An ear cleaning myth that often causes infections
Ear infections in dogs are one of the most misunderstood problems in dogs. In my previous article, holistic approach to ear infections, I touched on the topic of ear cleaning. But based on our latest quiz, "Are you your dog's best friend when it comes to health and nutrition?", many people still do not understand when ear cleaning should be done and when to avoid it.
One thing you will not find in veterinary textbooks
Human history has confirmed people love to be set in their ways and accept the status quo without questioning.
When people see an ear infection, inflammation or wax build up they try to clean it out. The problem is that the wax or discharge builds right back up to the same level as before, if not more.
I sometimes jokingly compare canine ears to a flushing toilet. You flush the toilet and the water returns to the same level as before. When you flush your dog's ears, in a few days wax and discharge builds up again to the same degree as before.
In the article holistic treatment of ear problems in dogs, I mention the biggest reason why dogs suffer from chronic, incurable ear infections is that the primary cause is not recognized. When ears get inflamed, it is merely a signal that there are problems, such as cervical spine misalignment, collar injuries, digestive tract imbalances and lumbar spine injuries.
Why ear cleaning does not usually produce long-lasting results
Most conventional ear treatment protocols consist of local ear treatment, but as I mentioned above, ear inflammation and infection should be seen as a signal that there is something else going on. I sometimes compare dog ears to the signal light on a car's dashboard. If there is something wrong with the neck, diet or digestion they get inflamed or infected.
Humans have a similar signal system - their nose. When there is a systemic problem, people get congested. However, the sense of smell is way too important for dogs. That is why they have evolved differently and signal imbalances through their ears.
The connection between ear problems and diet
Many veterinarians have now acknowledged that ear problems and diet are connected. Many children also suffer from ear problems, and some of my naturopathic colleagues suggest that there is a strong connection between feeding denatured baby formula and processed food in general.
Just imagine for a moment that your car's temperature gauge goes off, signaling your car is overheating. You have two choices. You can fix the cooling system problem or remove the signal light. If you do the first, you will protect the engine from overheating. If you tamper with the signal light, the engine will overheat, and the engine block may crack.
Your dog's ears can be seen the same way. If you clean the ears without addressing the core cause elsewhere in the body, your dog's health will gradually deteriorate and their ear problems will become chronic.
Your dog's ears come with a "conveyor belt" and a guard squad
When I tell people I have only cleaned my dog Skai's ears once in his lifetime, some of them are really surprised, especially when they see how clean Skai's ears are.
Wolves and other canines in the wild do not come to the world with a nanny to clean their ears and their ears are spotless too. Their ears are self-cleaning because they have a sort of "conveyor belt" that carries all the impurities out!
To clarify, the external ear canal and middle ear are separated by the eardrum. The ear drum is derived from skin and grows in a similar fashion as nails. As it grows, it carries wax and impurities out of the ear.
The other important part of good ear canal health is maintaining its microflora, which can be seen as the ears' ‘guard squad.’ Similar to the gut, balanced flora prevents pathogens from growing and the quality of the flora depends on your dog's general health.
What damage does regular ear cleaning cause?
- It disturbs the healthy flora of the ear and increases the likelihood of an infection.
- Frequent ear cleaning can cause yeast overgrowth. Yeast is present in every dog's ear canal, but in a healthy ear, it is held in check by a varied population of beneficial bacteria.
- Yeast infections are also more likely to happen in dogs on carbohydrate and grain-rich foods.
- Repeated ear washing causes irritation and inflammation, and most cleaning solutions have chlorhexidine, a highly irritating anti-bacterial soap. Some people advocate for the use of hydrogen peroxide and apple cider vinegar, but I have not seen great results with either.
- Even colloidal silver, which some people love to use, does not seem to produce reliable results.
To summarize, the less liquid poured into your dog's ear, the better.
What happens when the ‘ear conveyor belt’ stops?
Over cleaning destroys bacterial flora and the "conveyor belt" stops, which can lead to recurrent chronic infections and inflammation that is painful and seriously affects dogs' quality of life. The end station of such a vicious cycle is usually a very traumatic surgery - ear canal ablation or lifelong chronic pain and discomfort.
When is it ok to clean ears?
In my experience, the only indication that an ear flush ear cleaning is needed is at the start of a true ear infection treatment. Such cleaning should be done at a veterinary clinic to ensure that you are not pouring liquid in an ear with a ruptured ear drum. This can seriously damage your dog's hearing and balance.
I want to emphasize here that an ear infection DOES NOT equal ear inflammation. In the case of ear inflammation, the true causes, such as neck, back and digestive tract issues, need to be addressed.
What to do about wax build-up?
Every dog breed is slightly different when it comes to ear wax production. Cocker spaniels, beagles, basset hounds and other thick-skinned dogs appear to produce more wax, which can be compared to some people who have greasier skin.
These dogs are the most common victims of excessive ear cleaning. Trying to clean the wax out of a cocker spaniel’s ear is no different than flushing a toilet and hoping that it will be dry at the end of the flush! There is one exception – ear canal obstruction.
Ears are a good example where less is more when it comes to cleaning and treatment. If your dog has some wax around the ear canal and you know that his/her breed is predisposed to more wax production, the safest way to care for them is to leave them alone or at the most wipe the external ear flap gently once a month or less. It is my experience that people who love to clean and be clean have a hard time leaving their dog's ears alone.
Whenever I take on a patient with chronic ear infections, I know if I convince the guardian not to over-clean the ears, the chance of a full recovery is many times greater.
The greatest challenge you may be up against
Now that you know ear cleaning should be reserved only for the start of the treatment of severe infections, the biggest challenge may be to find a veterinarian who will agree with you.
The conventional approach to treating ears is composed of diet change, antibiotics, antifungal and steroid drops and regular cleaning, which often cycles through indefinitely until no options are left because of the growth of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
Resisting the urge to try to clean out the wax and not treating inflammation with drugs and steroids is more reliable than repeated cleaning. You also need to keep in mind that with every course of steroids and antibiotic drops, creams of pills, your dog's chances of full recovery decreases dramatically.
If your dog has had a tendency to get ear infections, click here for more details on how to treat ear problems in dogs naturally and get rid of them once and for all.
© Dr. Peter Dobias, DVM