Unlike conventional drugs, herbs and other botanicals make resistance nearly impossible for even the nastiest pathogens, and are effective weapons against the bacteria and fungi associated with otitis media in dogs and cats.
Middle ear infections, also referred to as otitis media, are a common problem in dogs and cats. The ear canal is like a fermentation vessel for pathogenic bacteria and fungi, especially if copious ear wax, dirt or other debris is present. This article looks at the herbs and other botanicals that can effectively treat these ear infections in dogs and cats.
Botanicals for an ear rinse
All the botanicals presented in this article are best used as components of an ear rinse (see sidebar on page xx), applied twice a day. Here are some of my favorites, and how they work.
1. Cider vinegar – Well known for its yeast-fighting antifungal and antibacterial actions, it’s an excellent cleanser that cuts through ear wax while inhibiting yeast and bacterial reproduction. Vinegar containing 5% acetic acid, in a concentration of ≤20% of the total formula, can be safely used with minimal risk of increased irritation.
2. Calendula extract (Calendula officinalis) – The activities of calendula extract have been compared to those of Fluconazole, a drug commonly used to combat blastomycosis, histoplasmosis and various other fungal infections. It is also antibacterial and serves as an excellent vulnerary agent, bringing soothing relief and accelerating cell reproduction and granuloma at the site of open sores, insect bites and other minor injuries.
3. Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternafolia) – Tea tree oil is especially useful in the ears, and has strong activity against a broad variety of pathogenic fungi and bacteria. It can be safely used in concentrations of ≤3% on dogs; however, in my opinion, tea tree oil should not be applied consecutively for more than three days in cats, who tend to be hypersensitive to it, especially when they lick it from their fur. Although I have yet to see any actual adverse events from the use of tea tree oil, a number of reports warn of acute hepatotoxicity, neurotoxicity and nephritic events when the oil is ingested in higher concentrations over non-specific periods of time. More is not better, and caution always rules — use this one sparingly on cats, and try to avoid direct ingestion of whatever formulation you use.
4. Lavender oil (Lavendula off.) – This oil has been shown to be effective against at least 120 strains of pathogenic bacteria, and is among the safest essential oils for use in animals. It is also a remarkable healing agent and “carrier” for other botanical medicines; it serves as quick-acting vasodilator that quickly increases blood circulation into the dermis. Lavender oil also lends a much welcomed calming effect.
5. Thyme oil (Thymus off.) – Thyme oil is stronger and more reliable than lavender as a broad spectrum antimicrobial agent in solutions below 0.5%. This is due to its high concentrations of highly active thymol and carvacrol. As an example of how “less is sometimes better”, pick up a bottle of Listerine mouthwash and read the label. Thymol is a primary active ingredient – but at a concentration of just 0.064%. Being an herbalist who believes that “the whole plant is greater than the sum of its parts”, I prefer to use thyme in the form of a whole leaf ethanol tincture. To use thyme in the ears, dilute 5ml of the 1:2 alcohol based oil into 250ml of a distilled water solution containing 20% cider vinegar. Rinse the ear liberally with the solution, twice daily.
6. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) and Coptis species — The roots of these plants are rich with berberine, a bright yellow protoberberine-type isoquinoline alkaloid. Berberine offers a very broad spectrum of antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral activity. Several studies support this claim. In one, berberine was shown to be highly active against Fluconazole-resistant yeasts. It is also effective against a wide variety of pathogenic bacteria, including drug resistant staphylococcus aureus. The usefulness of berberine stems from its ability to strongly inhibit, if not completely kill, pathogenic microbes on contact. This puts goldenseal and other berberine-bearing plants at the top of my list of resources for direct application.
7. Olive leaf (olea europaea) – Perhaps the “king” of antimicrobial herbs, olive leaf is simply amazing. Its healing powers have been known for a very long time. In the early to mid-1800s, olive leaf was found to be a very effective febrifuge remedy, and was seen as much better than quinine in the treatment of malaria. Olive leaf has broad-spectrum antibacterial and antifungal properties. In a recent in-vitro study, a scant 0.6% (v/v) dilution of olive leaf tea was shown to kill E.coli within three hours, while Candida albicans was completely killed by a 15% (v/v) extract. Olive leaf is effective in many forms (aqueous, ethanol or glycerin extracts) and is very safe. For applications against otitis media, I recommend a 1:4 glycerite, diluted to concentrations between 10% to 20% in distilled water and up to 20% cider vinegar.
8. Rosemary oil (Rosmarinus off. L.) – No article on Western botanical interventions against otitis media would be complete without a mention of rosemary oil. There is good reason why this oil is used as natural preservative in hundreds of natural foods and medicines. It can be applied safely and is very effective at inhibiting reproduction or killing (depending on concentration) an impressive variety of troublesome bacteria. In a 2003 study published in The Brazilian Journal of Biosciences, rosemary oil was found to be effective against 18 isolates of Staphylococcus pseudintermedius isolated from dogs. In another study, the oil was shown to be effective against six microbial species, including gram-positive bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus subtilis), gram-negative bacteria (Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa), a yeast (Candida albicans), and a fungus (Aspergillus niger). Rosemary oil can be used with a broad margin of safety in dilutions of ≤3%. Like lavender, it may impart a calming effect upon an otherwise pain-tormented animal. However, I find that stronger dilutions will sometimes result in an opposite, energizing effect.
As pathogenic bacteria and fungi become increasingly resistant to our antibiotic arsenal, what may once have been a “simple case” of otitis media can now become all-out battle against infection. Fortunately, we have herbs to turn to. Unlike conventional antimicrobial drugs, herbs present complex chemistries that make adaptation and resistance nearly impossible for even the nastiest pathogens. Best of all, with the help of your holistic or integrative vet, these herbs are easy to access and very safe to use.
A natural ear rinse solution
Clean the dog or cat’s ears with a rinse solution that serves a dual purpose of removing dirt while inhibiting pathogenic bacteria and fungi residing in the ear canal. (Be sure to first consult with a holistic or integrative vet, for a correct diagnosis and help determining your pet’s specific needs.) I prefer a base of cider vinegar, aloe vera juice and distilled water, to which a variety of essentials oils and herb extracts can be added.
The overall solution should be fairly dilute, especially in the case of essential oils, which can otherwise be irritating to the point of aggravating rather than relieving inflammation. To prevent this and to assure optimal effectiveness of the formula, I recommend limiting essential oil components of any formula to ≤3% of total volume of the formula. Again, you will need your veterinarian’s assistance in choosing the right oil and dosage for your own pet.
Most herb extracts (tinctures) can be used more liberally, depending of course on the choice of herbs. “Hot” herbs, such as garlic or peppermint, should not be used in concentrations exceeding 5%. Calendula on the other hand is quite forgiving, especially if used as a glycerite – my preferred form of any herb extract used in or on the ears. Glycerin lends its own healing benefits to a formula. Both antimicrobial and humectant, glycerin serves to absorb drainage and prevent pooling of exudate in dermal tissues.
Dietary changes may be necessary
Many cases of otitis media are influenced by food allergies, so any holistic approach will require a critical assessment of your dog or cat’s diet.
- Begin by removing all the “usual suspects” from the diet: wheat, soy, corn and their by-products.
- Meat by-products and meat meal should be avoided in favor of
human-grade whole meats (e.g. turkey, fish, beef, chicken,
- lamb, duck, etc.).
- Artificial dyes or preservatives need to be eliminated. Instead, opt for foods preserved with natural vitamin E, rosemary oil, or other natural antioxidants.
- Supplementation should include immune-tonics, such as Echinacea, to help boost the body’s resistance to infection, and antimicrobials. Both can be used topically for direct intervention, and systemically to chase and inhibit pathogens from the inside out.