Otitis externa is a general name for a problem that seems to affect nearly all breeds at some point or another, and for a wide variety of causes: the ear infection. One of the most perplexing diseases that can befall your dog, ear infections usually produce no symptoms until the problem is already well under way and even then, extensive testing is required to determine which of the many possible causes is behind this particular outbreak.
Signs that a dog's ears might be infected include behavioral symptoms such as incessant scratching of the affected ear, unexplained back and forth shaking of the head, and a sensitivity of the skin around the ear. Other clinical signs include a pungent odor emanating from the interior of the ear, a visible discharge of any color, dark waxy buildup, and raised or swollen ear flesh.
Ear infections can happen to virtually any breed at any time. They can be caused by an allergic reaction to food or medication, by an infestation of parasites such as ear mites, by physical trauma to the structure of the ear, or from foreign bodies becoming lodged in the ear during the course of day to day life. A veterinary examination must be conducted with a tool called an otoscope which looks into the ear canal if a proper diagnosis is to be made. By observing the degree of inflammation of the ear tissue and looking for other visual clues such as the presence of foreign bodies, your vet can accurately determine the cause of the infection and administer the proper treatment. If parasites such as ear mites are suspected, a swab will generally be taken and analyzed under a microscope.
Treatment for an ear infection will be highly dependent on the cause. For bacterial infections, antibiotics are usually administered and their use is typically very successful. The buildup of fungus in the ear is similarly treated with a medication such as an antifungal cream. If the cause of the infection is ruled to be an allergic reaction, treatment must be applied to the entire dog, not just his or her ears, and more extensive examinations will be required in order to determine the exact nature of the allergy. Alterations of your dog's diet or pre-existing medication regimens might be called for, as well as the use of an antihistamine. Infestations of ear mites and other parasites are usually treated with a medication and die out over the course of several weeks. If foreign bodies such as plant fibers are found in the ear canal, the vet will remove these and then treat the infection accordingly. He or she might request that you remove certain plants from your household or to pay more care to where you exercise your dog if it seems likely that the plant fiber was picked up outdoors.
There are several things you can do at home to reduce the likelihood of ear infections. Weekly ear cleanings with the proper equipment such as inner ear irrigation systems can usually curb an ear problem before it gets so severe as to become infected, and many times a simple visual check for waxy buildup or other blockages will suffice. Generally speaking, ear infections are not a very serious problem and they can be managed quite easily.