Skin and Ears, what’s the connection?

Skin and Ears, what’s the connection?

Written by Dr. Anna Harp


When my brother asked me “what is the most common thing you treat as a veterinarian?” I immediately replied “ears and skin!”  So many of our furry friends are cursed with allergies, and most of those allergies come from the environment (thanks Florida!).  It is a common thing to hear that a client recently moved to Florida and now her little dog has really itchy skin.  If fleas don’t seem to be the problem, the most likely culprit is an allergy.

So what does itchy skin and ear problems have to do with allergies? When people have an allergy to something in the environment, they usually get a stuffy nose and sneeze a lot. When dogs get an allergy, they get hot itchy skin and start licking and chewing their skin. Often they break out in little bumps and itch and chew so much that they quickly give themselves a skin infection, which gets more irritated and then they chew some more! It is hard to explain to them they just can’t keep doing that, and often they have to wear an e-collar (or even some boxer shorts!) to keep them away from the skin so the medications can work.  About 20% of allergies can be food allergies, and they often present exactly like environmental allergies.  Sometimes the history of the animal can be a clue if their allergies are related to food, so make sure to discuss with your veterinarian the onset and duration of your pet’s allergies, a food trial to rule out food allergies might be indicated.

Ear canals are an extension of the skin and coat so when the skin gets inflamed, so do the ear canals. Now your little fluffy dog has a dark, warm, moist environment with inflamed tissue and yeast and bacteria have a joyous time deep down in that ear canal causing all sorts of havoc!  The result:  A painful, and often smelly, ear infection!

Not every dog with an ear infection has underlying allergies, but it is a very common problem in dogs and I always talk about allergies when I am treating an ear infection, especially if it isn’t their first infection.  Other common causes of ear infections include contamination and anatomy. Contamination means that when Fido went swimming in your pool, or took off into that pond, or decided to roll (head first, of course) into the mud puddle at the dog park, water got down in those ears and stayed there. Baths can also cause ear infections because water can easily slip its way down that ear canal. Then, because the environment in the ear canal changed, the normal skin flora (yeast and bacteria) begin to multiply.  Anytime your pooch goes swimming or gets a bath, I recommend cleaning and flushing out those ears to prevent infection.

Anatomy is also an important player when it comes to ear infections. Most Cocker Spaniel patients I see don’t seem to have underlying skin allergies, but almost all of them have ear infections! Those huge ear flaps that cover a deep canal seem to be the perfect place for yeast to replicate. Other breeds are more susceptible to infections as well, like Pugs.  While Pugs don’t have huge floppy ear flaps, many of them have very narrow (stenotic) canals that are difficult to keep clean. Those narrow canals have many hidden bends where waxy material builds up, and the yeast and bacteria use that as a breeding ground.  For these patients, I recommend regular cleanings of the ears to prevent infection.  How often depends on the dog. Sometimes once a month cleanings prevent infection just fine, other animals need weekly cleanings to keep the ears under control.  

The way you clean an ear is very important, and what you put in the ear is just as important.  There are many acceptable over the counter ear cleaners that you can use. The Veterinary Center at Fishhawk sells a medicated ear cleaner for chronically infected ears, but we also sell a nice cucumber melon cleaner that we use on all our dogs (and cats) when we clean the ears. All pet stores also carry products that are safe to use.

How to clean the ear is important. First, it is recommended that you do it outside since it will get a little messy.  Second, pour the cleaning solution into the ear and fill up the canal with the solution. You will not use too much cleaner. Next, and very important, massage the base of the ear (the ear canal under the skin feels like a tube) for a good 30 seconds to break up any waxy debris that is down deep. If the dog’s ears are irritated be very gentle as this can hurt. Let the dog shake his or her head to shake out some of the solution and debris, then simply wipe away any excess liquid and waxy material with your finger and a cotton ball, tissue or gauze (you won’t go too deep in the ear if you use your finger. Do not use a q-tip). You can repeat this over and over until there is no more debris coming out of your dog’s ear (or until your dog won’t let you do it anymore).

You can always schedule a nurse visit with our clinic and we can show you how to clean your dog’s ear.

Ear infections can be really painful for your dog, and can lead to more serious infections. Some bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics and require special medications and weeks of twice daily treatment to cure.  Even when we treat infections and they clear up 100%, it is important to try to figure out the underlying cause. If it is something like allergies, no one can cure that, so it is important to clean out the ears on a routine basis and discuss with your veterinarian ways to try to control the allergies, or more advanced diagnostics (like a visit to a doggie dermatologist).


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