Ear problems are more common in certain breeds of dogs. Dogs with long pendulous ears are far more prone to ear infections due to the restriction of ventilation and drainage of the ear canal.
Dogs such as poodles and Old English sheepdogs have thick hair growing around the opening of the ear and this frequently becomes matted in the canal. Secretions of wax and ear discharges are trapped and a foul-smelling mass accumulates which acts as a source of further irritation and a reservoir of infection. Medication applied to such an ear has no chance of being effective, as it does not adequately penetrate into the deeper parts of the canal.
Infections of the ear are usually caused by a mixture of bacteria and fungi. The warm, humid conditions within the ear favor a build-up of certain types of bacteria which often resist single antibiotics.
Inefficient treatment of infections removes some susceptible bacteria but encourages an overgrowth of bacteria resistant to the antibiotic treatment used. Even if a broad-spectrum antibiotic effective against all the bacterial population is used, fungi remain which can flourish unchecked by the restraints usually existing in the mixed microbial population.
Efficient treatment, therefore, requires the removal of accumulated deposits of hair and wax, thorough but gentle cleaning of the canal and regular application of ear drops or ointments which are effective against both bacteria and yeasts and fungi.
Young kittens and puppies frequently suffer from infestation with ear mites. These are small round-bodied insects with very short legs that complete their life-cycle within the ear canals of dogs and cats. They do not burrow but feed on the external layers of the skin and produce marked irritation. The dog reacts by vigorously shaking and scratching its head.
Usually, a dark exudate is formed as a result of the irritation, and this blocks the ear canal and provides a further haven for the mites. Treatment using insecticides in an oily base is effective provided the accumulated debris is first removed to allow the medication to penetrate freely.
During the summer months, grass seeds entering the ear canal are a common cause of intense discomfort to the dog. Breeds with long ear-flaps and dense hair-covering are most vulnerable. Cocker spaniels, poodles and Afghan hounds are most often affected. Pets that return from a run in long grass holding their head on one side should be examined.
In most cases, the seed will have already disappeared into the ear canal and the veterinarian requires a special instrument to examine the ear thoroughly. Attempts by the owner to float the seed out of the ear with mineral oil will be fruitless as the construction of the grass seed prevents it from moving backward. In most cases, the veterinarian has to sedate the dog to remove the seed, as the ear canal is extremely sensitive and the seed is usually close to the eardrum.
Owners can minimize the likelihood of ear infections or grass-seed penetrations by removing the long hair from the ear canal and keeping the surrounding hair short during the summer months. Over-zealous cleaning of the ear canal with cotton buds probably makes the ear more liable to infection by irritating the delicate lining of the canal.
It is wise to ask your veterinarian to inspect the ears of your kitten or puppy for the presence of ear mites at the time of routine vaccination.