Who can resist floppy dog ears? They’re soft, velvety and lovely to stroke. But they’re also prone to infection. Learn what to watch for and how to prevent and treat potential problems.

We love dogs like Labs, beagles and pit bull terriers in part because of their ultra-velvety floppy ears. But sometimes being cute has a price. Dogs with floppy ears are at risk of developing infections that, if left untreated, can become extremely painful and cause aural hematoma or even a systemic infection. Luckily, various holistic treatment options and preventive measures can help ensure those soft floppy ears don’t cause your pooch any grief.

What causes the problem?

There are several reasons why dogs with floppy ears and/or creases along the cartilage of their ears are prone to developing infection – the medical term is otitis externa with pyoderma.

The shape of floppy or creased ears causes them to trap moisture. “Dogs such as cocker spaniels, hounds, and golden retrievers are predisposed to this problem,” says veterinarian Dr. Janice Huntingford. “This is due to the lack of airflow in the ears and genetic predisposition to otitis externa, plus or minus underlying problems like hypothyroidism.”

Dogs that frequently come into contact with water are at higher risk than those that rarely or never go for a swim. That’s why larger dogs tend to develop ear infections more readily than smaller ones, who are often not as active outdoors. Yet dogs of all sizes are given baths from time to time, so it’s inevitable that water is going to come close to all ears sooner or later. Whatever breed of dog you have, it’s a good idea to gently place cotton in his ear when bathing him; always remember to remove the cotton when bath time is over.

Dirt and bacteria can easily become trapped under a floppy or creased ear. To combat dirt buildup, Dr. Huntingford suggests keeping your dog’s ears clean with a natural ear cleanser. Just keep in mind that applying a cleanser when an infection is already present will likely cause irritation to the area. The same applies to rubbing alcohol or other harsh cleaning agents.

Food allergies can also cause irritation to the pinna (animal ear). “With food allergy, dogs get skin and ear problems far more often than GI signs,” says veterinarian Dr. Mark Newkirk. An essential step in preventing food allergy is to first discover what your dog is allergic to. Dr. Newkirk recommends the Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Technique, or NAET, for diagnostic and treatment purposes. This popular technique is based on the principals of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and consists of simple muscle tests. Often, adds Dr. Newkirk, the dog is discovered to have an allergy to grain.

Look for these signs

Besides regular ear checks, how do you know if your dog is beginning to develop an infection – or in TCM terms, Damp Heat? According to Dr. Huntingford, you may notice your dog’s ears are becoming red and irritated. Veterinarian Dr. Robert Rizzitano adds that a dog with pain in his ear will often scratch at the irksome area, shake his head, and in some cases even lean to one side. And because ear infections are often associated with food allergies, chances are your dog is experiencing itchiness elsewhere on his body as well. When this is the case, says Dr. Newkirk, you can sometimes detect an ear infection early on if you notice your dog chewing excessively at his feet.

Herbal remedies

In Western medicine, a common treatment plan for otitis externa with pyoderma is to prescribe antibiotics. They can work wonders at quickly extinguishing a bacterial infection. But what about a chronic ear issue? In that case, it’s often best to treat with an herbal remedy in order to avoid the body building up a resistance to antibiotic medication. Some herbs can cause diarrhea and other GI issues, so it’s important to work with a veterinarian when using these remedies.

• Dr. Huntingford uses a holistic ear medication consisting of olive oil, garlic and tea tree oil.

• Dr. Rizzitano suggests the “emperor herb”, Artemesia (Quing Hao in Chinese), because it works as a cooling and drying agent, and therefore reduces the inflammation associated with Damp Heat. He also recommends Coptis, the coldest of all Chinese herbs.

• Another oral herbal supplement Dr. Rizzitano suggests is Buperum. This herb treats the liver, which is aligned to ear inflammation in TCM. The liver is thought to be young and “angsty”, which goes along with anger, heat and inflammation.

• Dr. Newkirk recommends Ear Clear from World Herbs. “It’s a combination of Chinese herbs that is taken orally and opens the ‘internal drain’ of the ear, a commonly inflamed part of the inner ear.” Additionally, Dr. Newkirk starts treatment “with an infusion of a thick cream that has medications in it”. A week later, he invites the patient in for a return visit and applies a “thick cream containing a clay substance and Resorsinol”. He often sends his clients home with “Zymox, an enzyme preparation that ‘eats’ bacteria and yeast cell walls, thus destroying them.”

Preventing ear problems is chiefly a matter of vigilance. Always keep your dog’s ears clean and dry. Feed him a high quality, meat-based, grain-free diet to help minimize allergies. Check his ears regularly for redness or irritation, have any potential problems seen by a vet as soon as possible, and consider holistic remedies. All this will help ensure your pooch’s ears stay healthy, soft and appealing!

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