Ear Infections in Dogs and Cats

ear infections

Yesterday I saw one of my favorite patients, a cute, red poodle named Charlie. As a baby, his bone marrow shut down for some unknown reason but ultimately recovered. Last summer and fall, he had a much more mundane problem: recurrent ear infections. Because of his chronic ear infections which would clear up with drops and then immediately relapse, I referred him to the Animal Medical Center’s dermatologist. The prescribed treatment for allergies has kept the ear infections under control. Since it is spring and the beginning of allergy season, your pet may be one of the unlucky ones to develop an ear infection secondary to allergies.

Ears are Really Skin
Because the ears are really part of the skin, dogs with allergies to substances in the environment, like pollen or dust, may have itchy skin or just have recurrent ear infections. Some dogs incessantly lick at their feet. The current theory of why ears and feet are the most commonly affected body parts stems from how dogs behave. Outdoors, your dog has his nose and head to the ground, stirring up pollen and other nasties which adhere to the face and ears; and of course, their feet tread in this same milieu. In normal dogs, the skin protects against the allergens, but in dogs with allergies, the skin barrier is in some way defective. The defect in the skin barrier allows allergens to enter the body, where they stimulate an allergic response.

Inflammation Leads to Infection
An allergic response can lead to itching, redness, and swelling which in turn changes the environment of the ears, leading to infection. Yeast and bacteria are the most common organisms identified in association with an ear infection. Typically, veterinarians wipe a cotton swab inside the ear to collect material which is then rolled on a microscope slide, stained and examined as part of the diagnostic testing. Occasionally, a sample of the discharge is submitted to the laboratory for identification of the causative organism to help treatment be as focused as possible since yeast and bacteria are treated with different medications.

Mighty Mites
Allergies are a much less common cause of feline ear infections than canine ones. Kittens, especially those raised outdoors, frequently contract an ear mite infection. These multi-legged parasites cannot be seen by the naked eye, but the little buggers can produce buckets of grainy black ear wax, clearly visible inside your cat’s ear flap. Another reason you can’t miss ear mites in your cat is the constant head shaking and ear scratching induced by their presence in the ear canal. Fortunately, a bit of black wax viewed under the microscope will readily identify mites, which are easily eradicated with ear drops.

Signs of an Ear Infection
If your pet has folded ears, you might not see the infection right away, but a bad smell coming from your pet’s head might clue you in to the problem. Head shaking, ear scratching or even shying away from a friendly pat on the head may be another clue to a brewing ear infection. If you look closely, you may notice the ear flap is swollen, red or scabby from scratching and there is a buildup of waxy or other material in the canal. If you notice any of these signs in your dog or cat, call your veterinarian’s office immediately to schedule an appointment.

Spring Allergies in Dogs

Spring finally has come to New York City. I know because of the springtime changes I see. No, I don’t mean the daffodils, tulips, flowering trees or the verdant carpet of grass in Central Park , nor the return of the robins, Yankees or Mets. It is the phone calls from the owners of Willie, Coco, Willa and Roman who have noticed their dogs licking, scratching and chewing at themselves and shaking their heads due to itchy ears.

Signs of an Allergy
Dogs that are licking, scratching and chewing at themselves likely have allergies to something in the environment, a common disorder in dogs. One of the major pet insurance companies in the United States reported the top claims for 2010. The top three in dogs were all related to allergies: ear infections, skin allergies and skin infection/hotspots.

Types of Allergies
Your dog can be allergic to the same allergens you are – seasonal ones such as fleas, mold and pollen from trees, flowers and shrubs. Dogs also suffer from non-seasonal allergies to dust mites or feathers. And poor Roman has been diagnosed with being allergic to cats! This time of year we suspect seasonal allergies, but if the scratching and itching continue into the winter months, then we worry about year round allergies.

Treating Allergies
If your dog has seasonal allergies, frequent bathing with soothing shampoos and medicated rinses often help, especially after weekend romps in the park. If your dog develops a skin or ear infection as a sequel to her allergies, your veterinarian can evaluate an ear or skin swab and determine the proper medication to remedy the situation. Sometimes antihistamines or steroids are prescribed to help control the itch.

Seeking a Veterinary Dermatologist
When the allergies are present year round or are not controlled by the methods described above, a veterinary dermatologist can perform special testing to determine the allergen(s) causing the problem. Two types of allergy testing are available for dogs: a blood test and intradermal testing (the skin prick test your allergist may have used on you). The veterinary dermatologist will determine what test is best for your dog. Most dogs are allergic to more than one thing and a custom allergy vaccine can be created for them based on the test information. You give your pet small volume injections under the skin to decrease the immune system’s response to the allergen, and over time the itching, scratching and associated skin and ear infections subside.

If your dog is scratching more this spring or seems to always have an ear infection, maybe he has allergies. See your veterinarian for advice on management and follow the directions closely to avoid a serious hotspot or ear infection this spring.


This may also be found in the “Tales from the Pet Clinic” blog on WebMD.com.

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