Ear Health Part I: All About Ears

Eden's Autumn Harvest

Look at those long, lovely ears

I am often asked about ear health in Cockapoos, and indeed in many different dog breeds. As many people know (or suspect) drop-ear dogs can be prone to ear problems. These seem to be more prevalent in some breeds of drop-ear dogs than they are in others. The Cocker spaniel is well known for the tendency toward ear troubles. Cocker spaniels and ear infections; they go together like a dog & a bone.

If you’re fortunate enough to have an Eden-dog, then your puppy is a hybrid; which will help to drown out genetic tendencies toward chronic conditions like recurrent ear infections. But genetics alone do not determine ear health. Even the healthiest, most well-bred dog can suffer from the occasional ear complaint. As a dog owner, ear health is something to be fairly well-versed in.

Many ear infections in drop-ear dogs like the Cockapoo are due to diet coupled with poor air circulation in the ear canal and lingering moisture. This has a tendency to encourage the growth of yeast, a fungus which is readily available on pretty much all of us. There are a few ways we can help keep our dogs ear infection free.

First let’s understand what causes ear problems in all dog breeds. Understanding the nature of any problem helps us know how to change the conditions needed for the problem to flourish.

Trouble in the ears are most commonly caused by otitis externia, the medical term for an ear infection (caused by bacteria or fungal overgrowth) and/or ear mites; a nasty little parasite that feasts on the blood in the ears of dogs.

The most common trouble for dogs with those adorable floppy drop ears, like the American Cockapoo, is a

Yeast Infection.

Candida (yeast) is a fungus (more accurately a group of fungi) that naturally lives on all of us. This is the same yeast that can cause infections in people. This particular group of yeasts are currently being called Malassezia (nomenclature is an argument currently with the great minds of taxonomy). Yeast likes a dark and damp environment, which is why places like the mouths of infants or the ears of dogs are susceptible to over-growth of this natural component the skin’s microenvironment. Skin surfaces can harbor an overgrowth of this fungus but the body has what is known as an acid mantle on the skin surface that keeps the skin pH acidic. This keeps the yeast growth restricted.

Lots of things can negatively affect this acid mantle. Water, soaps, etc. can all wash this away. While washing your pooch is healthy for her, (especially when she has gotten some chemical or irritant on her or has rolled in some delightfully disgusting filth, which is unhealthy for the whole family) overly-frequent baths and baths with harsh soaps can destroy the skin’s natural protection against infection and parasites. Baths are necessary but it is important to use a gentle, mild soap that won’t dry out skin and strip away all natural oils. Read about how to clean the ears properly in “Part II, Preventing Ear Infections in Dogs”.

Yeast need four things to survive: an environment with their proper (non-acidic) pH, a warm place to grow, a moist environment, and sugar to feed on.

Since the ears of the Cockapoo (and other drop-ear dogs) flop over and cover the ear canal it prevents air flow and circulation and the subsequent dryness of the ear canal. This dark, warm and moist environment encourages the growth of yeast.

Another common cause for chronic yeast infections of the ears (and even other skin areas like the paws, tummies, etc.) is from diet. These kinds of chronic yeast infections can become problematic for all dog breeds, even those with the shortest, most erect ear shapes. (More on this in “Part II, Preventing Ear Infections in Dogs”.)

Bacterial infections can be caused by many things. Problems with your dogs health may trigger an overgrowth of the “bad” types of bacteria, while they can also be caused by a swim in a lake, a bad scratch of a paw and just having a warm, moist environment with stagnant air flow. Bacteria are opportunistic little guys and if your pooch has a lowered immune system, has been taking antibiotics (which mess up his normal body protections), has very damp, warm ear canals (especially those with lots of hair in the ear canal allowing the trapping of yummy bacteria food and providing great places to adhere and colonize) coupled with a tendency to scratch at wax buildup. (Good reasons not to tweeze those hairy ears bare in Part II.)

The particular bacterium that cause bacterial otitis externa in dogs are:

  • Staphylococci: typically caused by immune problems and chronic hormonal imbalances like hypothyroidism
  • Pseudomonas: typically caused by swimming
  • Corynebacteria: not to be confused with the type that causes diphtheria in humans
  • Enterococci: tricky to treat as it is resistant to many antibiotics
  • E. Coli: a tricky devil that normally lives in the intestines, but can travel around, especially with poor toilet hygiene
  • Streptococci: tend to be more prevalent in the summer months. And
  • Proteus: a gram negative bacteria, difficult to treat, often causes chronic infections

So much bacteria, so little time.

And finally there is that lovely little parasite, the ear mite. This is a tiny parasite in the Arachnid family. This condition is called “Otodetic Mange” medically (helpful hint: “ot/oto” means ear).

The silhouette of an earmite (drawn by me, so excuse the poor artwork)

The silhouette of an earmite (drawn by me, so excuse the poor artwork)

There are lots of types of these blood suckers and they require special treatments. There are over the counter treatments, prescription treatments, and holistic treatments. Since one treatment may not work for your specific mite, all I can recommend is calling your vet for this one. Ear mites are highly contagious for dogs and cats but do not affect humans. Your pet can pick up mites quite easily just by being in a place where an infected animal has been. Dog parks, doggie day-cares, obedience classes, pet stores and the vet’s office are all places you can pick this little troublemaker up.

Go on to read Part II: Preventing Ear Infections

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