Have you ever woken up to find that your dog’s ears are suddenly red and hot? He’s probably shaking his head in response to the pain and feeling of fullness in his ears. When your dog has red and hot ears, you need to identify the underlying problem and use the appropriate short-term treatment.
Otitis externa is the most common diagnosis for dogs with red and hot ears. This is the medical term for ear inflammation involving the ear flap and ear canal, but not the inner or middle ear.
People call it an ear infection, but here’s the deal:
Allergies, not bacteria, are almost always the underlying cause of the problem.
Causes of Red and Hot Ears in Dogs
Otitis externa is not a primary disease. When your dog’s ears are red and hot from otitis externa, it’s a secondary disease caused by one of the following underlying problems:
- Atopy/inhalant allergies (most common cause)
- Food allergies/sensitivity (common)
- Parasites/ear mites (uncommon in indoor healthy dogs)
- Foreign object in the ear canal (uncommon)
- Hypothyroidism (uncommon)
(Saridomichelakis et al. 2007)
How Dog’s Ears Get “Infected”
Now we know the underlying causes of ear inflammation, but why would a dog have an explosion of yeast or bacteria in their ears?
A few bacteria and yeast are present in all dog ears, but they don’t cause a problem. The trouble starts when inflammation increases the moisture, decreases the pH and decreases air circulation in the ear.
Yeast and bacteria are not the cause of the problem, but rather their overgrowth is a secondary effect of the underlying problem. Under normal circumstances, an animal’s ear canal is dry and has a small amount of wax. When it becomes moist and dark, yeast and bacteria proliferate and make the problem worse.
Ear infections in dogs are also not caused by viruses like in children. Finally, dogs don’t get ear infections from swimming or bathing. Normal ears can handle a little water but adding water to an already inflamed ear can make things worse.
Antibiotics Are Not the Answer
Most of the clients I see who bring their dog to me for an “ear infection” expect to walk out with antibiotics in the form of ear drops. People have the wrong idea that ear drops are the treatment for a random ear infection and once they’re finished the problem will be gone.
Potential for Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria in the Ear
Drugs used for treating ear infections can also cause resistant bacteria to grow in the ear. As a survival mechanism, bacteria evolve into forms that standard antibiotics can’t kill.
The more antibiotics we use, the more the bacteria evolve. We can use stronger antibiotics but the bacteria will eventually mutate again. It is a fruitless pursuit.
We can’t kill all the bacteria. And we shouldn’t! We need bacteria in this world and in our pet’s bodies. Let’s not attack them and make them change into something dangerous to humans and animals.
Conventional Ear Infection Treatment for Dogs
Ear cleaners are liquids used to remove the goo in a diseased ear. Many cleaners (like Epi-Otic) also contain salicylic acid which has a mild antimicrobial effect. Other ingredients in ear cleaners may include soap-like compounds to break up wax, antibacterials, acidifiers and antifungals.
Ear cleaners are used as a preventive measure for dogs with chronic otitis externa. Cleaners are sometimes effective in treating mild otitis. Moderate to severe otitis require stronger medications.
Combination Product Ear Ointment
Drops or thick gels are the mainstays for removing of the symptoms of ear inflammation. There are many products available these days from Otomax, Mometamax and Posatex to Claro. They all contain antimicrobials that kill a wide array of bacteria and yeast. The other important ingredient is long-acting corticosteroids that decrease inflammation and wax production.
Side Effects of Dog Ear Drops
Most standard ear medications aren’t safe to apply in an ear with a ruptured eardrum. A ruptured eardrum exposes the neurological tissue responsible for hearing to anything dripped into the ear.
The biggest thing most people don’t understand when it comes to red, hot dog ears?
Ear drops are not a miracle cure.
In fact, combination ear medications like Mometamax and Otomax can cause serious problems including permanent deafness (although that’s fairly uncommon, thank goodness). Actually, just about anything put into a diseased ear may cause hearing problems.
Chemicals and antibiotics present in ear drops can cause temporary or permanent damage to a dog’s hearing. Aminoglycosides, like gentamicin, can cause deafness even if the ear drum is not ruptured.
Gentamicin can also cause symptoms of vestibular disease. Vestibular disease makes a dog dizzy and unsteady on her feet.
Habitual Ear Cleaning Isn’t the Answer
Trying to fight ear inflammation by killing overgrown micro-organisms is a futile approach. Even if you kill the bacteria and yeast, the environment of the ear hasn’t changed.
Suppression of local inflammation is a quick way to relieve discomfort but the underlying allergy is still there. The same symptoms keep coming back and may become resistant to drugs.
Most dogs find ear cleaning unpleasant or even painful, especially when there’s a lot of inflammation present. I’ve had people tell me their pet runs and hides when they see the ear cleaner bottle come out.
It’s true that sometimes we have to do things our pets don’t like for their own good. Even so, using ear cleaner over and over for years could damage your relationship with your pet. Fortunately, there’s a better way to deal with the problem.
Holistic Treatment for Your Dog’s Itchy Ears
What’s the number one thing you can do to help your dog avoid chronic otitis externa?
Identify and avoid things that cause his ear to get inflamed. This process may take a while, but it’s well worth the effort. Enlist the help of a veterinary dermatologist for allergy testing to get the biggest bang for your buck.
The easiest place to start is by identifying food allergies. Veterinarians recommend that you feed a hypoallergenic diet for at least two months. During that time, you must not give your dog any foods that are not part of the hypoallergenic diet.
If his symptoms improve, you can challenge him with one potential food allergen at a time to identify his problem foods.
Inhalant and Environmental Allergies
Identifying inhalant allergens is more difficult. In most cases, skin or blood allergy testing are the best ways to find out which pollens or environmental substances are bothering your dog’s ears.
Once you’ve identified your dog’s allergens, how should you treat them?
Immunotherapy (allergy desensitization with injections) is effective for most dogs, but it’s tedious and expensive. People interested in a natural approach to health often have qualms about manipulating a dog’s immune system.
You could opt to treat inhalant allergies in a more general way. Decreasing exposure through environmental control and avoidance will help. Some dogs have such severe allergies their owners opt to treat them with strong anti-allergy drugs like prednisone, Apoquel and Cytopoint.
While these drugs can effectively remove symptoms, they have an influence on the entire body and may have serious side effects. I don’t recommend relying on drugs as the sole means to control allergy symptoms.
Home Remedies for Your Dog’s Ear Infection
For mild ear inflammation, home remedies can ease discomfort until you can see a veterinarian for more specific help.
If there’s a lot of debris in the ears, you need to clean it out. Cleaning every two to three days is usually adequate.
When you clean your dog’s ears, use soft cotton balls and stop if you see bleeding. He will shake his head after you apply liquid ear cleaner. Debris will be slung out without any help from you, so gentle wiping is all that’s needed.
Clean Out Debris
- Green Tea Ear Flush: Green tea has anti-inflammatory action. Boil a cup of water and steep a green tea bag in the water for 10 minutes. Allow the tea to cool to room temperature. Pour enough into each ear canal to fill it at least halfway. Massage the base of the ear, if your pet is not in too much pain for this. Gently blot the excess liquid with soft cotton. Avoid wiping, pushing and scrubbing. That only makes things worse!
- Calendula Ear Flush: Calendula comes from marigolds. It has an anti-inflammatory action on body tissues. Add about a teaspoon of calendula extract to eight ounces of spring water. Use to flush ears as described under Green Tea Ear Flush.
- Saline Solution: Sterile saline solution is the gentlest liquid to use for cleaning a dog’s ears. Don’t use contact lens solution! Apply according to the directions for Green Tea Ear Flush.
Add Soothing Topicals
- Almond Oil: Almond oil can help dissolve the greasy excess wax in an infected ear. You’ll find almond oil in the cosmetics section of a natural grocery store or online. Warm the oil to body temperature to make it more soothing. Pour enough into the ear to coat it, about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon. Massage base of the ear and blot the excess oil gently with soft cotton. As an alternative, try coconut oil since it has mild antibacterial properties.
- Aloe Vera Gel: After cleaning the ear, apply aloe vera with a cotton ball to the outer ear canal. Don’t pour it into the ear.
- Zymox Otic Ear Treatment: Zymox Otic contains enzymes with an antimicrobial effect. It’s gentler than conventional ear antibiotics. Follow the directions on the label. I’ve had good success using Zymox for mild to moderate ear inflammation in dogs.Zymox Otic HC has hydrocortisone added to decrease inflammation and wax production.
When to Seek Help for Red and Hot Ears
Hopefully, your home care efforts are effective and you see significant improvement. If your dog’s red and hot ear symptoms don’t resolve within 10 days, take your dog to see a veterinarian. If symptoms resolve but return within a few months, get help from your vet.
For severely painful ears, skip the home remedies and go straight to your vet’s office for help. It’s not worth possible permanent damage to your dog’s hearing just to save a few dollars on vet care! Plus, your vet will help you sort out the underlying cause of chronic ear infections so you can avoid them in the future.
Ear inflammation, or otitis externa, is common in dogs and cats. The most common cause is inhalant and food allergies. Focusing on killing micro-organisms can lead to chronic, untreatable otitis externa.
To achieve long-term freedom from otitis externa, concentrate on the big picture. Improve the overall health of your dog with an excellent diet, avoid allergens, take walks with him every day. Simple, but not easy!
Saridomichelakis, M. N., Farmaki, R., Leontides, L. S., & Koutinas, A. F. (2007). Aetiology of canine otitis externa: a retrospective study of 100 cases. Veterinary Dermatology, 18(5), 341-347.
Last update on 2020-11-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API