By Monique Lenczycki
Having lived with a number of 'ear problem' dogs, I offer this overview and a few tips to minimize your GR's chances of having recurrent ear infections. When I adopted one of my dogs, she came with ear infections they had been trying to clear up for some time. This article is NOT meant to be a substitute for expert veterinary care, but rather a "user's guide" on how to navigate the confusing world of GR ear problems. I urge everyone to seek qualified veterinary care when dealing with his or her pet. This is simply meant to give you an overview of the issue.
Golden Retrievers are very prone to ear problems for several reasons. The first thing you have to do is attempt to find the underlying cause, if any. The major underlying causes can be anatomical, grooming, allergy or thyroid based.
First of all, dog ear canals are "L" shaped and some breeds are more angled than others are. This creates a problem because gravity traps dirt, moisture and wax deep in the lower part of the "L". This produces a warm, moist environment for the bacteria to invade and grow nicely in. What usually starts off as a yeast infection can quickly become bacterial. Yeast is normally present in the ear canal but can multiply rapidly in warm, moist environments. Note: Yeast smells to high heaven, bacteria usually does not. If you have both present (common) make sure you are treating both (anti-yeast and anti-bacterial medication). If you only treat the bacteria, the yeast continues to grow unchecked and different bacteria can invade while you are eliminating the original one.
Goldens have that beautiful coat which grows profusely around the ear and it's opening. All this hair blocks airflow and drainage, which adds to the anatomical problem noted above. Regular and diligent trimming of the hair around the ear opening and area just below is crucial to prevent recurrent ear problems.
Another ear culprit is allergies, which are prevalent in Goldens. Most allergies appear in the ears and/or skin of GR's. Allergies can be food or environmentally based. This is a difficult area to diagnose and the 'ruling out' process can be time consuming. If your dog all of a sudden develops an ear problem or only seems to have it in 'cycles' (like every spring, etc.) allergies may be the culprit. Seasonal pollens can affect dogs just as they do humans. Some dogs with environmental based allergies do well on anti-histamines.
Food changes in relation to the starting/stopping of ear problems can be related to allergic response. If you suspect your dog's ear problems are food allergy based your vet may recommend a food trial. Food trials are beneficial but must be followed rigidly to be effective (which is next to impossible to do if you have young kids who drop stuff....). Your vet may recommend you at least a switch to a different diet like lamb/rice, etc. to see if that will effect any change in the symptoms.
Thyroid abnormalities can cause havoc with ears and skin. Thyroid disease should be ruled out on any Golden with recurrent ear infections. Low thyroid is common in Goldens and a dog in the low normal range with other symptoms (like chronic ear/skin problems) may benefit from a thyroid supplement trail.
Grooming & Cleaning-- the key to keeping ears healthy
Any dog will benefit from this routine to either help clear up an infection or to prevent one from occurring. Doing this routine 1-3 times a week (depending on how bad it is) during a chronic infection will help clear it up and doing it about once a month will keep it from recurring.
Groom- The NUMBER ONE PRIORITY is good grooming around the ears. Cut all the hair off, deep and wide around the ear openings. It is very important to keep air moving in and around the ear canal so they can dry and drain. If you don't know how to do this, call us and we will be happy to demonstrate, it's quick and easy to do and will save you lots of grief.
Cleanse- Use a good foaming/antibacterial cleanser designed to loosen wax and debris. Put a lot in the ear canal and then squish it around by grabbing under the cartilage ring and gently squeezing/rubbing. You should be able to hear it "squishing" in there. They usually love this, as it feels like a massage. After letting the cleaner work for about 5-10 minutes (yes they will shake some of it out) you are ready to flush.
Flush- Use a hand-held shower massage set on the water saver (tiny stream of water) or the hose if you can hook up to the sink to get the warm water. (It's probably best to do this in the tub/shower or outside.) Using lukewarm water, hold the ear flap up and gently let the water run in and then back out for about 3 minutes. All the gunk will flush out. (Yes, they are going to shake and that's good because they will loosen up the gunk and help it come out.)
Dry- After the flushing, let them shake a bunch of the water out and then wipe down as far as you can reach with a cotton ball to get the remaining debris, dirt and moisture out. Wait about 10 minutes and then pour in some epi-otic, oti-calm, etc., which are drying/cleaning agents. This step is very important to help dry all the water out. Use this also after the dog swims or bathes.
Medicate, if necessary. About an hour after cleaning, put in whatever medicine you are using and be sure to use enough to get down deep into the ear canal where the problem is.
If your dog has a chronic ear infection and is being treated with oral antibiotics, it hopefully has been prescribed based on ear cytology (culture) results. The culture is necessary and important to tell the vet exactly what bacteria they are treating and which antibiotic will be effective. In the case of chonic infections, the prescribed antibiotic should be given for SIX weeks. When you have a chronic, recurrent infection, the experts think the appropriate antibiotic should be given for 6 weeks to ensure a full dosing and killing of all bacteria. The traditional 14-21 day regimens are not always effective in treating all the bacteria permanently and the infection reappears in a month or so.
After the six-week antibiotic and topical treatment, he/she should be done and finished. If not, then it is time to look for underlying reasons such as allergy & thyroid testing, and/or possibly surgical options to correct anatomical problems.
My dog was the queen of ear problems, and after ruling out thyroid problems and allergies, anatomy was determined to be the culprit. If I had any hope of ending the every month infections, surgical correction was in order. Her ear canals were shaped more like "V" than "L" and she had chronic ear infections which never cleared up. At the time of her surgery, both eardrums were found ruptured (from the longstanding infection processes) and she was most probably deaf or severely hearing impaired. "Lateral Ear Resections" were performed, (which is basically removing the top part of the "L" so her ear canal is now straighter like a humans), and she hasn't had an infection in a year. The cost of the surgery was actually about half of what was spent on the medical management for the six months prior to the surgery, but most importantly, she feels and hears fine now!