Ear infections in puppies

Ear disease is very common in dogs, both in the adult and puppy populations. The aetiology and pathogenesis are somewhat different in these two groups with ear mite infestation being the predominant primary cause of puppy ear infections. This contrasts with the adult dog population, where allergy is the most common initiating factor.

So, if a puppy has an ear infection, the first thing to rule out is ear mites.

Ear mites: Otodectes cynotis

The ear mite, Otodectes cynotis, is a surface-living mite that is found in the ear canal of dogs. It lives entirely on the host animal and spreads largely by direct dog-to-dog transmission. The complete lifecycle from egg to adult takes about 3 weeks.

Ear mite infestation can cause ear disease in any age of dog but is commonest in puppies. This is probably partly due to the close proximity of litter mates to each other, which facilitates transmission of the parasite.

Clinical signs of ear mite infestation

  • Ear pruritis – often intense irritation
  • Dark brown waxy or crusty discharge
  • Mobile white dots in the external ear canal visible with an otoscope

Confirmation that puppy ear problems are due to a mite infestation can be obtained by microscopic examination of the discharge. A cotton bud is used to obtain a sample from the ear canal and then rolled on a microscope slide for examination under low power (X40).

Adult dogs can also get ear mites, usually from direct contact with an infected puppy.

Secondary bacterial infection can result from a severe ear mite infestation. This happens relatively rarely but when it does, a puppy with an ear infection can develop an erythematous ear canal with purulent discharge and signs of ear pain.

How to treat puppy ear infections

Treatment of ear infections will depend on the underlying cause but following a logical approach is always advisable:

1. Otoscopy

Start with a thorough examination. Full otoscopic examination is important to rule out a foreign body for example. Examination can be challenging in puppies and sedation may sometimes be required.

2. Ear cleaning

After taking appropriate diagnostic samples, the ear should be thoroughly cleaned. Cleaning removes discharge and debris, enabling any topical ear preparations to work more effectively. Cleaning also physically removes parasites. Always use an ear cleaner that is safe for use in puppies. After the initial clean, repeat cleaning can form part of the treatment routine at home.

3. Puppy ear mite treatment

Appropriate treatment should be administered where ear mites are present, either in the form of ear drops with acaricidal activity or a suitable licensed systemic spot-on or tablet.

All in contact dogs and cats should be examined and treated as necessary and repeat treatment after 2-4 weeks may be required.

4. Other treatment as appropriate

If indicated in the management of a puppy ear infection, drops with antibiotic or antifungal activity may be required. These infections are usually secondary so be sure to investigate any possible primary causes.

5. Puppy ear care

Checking a puppy’s ears for wax or discharge should form part of a regular grooming routine. If any symptoms of puppy ear infection are noted, owners should seek veterinary advice.

Regular ear application of an ear cleaner where there is no sign of wax build-up is usually not necessary for puppies and may even cause irritation of the ear canal. However, it is worth getting puppies used to having their ears examined and cleaned if necessary.

Ear cleaning using a puppy-safe ear cleaner forms an important part of the treatment plan for managing ear mite infestation and other infections.

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