Missy, a five year old spayed female Collie cross who was scratching her left ear.

Missy had always been a healthy animal, and Fiona noticed immediately when there was something wrong last week. Missy began to shake her head, and she kept trying to scratch her left ear with her left back leg. Fiona brought her up to see me that afternoon.

There are two pet problems that are more common than anything else in the summer months: itchy skin and the related issue of sore ears.  Ears are basically pieces of specialised skin – and if a dog is suffering from a generalised skin problem, the ear is frequently the first place to be affected. There are many types of skin disease, but the most common summer affliction is an allergy caused by pollens and dusts in the air.

Dogs get skin disease in the same way that humans get hay fever. When the pollen count is high, humans start to snuffle and sneeze, but dogs start to itch. And when they start to itch, the ear is often the first place to be affected. The ear can be a useful barometer of the health of an animal’s skin. When a dog has an itchy ear, it is important to check the rest of the body. Often there are early warning signs of a more widespread allergic problem, such as sore feet, a reddened underside, or small scabs along the back.

Why should the ears so prone to itchiness compared to the rest of the skin? Dogs’ ears have been bred for appearance rather than function, and although Missy is a cross-bred dog, her ears are a good example of the type of problem. She has long wispy hair around the opening of both ears, which looks very pretty, but is not helpful for the health of the ear. The long hair occludes the opening to her ear canal, so that air cannot circulate freely in and out. On a warm day, the inside of her ear becomes hot, moist and stagnant, creating the ideal environment for bacteria and yeasts to multiply. Dogs such as Spaniels or Retrievers, with long ears that flop down the side of the head, have even worse circulation of air through their ears. They are even more prone to ear problems than dogs like Missy.

A typical sore ear happens in a dog that has a mild skin allergy. The pollens in the air on a summer day cause the skin to react in an allergic way, and the dog might feel a mild tingly itchiness all over. Sometimes this develops into a serious general skin problem, but often it is so minor that an owner does not even notice that there is anything wrong. But the ear is the place where even a mild allergic reaction commonly starts a vicious circle of disease that leads to an obvious problem.

The allergic reaction causes the lining of the ear to become reddened and slightly swollen, like a nettle sting inside the ear. This swelling means that the ear canal becomes more narrow than usual, aggravating the poor circulation of air in and out. The bacteria and yeasts that are present in a normal ear are then concentrated in a small, stagnant space. It becomes warmer and moister than ever, allowing the micro-organisms to multiply rapidly. The bacteria and yeasts produce acids and toxins as they multiply, and these cause further irritation of the lining of the ear, making it more reddened and more swollen, and making the ear canal even more narrowed. At this stage, the dog starts to scratch the ear, and dogs don’t realise that scratching an itchy area can make it worse. Try mimicking a dog scratching their ear by hitting the side of your head with your hand, and you will soon discover how easy it is for a dog to make a sore ear even more painful.  An ear can change from perfect health to a red, raw focus of pain within the space of a few hours.

Sore ears need to be checked by a vet. It is safest to examine the inside of the ear with an otoscope, to make sure that there is nothing physically irritating inside the ear, such as a grass seed. When I checked Missy that afternoon, she had typical allergic ear disease. The lining of her ear was bright red and shiny, and it looked very painful. Fiona had caught the problem in the early stages, so I did not see the massive accumulation of wax and pus that develops over time if treatment is not given.

I gave Missy the standard treatment for sore ears: a small bottle of ointment that contains four important ingredients. Firstly, cortisone, to soothe the redness and discomfort. Secondly, antibiotics, to control the bacteria that are multiplying so busily. Thirdly, an anti-yeast medication, to kill off the fusty smelling yeasts that aggravate the problem. And finally, the ointment base is an ear cleaning, wax-removing liquid that ensures that any debris from the ear infection is dissolved and removed from the ear.

I showed Fiona how to apply the ointment: a small squirt twice daily, rubbing the side of the ear gently but firmly each time. I texted Fiona a week later, and her reply told me what I wanted to know – “Missy OK – ear gr8 now”.

Tips

  • Itchy ears are very common in the summer months
  • The cause is often an allergic reaction to pollens in the air
  • When treatment is given early, it is most likely to be effective

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