Natural Treatments for Ear Infections in Dogs

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PetMD Editorial
Published: June 22, 2016

By Monica Weymouth

There are two types of dog owners in this world—those who routinely stick their noses in their BFFs ears sniffing for signs of foul play, and those who don’t.

If you fall in the former camp, you certainly know the smell of a dreaded ear infection, as well as the telltale itching and headshaking that go along with it. Not to mention the frequent vet visits, piles of over-the-counter ear washes and old wives’ tale “remedies.”

You’re also far from alone. Ears are the perfect place for an infection to settle in, and if your dog is predisposed, issues can become chronic. “The most common causes of infection are yeast and bacteria, and they thrive in moist, dark areas—ears are perfect for that,” says Natasha Kassell, VMD, a holistic house-care veterinarian based in Philadelphia. “But there’s certainly a genetic component—all dogs have ears, but not all dogs have ear infections.”

Is your pooch stuck in the stinky ear club? Read on for tips on prevention, treatment and—finally—breaking the cycle of ear infections with tips from holistic veterinarians.

Smarter Grooming Many well-meaning owners and groomers remove dogs’ inner ear hair to prevent infections—but in the process, may be causing the problem. “As a young veterinarian I believed the floppy, hairy-eared dogs developed more ear infections due to this anatomy which prevented air flow,” says Jodie Gruenstern DVM, CVA, a holistic veterinarian and practice owner in Wisconsin. “There may be some truth to this, however, what I found to be most correlated is that after a dog's ear hair was ‘plucked’ while at a groomer, the dog commonly developed an ear infection about two weeks later. Akin to waxing, this plucking hurts! It leaves the sensitive ear canal abraded and scabby deep inside where it is then vulnerable to microbial attack.”

Natural Oils and Washes

When it comes to keeping ears clean and healthy, you may already have the supplies in your pantry. “I don't generally recommend ear washes as they break up the natural wax coating on the ear canal which can lead to irritation,” says Erika Halle, DVM, a veterinary acupuncturist and chiropractor in Oregon. “I recommend cleaning with just a couple of drops of oil, such as coconut or olive, placed into the ear canal. This softens the excess wax and helps it move up and out where it can be wiped away with a tissue.”

Although Gruenstern does recommend a commercial aloe-based herbal rinse for dogs who are prone to post-swim ear infections, she cautions that such washes are only preventative, and once an infection is present, a visit to your veterinarian is always in order. “Many astringent, even natural, ear washes are misused,” she says. “If the pet guardian suspects an ear infection, it is too late for an ear wash. The canal is already sensitive, so an ear wash ‘burns’ the sensitive tissue, even blisters it, perpetuating the problem.”

Boric Acid

From treating acne to killing ants, boric acid has a ton of uses—including preventing ear infections. Kassell recommends sprinkling some of the powder in your dog’s ears after swimming or bathing, and even uses boric acid to treat some mild infections. “It makes the ears a less favorable place for yeast and bacteria to grow,” she explains of the acidity. Because boric acid shouldn’t be swallowed or inhaled, be careful to protect your dog’s (and your own!) eyes, nose and mouth.

Conventional Treatments

If an ear infection is confirmed, a holistic veterinarian will often recommend a conventional treatment plan. “I have tried many topical, natural products such as garlic/mullein and even some Chinese herbal ear drops. I have been disappointed with their effectiveness,” says Gruenstern. “The conventional medications which contain an antifungal for yeast, an antibiotic for bacteria and a steroid for inflammation gives the pet the fastest relief. Then we look for the underlying cause.” Next on her agenda: a full thyroid panel, a probiotic product to balance out the gut and…

Dietary Changes

To prevent future infections, holistic veterinarians take their exam from the ear canal to the food bowl. “If a dog is fed a high starch diet, which is what is used in baking to grow yeast, then yeast will flourish on the skin,” explains Gruenstern. “Excessive starch in the diet leads to insulin resistance and a whole inflammatory cascade. A fresh, species-appropriate diet is very important to prevent the development of most conditions.”

Halle also recommends removing starch, as well as exploring other meats. “The first things I have people cut out are grains and chicken,” she says. “After that, it depends on the dog. You may need to try some other proteins like turkey or beef, or even a novel protein like kangaroo or brushtail.”

Not all veterinarians agree that grain-free diets are a good option, so make sure to consult your own vet before making a switch to a grain-free food.

Preventative Evaluation

If your dog is suffering frequent infections, a holistic veterinarian may look at the number of vaccines—as well as flea and tick treatments—that are being administered throughout the year.  “While vaccines are incredibly useful at preventing serious disease such as rabies, distemper and parvo, they stimulate the immune system in an unnatural way, and may play a role in the vast amount of chronic diseases we’re seeing in dogs, from cancer to autoimmune diseases to ear infections,” says Kassell, “My goal as a holistic veterinarian is to help guardians minimize use of potentially harmful products while still protecting their pets against contagious viruses, fleas, ticks, etc."   

The bottom line: If your dog is showing signs of an ear infection, make an appointment with your veterinarian and discuss how you can avoid the next visit.

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