My Dog Has an Itchy and Smelly Ear! Help!

If your dog has a smelly ear it’s usually accompanied by a tickly inflammation that makes him scratch it, shake his head and perhaps hold his head to one side. Read on for free vet advice on how to give the necessary pet care whilst avoiding unnecessary vet fees.

What causes it?

Well, most of it is down to us. It’s our fault because of the way we took the basic wolf-type dog and then, through breeding, started to tweak things — adding a bit here, taking a bit off there, shortening this, lengthening that.

Just think of the wolf — erect ears actively moving around to pick up sounds, no loose skin folds, an outdoor life with fresh air circulating around and through a medium-length springy coat, and grooming other pack members ensuring body areas inaccessible to individuals are kept clean. Now think of many of our modern breeds leading a modern life — heavy folded-down ears, long hair, skin folds, a mostly sedentary life in a warm house usually with no other dogs. With all this going on, our dogs’ ears are a wonderful site for all sorts of things to set up camp — bacteria, yeasts and parasites being top of the list. And once they’ve found a home they start causing irritation which causes more ear wax to be produced which makes it party time for still more bacteria, yeasts and parasites.

Anatomically, dogs’ ears (like ours) are divided into three distinct parts: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. Given that problems tend to come from the outside, not surprisingly it’s the outer ear (which extends in as far as the ear-drum) which is most often affected. Usually the ear drum stays intact and the bugs and mess is kept on the outside — this is fortunate because it allows effective treatment from the outside too.

Occasionally infection becomes established in the middle ear where the mechanical components responsible for transmitting sound to the inner ear reside. This usually happens because the ear drum has ruptured but it can also happen in the absence of an outer ear problem — if infection travels in the blood stream or up the Eustachian tube which links the middle ear to the throat. Infection here tends to cause more pain than irritation and also interferes more with hearing. Infections of the inner ear, which is where the balance organs and the cochlea (which converts sound waves into nerve impulses) reside, are fortunately quite rare. It’s fortunate because damage here can be permanent and disabling, and because problems such as infection here are too close to the brain for comfort.

Having said most problems are basically our fault, for breeding all shapes and sizes of dogs, nature is also partly to blame — but for excusable reasons. For ears to work well sounds are best gathered from high up — so each ear flap (the ‘pinna’) is located to draw down sound from the top off the head, channelling sound down to the middle ear within the skull. This ‘channel’ is a vertical tube which turns to become horizontal before ending in the ear drum. Vertical tubes open at the top and closed at the bottom aren’t the cleverest of shapes for allowing wax, dirt and any foreign bodies to easily escape. In this respect dogs’ ears are quite unlike ours — we have only short horizontal tubes between pinna and ear drum so we don’t have the same difficulties with dirt and wax building up.

Coming back to inflammation in the outer ear, ‘  otitis  externa’ as it’s called, it’s clear that ventilation, or lack of it, and poor natural drainage is a big problem for many dogs. This becomes even more of a problem once inflammation gets hold because it causes the skin lining the ear canal to swell, and also to produce more wax and that in turn cuts down ventilation still further. Repeated bouts of  otitis  externa keep adding to the problem by causing chronic skin thickening. All this goes to emphasise the need to act quickly to try to clear up infection fast.

The parasites sometimes associated with ear infections are ear mites. These are only just visible to the naked eye and can sometimes be seen moving around on the waxy discharge removed from affected ears.

An occasional cause of ear problems is grass awns becoming stuck in the ear after a dog goes for a walk snuffling through long grass or undergrowth. These awns are shaped in such a way that they can easily go down the ear canal but won’t come back out unless physically removed — this is a job for your vet as it involves introducing forceps deep into the ear canal.

What can I do to help?

Your role is to keep on top of things for the future — for now, and for the immediate needs of your dog, you need to see your vet if there’s smell, inflammation and itching. Once your vet has given the prescription medicines necessary to sort out the probable  otitis  externa, and you’ve applied them effectively, the best thing you can do to prevent recurrence is to keep your dog’s ear clear of wax and dirt. You can get many effective ear cleaners for dogs without the need for a vet’s prescription.

When should I call my vet?

Ear problems need to be dealt with correctly to give the best chance for a quick and effective cure. Your vet will examine your dog’s ears with an auriscope to help arrive at a good diagnosis and decide upon treatment. You should take your dog to see your vet for any new ear problem that emerges, but once the immediate problem has been solved, and having discussed it with your vet, you may be able to deal with any mild recurrences yourself, and you’ll certainly be able to contribute to your pet’s wellbeing by keeping his ears clean with wax-dissolving ear cleaners available without prescription.

Ears cause dogs more problems than ours cause us, so make sure you help your pet deal with this by adopting a routine of keeping them healthy — remember the wolf’s grooming of its pack mates, keeping clean those things like ears that an individual can’t keep clean itself. Underneath it all, your dog is just like a wolf — and so must you be!