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May 18, 2023 —If you've seen your veterinary care team because of an ear issue in your pup, you're not alone. Reports suggest 7% to 10% of cases seen at primary care hospitals are ear problems – usually otitis externa or inflammation of the outer ear. This condition can be tough to treat, and sometimes a simple case turns into a big problem. Knowing the facts about otitis externa and other canine ear issues can help keep dogs healthy and out of the veterinary clinic.

Ear Anatomy 101

Dog ears come in many shapes and sizes, but they all share the same basic, three-part structure:

  • outer ear - pinna (ear flap) and ear canal
  • middle ear - ear drum (and associated bones)
  • inner ear - structures involved in hearing and balance

Problems can arise in any of these locations, but most issues begin in, and are confined to, the outer ear.

Unlike the straight ear canal in humans, the dog ear canal is "L" shaped. This bend in the canal helps protect the ear drum from puncture, but also creates an opportunity for material to accumulate.

Otitis Externa - Inflammation of the Outer Ear

Otitis simply means inflammation - not infection - affecting the pinna and ear canal. It's important for dog owners to understand that almost all ear infections are secondary to inflammation in the outer ear - not the other way around. Inflammation causes irritation and predisposes the ear to infection. Once an infection begins, many dogs develop recurrent cycles of otitis externa, which can have long-term consequences for a dog's comfort and hearing.

One recent study took a close look at which dogs might be predisposed to developing otitis externa. The team, based in the UK, looked at a random sample of 22,333 dogs and identified the following breeds (compared to crossbreds) had the highest risk for otitis externa:

  • Basset hound
  • Shar-pei
  • Labradoodle
  • Beagle
  • Golden retriever

They also identified dog breeds with a low risk for otitis externa:

  • Chihuahua
  • Border collie
  • Yorkshire terrier
  • Jack Russell terrier

When the same team took a closer look at all the dogs that had ear problems, they noted (not surprisingly) that dogs with a pendulous ear carriage (think Bassett hound) and V-shaped ears (think Labrador, Vizsla, Labrador cross) had a higher incidence of otitis externa. The team saw a slight increase in otitis externa in male dogs.

The group was quick to point out that some dog breeds at risk for otitis externa also had a higher risk for certain diseases (especially allergies) that are predisposing factors for otitis externa as well. Their conclusion was that the study could provide some guidelines for monitoring and treatment to prevent otitis from developing in dogs.

When Otitis Externa Leads to Ear Infections

It's easy to confuse otitis externa with ear infections because inflammation precedes infection in nearly all cases.

Outer ear infections can be difficult to manage, but the bigger problem with ear infections occurs when they move from the outer ear to the middle ear (if the ear drum is compromised), requiring oral antibiotic use to penetrate into the middle ear (topicals aren't helpful and some can damage the middle ear). Many veterinary scientists point to the use of antibiotics to treat recurrent ear infections as an important driving force behind the emergence of multidrug-resistant bacteria.

The treatment for otitis externa consists of immediate steps to alleviate discomfort and eliminate infection, followed (if necessary) by long-term therapy to prevent recurrence.

Short-term treatment for flare-ups usually consists of:

  • Ear cleaning
  • Topical antibiotics
  • Steroid therapy (topical or oral)

Newly Funded Research in Canine Ear Health

This past year, the Foundation made otitis externa in dogs a topic of special interest and solicited innovative proposals from experts around the world. Three proposals were selected for funding and are slated to begin soon.

  • Evaluating a novel treatment for ear infections and biofilms - researchers will conduct a clinical trial evaluating the effectiveness of a new adjunct medication to treat ear infections.
  • Assessing a new antibiotic for ear infections - researchers are conducting a clinical trial evaluating the efficacy of a new antibiotic to treat staphylococcal ear infections.
  • Looking for new treatments for recurring ear infections - researchers will evaluate the use of two preventive treatments in dogs prone to ear infections as well as evaluate a new therapy for dogs with active infection.

How You Can Help

Innovative scientific studies like these take vision as well as financial investment. It’s only with the generous support of our donors that we can continue to fund impactful research on health problems big and small to help dogs live healthier, happier lives.

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