column By: Dr. Hank Clemmons | September, 20
But we were happy – we were finally bird hunting again.
Suffering from almost a year of hunting starvation, we had braved an 80-degree day during the first week of October just to hear the exhilarating sounds of grouse escaping through fully foliaged stands of aspen. We pointlessly shot at the sounds, harvesting leaves instead of birds. The dogs were panting so hard it was a wonder they could even scent the birds.
Puddles, fed by the humidity-spiking recent rains, served as rest stops where we allowed the dogs to lie in the muddy water and cool off. Everybody had brought extra water for themselves and the dogs, but it was long gone, causing us to walk slowly and take frequent breaks. I usually don’t let my dogs drink out of dirty puddles – I don’t like cleaning up diarrhea in the middle of the night – but on a day like this, they were welcomed to whatever was available.
We got back to the trucks, watered both hunters and dogs, set the lawn chairs up in the shade and popped open our end-of-the-hunting-day cold beers. Ahhh!
Tim gave me a pinch of his pipe tobacco, which I dampened with beer and applied to Tom’s swollen bee stings. At the same time, Bob called Maddie his English setter over to comb burrs from her hair. He noticed her ear was painful, and she recoiled when he touched it.
I left Tom to lean into his poultice on his own. If there’s an unspoken rule in our group of bird hunters it’s, “Dogs come first.”
Bob held Maddie still while I gently examined her.
Her ear canal was fiery red and swollen. The other ear appeared normal. Upon closer inspection, it also looked as if her face and lips were starting to swell. Deciding it was an allergic reaction to either an inhaled or contact allergen, I gave her a 20-milligram Prednisone tablet from my first-aid kit. Bob carried Benadryl with him, but the Prednisone would both act faster and probably only require one dose.
We loaded up and went back to the lodge. By the time Bob got Maddie brushed out, her ear was almost normal, and there was no facial swelling. I advised Bob to watch the ear over the next few days and make sure it didn’t worsen. Fortunately, we had addressed it right away and stopped the allergic reaction before it had a chance to cause bigger problems.
Many chronic ear problems start off as a simple allergic reaction. Contact allergens, inhalant allergies (atopy) and food allergies are common in dogs. Chronic itchy, oily smelling skin often accompanies ears with advanced allergies.
Dogs’ ear canals behave similarly to a human’s sinus: When exposed to allergens, they swell up and secrete fluid – think of people who suffer from allergies complaining about how full their sinuses are during hay fever season. Dogs with pendulous ears don’t get a lot of air circulation in their ears to begin with, and when inflamed, the canal gets hot, swells up and secretes an oily fluid. This creates a warm, dark, moist environment where yeast and bacteria readily grow. Once the infection sets in, the problems quickly multiply.
Certain hunting breeds such as the retrievers (Labs as well as goldens) and spaniels (especially cockers and springers) commonly suffer from allergic ear and skin problems. Many spaniel breeds have the added complication of excess hair growing on their ears, weighing them down and covering the ear openings, severely restricting ventilation. The excess hair growing inside the ear traps moisture and debris, leading to secondary infections. Retrievers love to swim and are rarely selective in the cleanliness of the water they choose. Dirty water trapped in an ear canal can quickly lead to infection. While ear and skin allergies are especially prevalent among retrievers and spaniels, they can occur in any breed and should be dealt with immediately.
The dog’s external ear canal consists of both a vertical and a horizontal canal that meet to form an L shape, which protects the eardrum but which also creates an effective trap for water and debris. The junction of the two canals is also a frequent site of owner-induced damage from overly aggressive swabbing. People will often ram a cotton swab down the vertical canal until it hits the floor of the horizontal canal, causing damage to this sensitive tissue.
Flushing the ear and wiping out the excess with a cotton ball or cloth-covered finger is the best way to clean an ear. There are numerous brands of commercial ear cleaners; many are alcohol-based to help with evaporation and drying. However, alcohol applied to an inflamed ear can cause pain, often leading to treatment aversion.
My favorite homemade ear cleaning formula is a mixture combining equal amounts of warm water, white vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. Fill the ear canal, massage at the base of the ear and then wipe out the excess. You can repeat this until the ear flushes clean.
Farther into the ear, the tympanic membrane (eardrum) separates the external canal from the middle and inner ear. Dogs with middle and inner ear infections often present with a head tilt, circling, loss of balance or sagging of one side of the face or a drooping eyelid. These symptoms should be considered serious enough to require professional treatment.
Ear problems in dogs should be treated early and aggressively to prevent chronic, hard to cure problems. If your dog doesn’t respond quickly, take it to your veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.