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Symptoms and Diagnosis of Otitis in Dogs

Recognizing Canine Ear Disease and Finding Its Cause

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Symptoms and Diagnosis of Canine Otitis and Ear Infections

Diagnosing the cause of canine ear infections and/or otitis is necessary before the problem can be treated effectively.
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Otitis and/or ear infections are common in dogs. There are many different causes of canine ear disease and diagnosing the cause is an important part of treating the disease. Of course, first you must recognize that your dog has an ear problem.

Terminology - The Difference Between Otitis and an Ear Infection

Technically, the terms otitis and ear infection describe two different conditions. Otitis refers to inflammation within the ears and can occur for a variety of different reasons, including food allergies, atopy, allergies to fleas and more.

On the other hand, an ear infection refers to an actual infection of the ear with either bacteria, yeast or parasites.

Ear infections can cause otitis very easily. They can also be a secondary reaction to otitis. As a result, it is not uncommon to see both otitis and an ear infection present in your dog's ears at the same time.

Symptoms of Otitis and/or Ear Infection in the Dog

Dogs with otitis and/or an ear infection can be quite uncomfortable. Symptoms expected include:

  • scratching at the head or ears
  • shaking the head
  • odor and/or discharge from the ears
  • redness and inflammation in the ears
  • hair loss and possibly scabs around the ears which extend to the head and neck areas also

If your dog is suffering from otitis or an ear infection, his ears may be sensitive to the touch. In more chronic cases of ear disease, the ear canal may become very narrow.

Diagnosing Canine Otitis and Ear Infections: The Physical Examination

In most cases, diagnosis will start with an examination of the ears and will also include an overall examination of your dog. Your veterinarian will want to do a thorough examination of your dog looking for evidence of disease outside of the ears. This is because ear disease in dogs is quite often secondary to another disease. Evidence of skin disease or other lesions may give your veterinarian a clue that there is more involved than just your dog's ears.

An otoscopic examination of your dog's ears will allow your veterinarian to look inside your dog's ear canal. This may reveal objects such as foreign bodies or masses within the ear as well as allowing your veterinarian to see what the deeper structures of your dog's ear look like. In some instances, flushing your dog's ears under a sedative may be necessary in order to visualize the ear drum and make sure that the ear drum is intact.

Diagnostic Tests Used for Otitis in Dogs

Once your veterinarian has examined your dog and his ears, other diagnostic tests may be recommended.

  • Swabs of the debris from your dog's ears may be examined microscopically looking for evidence of ear mites and other parasites.
  • Ear cytology uses a swab of your dog's ear canal together with special stains to look for abnormal cell types and the presence of yeast and/or bacteria in your dog's ears.
  • If a bacterial infection is found, a culture of your dog's ear may be necessary to identify the specific type of bacteria present in your dog's ear and determine which antibiotic will be most effective in killing or controlling the bacteria.

If your dog's ear infection is believed to be secondary to another cause, your veterinarian will need to identify that cause. This may involve further testing.

  • Blood testing may be done to rule out diseases such as hypothyroidism.
  • Food trials may be recommended if a food allergy is suspected.
  • A trial with an effective flea medication may be recommended to be certain that flea allergies are not playing a part in your dog's otitis.
  • Allergy testing (either through skin tests or blood tests) may be recommended if atopy has been diagnosed and you are considering hyposensitization (i.e. "allergy shots") for your dog.
  • Skin scrapings may be performed to rule out diseases such as demodectic or sarcoptic mange. If these diseases are strongly suspected, a therapeutic trial with medication known to be effective against them may even be considered.
  • Fungal cultures may also be advised if fungal infections such as ringworm are suspected as the cause.

Learn more: Ear Infections in Dogs and Cats

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