Canine Ear Infections: Causes, Solutions and Role of Food

24th June 2023 10 min read

Guest Blog: Dr Conor Brady

Have you ever had an earache coupled with pain? Dr Conor Brady discussed the causes, solutions and what you can do to prevent these in your canine companion.

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Canine Ear Infections: Causes, Solutions and Role of Food

Ever have a proper ear ache? Awful, isn’t it? Proper pain. Swelling in those narrow tubules is sore. I remember my brother had one so bad he couldn’t touch his own face and he lost his balance for a day.

Such ear infections are thankfully rare enough in us humans, most often the result of a bacterial infection. If the natural remedies don’t work, antibiotics will have you back on your feet in no time.

However, with dogs they’re not only more common (not just because of hangy-down ear flaps in many breeds) but more often than not they are the result of a perturbance in the ear environment, in essence they are fuelled by happenings originating “under the hood” (from inside the dog).

As is so often the case, to fix the issue on the surface, you need to address the issue within. No smoke without fire and all that.

Four Types of Canine Ear Infections

In my non-vet opinion, there are 4 different types of ear infections - those related to food sensitivity, bacteria, yeast and mites.

Knowing which one you have is clearly pivotal to the cure. For now, it’s important to remember that bacterial and yeast infections are very often the result of a gut out of whack, and in that way, could be seen as secondaries to the gut issue.

As gut issues are, again in my opinion, the most likely cause of recurring ear issues (fixing them is certainly the best cure, in my experience, hundreds of dogs now…), that is where our focus should be first.

Ear Issues as a Result of Food Sensitivity

This is first on the list as it is far and away the most important / common. In dogs with recurring ear infections, it’s where you’re focus should be.

Let’s say a persistent gut infection has resulted in you being sensitive to chicken protein. Not knowing this has developed, you keep feeding it to your dog where it constantly bothers your gut.

With 80% of your immune system around the gut (called the GALT - Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue), you are now kicking the beehive. Huge amounts of inflammation are the inevitable result and this inflammation can materialise in many ways - soft stools is a classic symptom (think of it as the gut pumping the chain to flush the bad stuff out!) but also, and just as likely, as inflammation on the surface, including the skin and ears.

This is the smoke coming out the windows of the burning house analogy I like to make in such instances.

Such inflammation will be visible on the skin as a red rash. The area will swell with the arrival of extra blood during the inflammatory process. The area will be hot, sometimes sore, often very itchy.

Vets often call this mysterious skin condition “atopic dermatitis” - unknown skin inflammation - which is not a disease diagnoses, it is a description of the symptoms. A far more helpful diagnosis would be “atopic dermatitis following the application / consumption of X”…that is what holistic practioners pursue - how did this happen? One of the reasons why our consults take so much longer).

Now imagine all this inflammation, heat itch and pain inside the tiny, sensitive tubules of your ears? Not fun.

So that’s first.

Your dogs natural reaction now is to scratch or shake his head vigorously.

This is the START of his ear condition and ideally, you would nip it in the bud then because if you don’t, into these wounds, some once innocuous skin bacteria, such as Staphylococcus, can creep in.

In such a dog, this often results in an infection. Your vet will diagnose this as the issue and correctly prescribe you antibiotic creams to fix it.

However, the question is - why would a regular skin scrape be infected with normal skin bacteria? We get scrapes all the time. Never happens. But in this dog, it did. Why?

The theory is, as the gut inflammation rages, a disintegration of gut flora balance occurs. We call this dysbiosis. Instead of all the good guys, bad guys can bloom. Now, instead of all the good stuff, we get bacterial groups that poo everywhere, driving inflammation.

Moreover, it turns out this gut flora dysbiosis can spread to the skin and ears via the gut-skin axis driving inflammation there, more here if you want to nerd out.

Like their gut cousins, the “good guys” in the ears begin to take a battering. They can no longer perform their function of pet control. With the security guards distracted, everyday skin bugs like Staph or Pseudomonas or yeast (particularly Malassezia pachydermatis) take advantage. They enter the ear canal and cause all sorts of problems.
This is why we on the natural side of things say they are secondaries. Focusing on just them makes as much sense as trying to stop the smoke coming out the windows.

While of course you should address the infection in front of you and relieve your dogs immediate suffering, we urge you to explore a hypoallergenic diet (don’t let anyone sell you one of these, you must discover what works for your dog and, more importantly, what does not, nobody else can know this) and a gut heal for the long term cure of your dogs problems. Here’s how to do it.

Such ear issues are characterised by hot, red ears, often swollen from the inflammation, scratching and shaking. If they damage them enough you will see some blood. There is no gunk. No smell. Just hot, sore, itchy red ears.

The problem is many at this point focus on cleaning the ear with an antibacterial product, natural or otherwise, but as it’s not (yet) bacterial in nature, they will not address the underlying inflammation and the ear issue will continue, when an infection IS on the cards.

In essence, anything that causes chronic inflammation can result in ear infections - from stress to drug side effects, for example, studies show vaccinated kids are more prone to ear infections (among a number of other issues) when compared to unvaccinated kids. As with so many things, it’s surely the same for dogs, too.

Bacterial Ear Infections, What To Do

Food aside, we have to accept, some dogs have ears that are perfect breeding grounds for infections – some have warm, fluffy ears, and others have hanging-down ear flaps. Both hold the moisture in (a wild canid’s ears are usually up and well-ventilated).

One swims in a river on a hot sunny day (or home to the heat), add a little scratch for good measure and bingo, he can develop an ear infection.

It’s very hard to tell a bacterial infection apart from a yeast one. Both result in sore, hot, inflamed, red ears, both can result in dark yellowy/brown discharge and both can smell (though the yeast infection smells decidedly cheesy). Knowing which one you have will obviously, change how you go about treating it.

Rather than running down to your vets every time it happens, save yourself time, money and effort by picking up a yeast swab kit from Feclab (only £40).
and have it to hand. If an issue sets in, you swab, post and have your answer in 48hrs.

If you suspect (or have diagnosed) a bacterial infection, there are three natural options for you to try before you reach for the antimicrobials:

1. Garlic oil is a potent antibacterial that also kills yeast. That’s why it’s one of my go-to’s for ears (particularly when not sure what we’re dealing with!). As well as killing nasties, it’s lubricating, loosening wax build-up that the baddies can hide behind.

Clean the ears twice daily. Use cotton swabs. One wipe, throwaway. One wipe. Throwaway. Never use the same swab in each ear.

You can make your own garlic oil by soaking crushed cloves of garlic in olive oil and then straining. Some recommended gentle cooking of this mixture to kill any bacteria present.

If you want to pick up a product to save you time I recommend garlic oil with mullein bought online (a fabulous herbal anti-inflammatory).

2. Probiotic ear cleaners. The days of trying to chemically napalm everything every time there’s a problem are probably behind us. An increasingly popular way of dealing with many issues of the skin and gut is to send more of the good guys. Probiotic ear cleaners have proven remarkably effective for some very stubborn ear issues. They bolster the resident probiotics that fight back the disease naturally. Well worth a shot. Check out Joe's website for more.

3. Leucillin. This is the most effective natural antimicrobial out there. It’s wonderful and I use it on everything - from sore ears to nasty cuts. It’s certainly where I would go before I reach for the industrial products with words I can’t pronounce from the vet. Read more here.

Dog Ear Infections Related to Yeast

Yeast needs three things to grow. The first is a suitable environment. Yeast loves warm, damp places. So ears are perfect, as is a licked paw or vulva.

The second thing it needs is food. Internally, we all know sugar fuels yeast growth so one of the first steps to controlling yeast is to starve it of refined carbs (more on controlling internal yeast issues here). Topically however, Malassezia feeds on the detritus on our skin, much harder to control that.

The third thing it needs, and not enough attention is given to this fact, is space / opportunity. Bacteria and yeast hate each other. It’s how we discovered antibiotics - Fleming, not the neatest of scientists by all accounts, left a window open, some fungal spores drifted in, landed on his petri dishes and he observed that bacterial groups couldn’t grow near the yeast. It was releasing a compound into the agar that stopped bacteria in its tracks. Months later we had penicillin.

But the opposite also applies. Good luck to any yeast trying to settle on that plate if bacteria were already present. They too release compounds that keep yeast in check.

This is what happens in our guts - our resident gut flora keeps yeast populations in check. However, when this gut flora takes a hammering (infections, antibiotics, years of chemically preserved kibble, etc) yeast is known to take advantage. Once in place, it begins releasing its compounds to keep other bacteria at bay, and the war begins.

The same thing is happening in the ears. You are covered in yeast and pollen, viruses and bacteria, not all of them friendly, but day to day you have no idea of the battle waged on your behalf by your skin flora, at least not while it’s winning. But when things go wrong and the skin flora goes to hell* yeast can take advantage.

*Cities are tough on skin. So many airbourne pollutants. Studies show rural children have robust skin flora, suburban less so and city kids the least. It follows, that the chances of skin infections, be it yeast or bacterial, rise from farm to city living.

A yeast infection is characterised by it’s smell. It’s nasty. Also, the wax is dark brown and gooey. My top solution for a yeast is apple cider vinegar. Cheap and cheerful, only use the stuff with the mother (cloudy bits but you don’t want the bits in the ears so maybe pour some into a bowl through a cloth). Recommend Braggs. Clean ears with swabs as above above but also rub into skin folds, soak paws etc. Very effective for yeast but also bacteria and really anything living!

Note: only use if the ear isn’t cut or damaged!!

If ACV doesn’t work I’d try good quality coconut oil (yeast hate the fatty acids therein while it feeds the good guys). If that doesn’t work any natural yeast ear cleaner. If more help is needed your vet has the stronger stuff.

As ever though, so it doesn’t happen again, you need to address WHY the yeast got a chance in the first place.

Dog Ear Infections Related to Mites

A mite infection can happen, albeit this too is suspected to be a secondary resulting from impaired immunity. The telltale sign your dog has a mite issue (very hard to see) and not a bacterial or yeast infection is that first it doesn’t smell and secondly instead of gooey wax the discharge more resembles dry coffee grounds. Mites need the vet as they’re so bothersome. Please don’t be tempted to start stuffing their ears with various powders.

In conclusion, ear infections can be very bothersome, and often painful, and should be treated for sure, but try to remember that recurring ear infections are not normal. They are more of a symptom. Very often, bacterial/fungal infections are secondaries. Why is this happening repeatedly to your dog? Focus there (starting with a gut heal, in my opinion, though I say that for everything, don’t I?!) and I bet you slash their occurrence back to the very occasional nuisance.

Further Reading

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