Q: My 3-year-old Irish setter’s ears have recently started to give him trouble. He shakes his head constantly. My vet smelled them and gave us expensive drops and a flush to put in there, but whenever we stop using these he starts flipping his ears around again. Is there a cure?
A: You’re describing something we call otitis externa, which is an extremely common inflammatory condition of the ears in both dogs and cats. It affects the skin that lines the ear canal and, as such, it’s considered a skin disease. It can come on suddenly (acute, like your setter’s) or smolder for extended periods of time (chronic).
Allergic skin disease is the most common primary cause but a slow thyroid (hypothyroidism) and other skin disorders are possible, too. Otitis external is also complicated by predisposing factors like conformation (narrow canal, long ears), environmental factors (high humidity, excessive cleaning), and other diseases that affect the skin.
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Perpetuating factors typically include yeast and bacterial infections (typically secondary to the inflammation) and the possible presence of a middle-ear infection.
One or both ears may be affected. Head shaking, pawing at or rubbing the affected ear(s), and cocking the head toward the most affected side are typical signs. Redness, itchiness and/or pain, and a malodorous discharge are usually noted (which is why your vet smelled the ears).
Clinical signs and visual inspection are considered sufficient evidence for definitive diagnosis of otitis externa, but primary, predisposing and perpetuating causes must also be identified, typically by more than just smelling the ears.
Performing tests on the ear discharge and collecting blood for identification of systemic diseases that affect the skin are mandatory if we’re to pin down a diagnosis and successfully treat the ears.
Is a cure possible, you ask? In many cases the answer is yes. Allergies caused by seasonal allergens (dusts, pollens, molds, etc.) may make a cure difficult, but if proteins and carbohydrates in his food are at fault, eliminating them may bring the ear disease into remission indefinitely. Identifying and resolving any other diseases can also “cure” the condition.
Whatever the case, bringing relief is essential. New generation ear medications and anti-itch drugs can provide safe, lasting relief without lots of daily drops, but they can be pricey. Ultimately, searching for the cause with your vet’s help is the most humane and cost-effective approach.
Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami. Her website is drpattykhuly.com. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.