that live in the ear canal. Usually we see them in young animals less than 1 year old and once eliminated they should be gone for good unless they have close contact with another animal with them. There are very few ear infections in mature animals caused by ear mites. If your pet is diagnosed with them, ask to look at them under the microscope- they are fascinating to watch scurrying around.