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An ear infection by any other name: otitis externa is actually inflammation of the outer canal, caused by tumors, allergies, ticks, fleas or excessive wax.

If your dog shakes his head, scratches his ear, yawns frequently, tilts his head or has a strong odor emanating from his ear, he may have otitis externa. "Although commonly called an ear infection, it's actually an inflammation of the outer ear canal that occurs when the normal defense mechanism of the ear has been breeched," says dermatologist William H. Miller, Jr., VMD, Medical Director at the Cornell University's Companion Animal Hospital.

Once the surface of the ear canal is damaged, the bacteria or yeast that live in and around the ear canal can cause an infection. When Veterinary Pet Insurance examined its database of nearly a half million health claims in 2011, ear infections were No. 1 on the top 10 list of canine health problems.

Likely Recurrence. The triggers include tumors, allergies, ticks, fleas, swimming or excessive ear wax. If the infection alone is treated, but the underlying cause can't be found or isn't addressed, the infection is likely to recur.

Some owners or groomers overzealously groom dogs, which can irritate the ear canal, leading to otitis externa. Allergies are a common problem among dogs, and many develop otitis externa, with a secondary yeast or bacterial infection. "The allergen can be a food, drug, parasite or an environmental item such as pollen, dust mites or dander," Dr. Miller says. "The ear canal lining contains mast cells which degranulate [release granules] when exposed to an allergen. This degranulation causes swelling, heat, moisture and itching, which predisposes the animal to infection. External itching makes things even worse."

Evident Signs. The symptoms a dog owner might notice depend on the cause of the ear disease and the individual dog. Diagnosis starts with a physical examination, with the veterinarian using an instrument called an otoscope.

"This may require tranquilization or even anesthesia if the ear is very painful," Dr. Miller says. "Cytology [study of the cells] within the ear discharge should then be performed. Depending on the case, the discharge will be examined for parasites or stained to look for bacterial or fungal infection. In cases where an ear tumor is suspected, cells can sometimes be scraped from the ear canal for diagnosis. In cases of chronic or deep ear infections, an X-ray, CT scan or MRI may be warranted."

Treatment depends on whether there is a secondary infection, says Dr. Miller. "If the dog has never had ear disease previously, the veterinarian should examine him before an owner attempts any treatment at home. Cytology of the ear debris is an essential diagnostic tool in most cases, but if something as simple as an ear cleaning is done before the examination, that may lead to an inaccurate diagnosis, because the cleaning can change the cytologic findings."

Ear cleaning can be a one-time event at the veterinarian's office or may need to be done at home several times a week. Afterward, the owner may be instructed to administer ear drops. The type of ear cleaning product and ear drops vary, depending upon the ear disease being treated.

Dogs with recurrent ear disease are a different matter, Dr. Miller says. "For instance, owners of American Cocker Spaniels often have to clean their dog's ears frequently. During the winter when the humidity is lower, the ears often need less frequent cleaning. Observant dog owners will recognize the first signs of wax build-up and clean their dog's ears right away, thereby preventing a secondary infection."

Caution on Cleaning. However, he cautions, "For a good, safe home cleaning, a dog owner needs to know what he or she is doing. The technique can be learned at a veterinarian's office or professional grooming parlor."

Preventing otitis externa depends on its trigger. If a dog frequently gets swimmer's ear, the cure would be to prevent him from swimming. "In many cases, this is easier said than done!" Dr. Miller says.

If the dog exhibits signs of ear disease after his ears are cleaned or plucked at the groomer, the procedure should be re-evaluated and changed accordingly. If the dog is an excessive ear wax producer, the ears should be cleaned regularly under the direction of a veterinarian, who would prescribe the product to be used and the frequency, and method of cleaning. "If the dog just has too much wax, we use one line of products, while if the dog tends to get a yeast overgrowth in the wax, we'll use another line," says Dr. Miller.

, The best way to determine if your dog needs treatment for otitis externa: "Notice whether your pet is flicking his ear, shaking his head more often than usual, doesn't welcome being petted around his head or has a strange odor there," Dr. Miller says. "All of these can be early signs of otitis externa. As the disease worsens, the signs will become more pronounced. Most cases are easier to treat and resolve if caught early."

Dogs who love to swim can be at risk for the kind of otitis externa that's the canine equivalent of swimmer's ear.
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Title Annotation:HEALTH
Publication:Dog Watch
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2013
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