The L-shape of dog and cat ear canals are designed to protect their highly developed sense of hearing. Unfortunately, this design may also cause moisture, debris, parasites and wax to be trapped in the ears, resulting in infections.
In cats, the most common causes of ear infections are mites or a weak immune system (which may be caused by the feline leukemia virus or feline immunodeficiency virus). Persian cats can be prone to ear infections.
In dogs, the most common underlying afflictions are allergies (upwards of 80%) and yeast, both of which often result in secondary bacterial infections. Dogs with floppy ears and swimmers are prone to ear infections.
Other causes of ear infections include:
- Fungal and yeast infections can result in scratching that turns into a bacterial ear infection.
- Inherited anatomical abnormalities in the ear canal structure can leave pets predisposed to ear infections due to inadequate drainage or constriction.
- Chronic ear infections can cause a build-up of scar tissue, leading to more infections.
- Ear growths/tumors/polyps may block efficient ear drainage in both dogs and cats.
- Ticks and fleas
- Water in the ears after swimming or a bath may cause an ear infection in dogs.
- Hot, humid weather brings a higher risk of infection.
- Trauma to the ear
- Hormonal imbalances
Symptoms of an ear infection may include:
- Excessive ear scratching or rubbing ears against objects
- Head shaking or tilting
- Foul smell that may remind you of yeast, sweat socks or a sewer
- Redness & bleeding
- Matted fur around the ears
- Stumbling, walking in circles, clumsiness
- Droopy eyes
- Brown, black or yellow discharge
- Pinkish-brown ear wax may indicate a yeast infection
- Dry, dark, discharge may be ear mites, which can lead to an ear infection.
High quality essential oils may be blended into a cleansing and/or natural treatment solution for ear infections, with the most commonly used for dogs being lavender, aloe vera, citrus bergamia, mullein flower, grapefruit seed extract, bergamot, niaouli, calendula, pau d’arco, manuka and chamomile. Cats are highly sensitive to essential oils but some are reputed to be safe to use as hydrosols, such as witch hazel, aloe vera, rose, and lavender. Remember to use very small, diluted amounts of essential oils for all pets. We rely on essential oils from Escents Aromatherapy (Canada) or Starwest Botanicals (US) for their medicinal quality. Avoid drying agents like alcohol and dangerous “cures” like gentian violet. If you prefer a premixed solution, holistic veterinarians often suggest blends like Ear Dr.
Medications are often necessary to get an ear infection under control, especially if the problem is in the inner ear or if serious swelling is involved. Unfortunately, a vicious cycle can follow treatment with antibiotics, anti-fungal medications and other drugs intended to treat ear infections in dogs and cats. The chemical balance of the ear and the bacterial balance within the body is often affected by these treatments, resulting in a long-term battle against secondary and recurring infections. Antibiotics, for example, can inadvertently kill off beneficial bacteria, allowing yeast to flourish.
It is very important to nurture balance following medication, and maintaining that balance should become a routine part of natural pet care to prevent ear infections and mites. This may include:
- Prebiotics (such as seaweed) and probiotics (such as plain yogurt)
- Cleaning with white or apple cider vinegar to maintain a healthy chemical balance in the ear
- Feeding naturally anti-fungal foods
- Feeding naturally anti-inflammatory foods
- Nurturing a healthy immune system with a naturally balanced diet that includes antioxidants, fatty acids and vitamin C.
Other Preventative Measures
Cleaning dog and cat ears every 1-3 weeks can prevent infections. This can be as simple as a 1:1 blend of organic apple cider vinegar or white vinegar with sterile water. Some holistic veterinarians also suggest making a pure, green tea that can be cooled and dropped into the ear. A convenient option is purchasing natural ear cleansing solutions or mite treatments. Cleaning ears too often can cause problems of its own, so only clean when necessary.
Use a soft plastic dropper and massage the base of the ear to distribute. When your dog or cat shakes their head afterward, the debris will be ejected. Clean around the ears and dry thoroughly with a clean cloth. Do not use cotton swabs. Note: If massaging the ear causes pain, it may be due to a foreign object in the canal or severe infection. Stop massaging and contact your Veterinarian.
Keep ear hair clipped if your dog or cat has a lot of fur in the ear. This allows for more air circulation. Be sure to use blunt-tipped scissors or an electric trimmer.
If you suspect allergies, try a gradual switch to a more natural food that doesn’t contain harsh chemicals, and a short ingredient list that allows for a process of elimination. You may also wish to try quercetin or bromelain supplements, which may help prevent allergic reactions in the gastrointestinal tract. They can often be found in combined formulations for easy administration. Environmental allergies may include pollen or dust mites.
If ear mites are the issue, you can place a few drops of extra virgin olive oil or almond oil mixed with vitamin E into the ear after cleaning to smother them. Some also suggest following this treatment with a Yellow Dock infusion.
Please Note: Treatment of ear infections (otitis externa, otitis media and otitis interna) in dogs and cats should always begin with an examination and diagnosis by your Veterinarian. Knowing the cause of any condition is crucial before we administer home remedies for pets. Throwing random natural treatments at an unknown organism can cause more harm than good and may create ‘super bugs’. Your pet may initially require ear drainage or antibiotics as well.
Have you found a natural treatment or preventative for dog or cat ear infections that is particularly effective? We’d love to hear about it! Please post in the comments below.
Anette Loeffler, Monika Linek, Arshnee Moodley, Luca Guardabassi, Julia M. L. Sung, Margit Winkler, Reinhard Weiss and David H. Lloyd. First report of multiresistant, mecA-positive Staphylococcus intermedius in Europe: 12 cases from a veterinary dermatology referral clinic in Germany. 2007.
VetCare Tauranga. Ear Infections in Cats. 2007.
Mansfield Animal Clinic. Ear Infections in Dogs. 2009.
Bell, Kristen Leigh. Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals: A Comprehensive Guide to the Use of Essential Oils & Hydrosols with Animals. 2002.
Harris, Viv BVSc Natural Remedies Dogs and Cats Wish You Knew: A Holistic Care Guide. 2008.
Messonnier, Shawn DVM. Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats: Your A-Z Guide to Over 200 Conditions, Herbs, Vitamins, and Supplements. 2001.
Tilford, Gregory. Wulff, Mary. Herbs for Pets: The Natural Way to Enhance Your Pet’s Life. 2009.
Winter, William G. DVM The Holistic Veterinary Handbook. 1997.
✔ You may also be interested in reading:
Natural Treatment and Prevention of ‘Swimmer’s Ear’ (Otitis Externa) in Dogs
EEEWWW What’s That Smell? Dog Odor Causes and Natural Treatments
Natural Treatment for Pet Sores and ‘Hot Spots’ with Home Remedy Recipe
Foods in Homemade Pet Diets That Cause Inflammation
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