Cocker Spaniel Ear Infection

Q. My Cocker Spaniel always seems to have an ear infection. I found a "magic rinse" on the Internet that had gentian violet in it. Will this cure her?

A. No. You're not going to get on top of chronic ear infections once and for all without the help of your veterinarian.

While the Internet can and does offer useful information for pet care, you have to be able to assess the source's credibility and, sometimes, its conflicts of interest. Many "home cure" sites are well-meaning but wrong, and others are trying to sell you what in the old days would be called "snake oil."

In both cases, beware! Your veterinarian and sites with top veterinarians and other experts on staff are always your best bets for reliable, current information. Even then, your own veterinarian is critical to success because he or she is the only person looking at your pet as an individual. Good medical care always starts with a correct diagnosis. That requires a veterinarian who can perform an in-person examination of your pet.

As for that "magic rinse"? These recipes typically contain high concentrations of alcohol, which dries out the ear excessively and can cause a painful stinging sensation in an ear with abrasions. But most seriously, gentian violet is known to be a carcinogen in lab animals, and it can cause dizziness and even deafness if it gets past the eardrum and into the middle or inner ear.

While gentian violet used to be used as an antifungal treatment in the era before World War II, we have better options for ear care these days. Keeping the ears dry, cleaning them only as needed and checking them regularly for signs of infection are better ways to keep your dog’s ears healthy.

What Causes Ear Infections

It helps to understand why ear infections become such a problem in some dogs and some breeds more generally.

Many dogs are predisposed to ear infections because of other underlying conditions, with allergies to food or inhaled substances being the most common. Other conditions, such as hypothyroidism, ear mites and foreign bodies, can also lead to ear infections. Once the ear is inflamed, secondary bacterial and yeast infections can invade and multiply in the warm, moist environment, often leading to a malodorous discharge, irritation and pain. In most cases, it's necessary to treat both the underlying condition and the secondary infection to prevent or minimize recurrence of the problem.

There are some additional risk factors that may make it harder to clear up secondary ear infections in certain breeds. Cocker Spaniels, for example, have long, pendulous ears that prevent air flow into the ear canal, so the environment remains warm and moist. Breeds that swim a lot may retain water in the ear canal, creating an environment conducive to secondary infections.

Preventing an Ear Infection

To prevent ear infections from recurring, work with your veterinarian to determine if there are any underlying causes behind the ear infections. In the case of allergies, it may take some time and patience to determine the exact allergens that are causing the problem. Treating and controlling the primary cause is the best way to prevent future ear infections from occurring.

Next, keep your dog's ears dry and clean. When you bathe him, place a cotton ball inside his ear to prevent water and shampoo from entering. If your dog enjoys swimming, dry his ears thoroughly when he’s through splashing around.

Check your dog's ears weekly. The skin inside the ear should be a pretty pale pink, like the inside of a seashell. Clean the ears only if they look dirty or have a lot of grayish-looking wax. Use a mild product made for dogs — your vet can give you  a recommendation. Don’t use alcohol, which irritates and dries out the sensitive ear tissue.

With your dog’s head positioned so his nose is pointing downward, squirt in enough cleaning solution to fill the ear, allowing it to flow deep into the ear canal. Gently massage the outside of the ear so that you hear the cleanser squishing around inside, softening all the gunk that’s inside the ear. Holding up a towel so you don’t get sprayed, let your dog shake, then wipe out the ears with a tissue wrapped around your finger. Avoid using cotton swabs, which simply pack wax and dirt deeper into the ear canal.

The ears may be infected if the lining of the ear canal is reddened, the ears smell yeasty or stinky, there is a black or dark brown discharge, or your dog is shaking or scratching at his head frequently. These are signs that your dog needs to see your veterinarian — and right away, because if you've ever had an earache, you know the pain your dog is in.