Chronic ear infections are uncomfortable for pets, frustrating for owners, and troubling for veterinarians. If your pet’s ear infection seemingly never goes away despite treatment, or returns after only a short time, an underlying cause may be to blame. And, until that cause is determined, treating the inflammation and infection will continue to provide only temporary relief.

Before you go another round with the same old ear cleaner and leftover medication, check out our guide to chronic ear infections in pets. Then, break the endless cycle of itchy, irritated ears by scheduling an appointment at University Veterinary Hospital.

Chronic ear chronicles—why your pet’s ear infection keeps returning

Dogs and cats can develop ear infections and otitis externa (i.e., outer ear canal inflammation) for many reasons. Often, the infection is actually secondary to an underlying cause, which can include:

  • Allergies
  • Parasites
  • Foreign object in the ear 
  • Tumor, debris, or matted hair obstructing the canal
  • Ear conformation (i.e., narrow ear canal, long low-hanging ears that prevent air flow)

These conditions initiate inflammation that causes irritation, swelling, and itchiness in the tissue of one or both ears. Owners may notice their pet scratching their ears and shaking their head to relieve their discomfort. The inflamed ear’s dark, warm, and moist environment allows bacteria and yeast organisms to multiply, establishing an infection, and intensifying the pet’s misery.

Insult to injury—how chronic ear infections change your pet’s ear

Prolonged, chronic inflammation creates additional problems for pets, because the tissue in and around the canal becomes thickened and deformed, narrowing or closing the ear canal. Also, the pet ear canal is “L” shaped, and reaching the horizontal canal with ear medication can be difficult in a chronically inflamed ear. If your pet’s treatment does not address both inflammation and infection, complications that can arise include:

  • Antibiotic-resistant infection
  • Deep ear infection
  • Eardrum rupture
  • Hearing loss
  • Aural hematoma (i.e., broken vessels inside the pinna causing bleeding inside the ear flap)

Better to hear you with—your pet’s otoscopic exam

The first step in addressing your pet’s chronic ear infections is a full examination by our University Veterinary Hospital team. After reviewing your pet’s basic health information and clinical signs, our veterinarian will perform complete physical and otoscopic examinations.

The otoscope allows visualization of the vertical and horizontal ear canals, as well as the eardrum. Sedation may be necessary to clean and evaluate your pet’s ear if the ear is exceptionally painful, narrow, or dirty.

If the eardrum is intact, with no foreign objects or tumors, our veterinarian will take a swabbed sample to look for microscopic parasites, bacteria, yeast, or other abnormalities.

Making the pain disapp-ear—treating chronic ear infections in pets

Despite your pet starting to scratch for seemingly the umpteenth time, chronic ear infection relief is possible. Treatment varies based on your pet’s infection cause, but typically involves a multimodal approach (i.e., more than one therapy) to reduce inflammation, relieve pain, treat infection, and address the underlying cause.

Some treatment options include:

  • Medication — Ear medication regimens may include anti-inflammatory medication to address pain and irritation and to allow horizontal ear canal access, a topical antibiotic or antifungal that is effective against your pet’s specific infection, ear mite medication, and—in severe cases—a short oral steroid course for rapid inflammation relief.
  • Deep ear flush — Exceedingly dirty ears may require a sedated ear flush to remove impacted debris and improve medication efficacy.
  • Allergy treatment — If we suspect allergies, we may refer your pet to our dermatology service for specialized treatment, including medication to block the allergic itch cycle, a hypoallergenic diet, allergen testing, and fatty acid supplements for skin and immune health. 
  • Laser therapy — Our therapeutic laser is a non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical method that reduces tissue inflammation and restores healthy circulation.  
  • Surgery Surgery may be necessary to remove a tumor or a foreign object (e.g., a grass awn or seed). For severely affected pets, we may advise surgically removing the vertical ear canal (i.e., lateral ear resection) or the entire ear canal (i.e., total ear canal ablation [TECA]), which sound extreme, but can grant the pet their best chance at a pain-, infection-free life.

Ear protection—preventing ear infections in pets

If your pet has a history of chronic ear infections, they will need vigilant care and attention for the rest of their life. In addition to follow-up appointments at University Veterinary Hospital to ensure your pet’s infection has resolved, we will recommend the following steps to reduce recurrence:

  • Clean your pet’s ears weekly — Ask your veterinarian for specific product recommendations for your pet. Weekly cleaning also ensures you’ll notice changes and seek prompt treatment. If you do not know how to clean your pet’s ears, ask one of our veterinary professionals to show you—they usually have some good tricks to share!
  • Remove hair around and inside the ear — Long-eared breeds should be shaved around their ear canal to promote air flow. Ask your groomer to pluck any hair inside the ear canal where bacteria and debris can attach. 
  • Feed a limited ingredient diet — Ask your veterinarian to recommend a customized diet. Your pet’s food and treats should not contain dyes or artificial ingredients and preservatives, which may contribute to an inflammatory reaction.
  • Dry ears thoroughly — Clean and dry your pet’s ears after bathing or swimming to prevent excess moisture being trapped inside. 
  • Keep your pet on parasite preventives — Ensure your cat’s parasite prevention protocol protects against ear mites.
  • Brush or comb your pet’s ear feathering — Manually remove any seeds or debris after walking or hiking in tall grass.

If your pet is showing ear infection signs, such as ear odor, head shaking, scratching, or sensitivity to touch, we’re all ears—contact University Veterinary Hospital for a thorough examination, detailed diagnosis, and effective treatment that will finally give your pet some relief.