Heading to your veterinarian for help with an ear infection is always a good idea, especially if you haven’t had previous experience with a canine ear infection and you aren’t certain what it looks like, or if a previously treated infection has recurred. If you are going to take your dog to the vet, don’t clean his ears that day; it may be helpful for the veterinarian to see the appearance and amount of the discharge.
The vet will clean and examine the ears, and usually will take a look deep inside the ear canal with an otoscope – that is, if the swelling in the ear canal is not too severe. Some brave veterinarians will also put their noses near the dog’s ear and take a quick sniff; the odor of an infected ear is distinctive.
In mild cases, after cleaning the ear well, veterinarians will generally administer and give the owner a topical ear solution containing antibiotic, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory agents. This is typically used for a dog’s first or infrequent ear infection because, no matter what the causative organism, this type of topical will address it. In many cases, that’s all there is to the ear infection event.
However, if the infection recurs, it’s likely that the treatment was incomplete, whether because the solution wasn’t applied as frequently or as well as required (sometimes the outer ear looks good, but the infection continues to fester deep within the ear canal), or because the infectious organisms developed resistance to the antibiotic in the solution. In these cases, we may wonder why the infection keeps “coming back” when, in reality, it never ever went away.
When an ear infection recurs (if not before!), culturing a sample of the exudate is a must, to make sure that the next treatment is targeted to treat the specific pathogen. Oral antibiotics may be indicated in such severe cases in addition to topical therapy. Note that oral antibiotics are not the first go-to for a one-off ear infection and are rarely successful as the sole therapy.
Chronic cases may also be helped by a Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) approach including acupuncture, and/or when used preventively such as prior to spring/summer if dealing with seasonal allergies. Also, acupuncture and laser therapy can relieve pain associated with infections.
For more on diagnosing and treating ear infections, please refer to Caring For and Preventing Your Dog’s Ear Infections by Whole Dog Journal.