Unfortunately, because our pets cannot verbally communicate, they often suffer to the extreme before someone notices they have a problem. One of the most commonly overlooked afflictions is otitis, inflammation of the ear.
While you might start whining to a friend when you have an earache, your pet may simply not want to socialize. A cat might hiss at others in the home and a dog might snap when children come near, as they are not able to explain what is wrong. Your pet might rub his head into your lap or onto the furniture or carpet. A cat might use her front paw to rub her ear, while a dog might use his back paw to scratch his ear. Some dogs shake an ear so hard that an ear hematoma (broken blood vessel) develops.
Not all ear issues are the same. Incorrect treatment can definitely cause harm. Repetitive, irritating management can lead to the need for surgical intervention. Most pets do not have ear mites! Can you imagine how it feels to have a sore, red, inflamed ear and then have someone put drops of pesticide on it? Yet, this is a common practice by well-meaning pet guardians who go to the local pet shop to purchase an ear treatment.
Sadly, many dogs have discolored rear paws due to months of scratching ears chronically infected with a yeast overgrowth. Ear inflammation can be due to allergy, mites, bacterial or fungal/yeast infection or a combination!
A veterinarian will use an otoscope to visualize the external ear canal and the tympanum (ear drum). If the canal is too swollen or clogged with debris or discharge to see the ear drum, it could be assumed that the ear drum is damaged. Not all medications are safe to use if the tympanum has been ruptured. Ear mites can often be visualized with the otoscope. These are most common in kittens. Dogs most commonly have yeast infections. The veterinarian can swab the inside of the canal and place the material on a slide for microscopic examination or place it in a culture medium for microbiology. Bacterial growth is the least common, but often, the most serious. A culture should be performed for pets whose otitis has not responded to basic, conventional treatment.
Ear washes are not treatments. In fact, if an ear canal is irritated and sore, an ear rinse can cause or exacerbate an infection. The astringent effect can burn and visibly blister the canal. A damaged canal is more susceptible to yeast or bacterial overgrowth. Many “natural” ear products, which contain vinegar or witch hazel, rely on this astringent premise as their mode of action. These may be thought of as soothing options, but in reality, are not good choices at all! Many natural ear drops exist on the market. Chinese ear drops, garlic/mullein, sweet oil or olive oil may provide temporary relief, but rarely accomplish a satisfactory cure.
Essential oil preparations show promise with their potent antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, but they cannot be safely used inside the ear canal. The vibrational frequency of an essential oil against the vibrating tympanum could cause significant discomfort. Increasing the safety of essential oils by diluting them with a carrier oil seems to diminish their potency. Conventional, multi-purpose ear medications seem to be the most reliable. They all have an antifungal to kill yeast, an antibiotic to kill bacteria and an anti-inflammatory to provide immediate relief from the pain and itching. Most pets groan in ecstasy the moment this is applied deep into the canal!
Management and prevention
Despite the effectiveness of this ointment, why do so many pets develop chronic otitis? Proper application is vital. The medication tip must be placed deep into the ear canal. Guardians need not fear damage to the ear drum, as this is impossible due to the L-shaped ear canal of the dog and cat. Many pet guardians discontinue treatment too soon. Partially treated infections come back with a vengeance. Bacteria and yeast can develop resistance. Returning to the vet for a re-check to visualize a clear canal with healthy tympanum is very important. Debris left in the canal or a plug up against the ear drum can serve as a source for recurrent infection.
Test for underlying hormonal imbalances. Hypothyroidism and hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s) are two common underlying disorders that upset the body’s natural resistance to infection.
Feed a meat-based, starch-free, species appropriate diet. Pet owners should always consider food allergies and that yeast loves starch. With a diet like this, such problems may be avoided. Choose a unique protein source, such as rabbit or venison. If your pet has excessive “heat signs,” choose a meat energetic that is neutral to cooling, such as bison, turkey or white fish.
Avoid irritation or moisture in the ear canal. Ask groomers to stop traumatically “plucking” the hairs from inside the canal with a tweezers or forceps. Gently remove loose hair clumps with your fingers. Use an astringent ear rinse cautiously — and only in a healthy ear — to dry up moisture due to a bath, swimming or playing in the snow!
Jodie Gruenstern, DVM, CVA has been practicing veterinary medicine in Muskego since 1987. She is a certified veterinary acupuncturist and food therapist by the Chi Institute. Dr. Jodie is the owner of the Animal Doctor Holistic Veterinary Complex, an integrated, full-service small animal practice, selected Muskego’s Business of the Year in 2013. For more info, healthy products or educational DVD, visit www.DrJodiesNaturalPets.com or www.AnimalDoctorHolistic.com.