Ear Infections Related to Diet?

Pet owners everywhere struggle with pets suffering with chronic ear infections. They are painful, smelly, and messy. I know, because I have a dog with a resistant super-bug bacterial infection we have been battling for over six months. Scout, one of our 15-year-old Cocker Spaniels, has been under treatment with more medications than I care to list, costing thousands of dollars, not to mention the pain and suffering he has endured.

There are basically two kinds of infections that are commonly seen in ears: yeast or bacteria. It is imperative to determine what kind of infection is present, so you know how to treat the problem. Your veterinarian should always perform a cytology, looking at a stained slide under the microscope using some of the debris from the ear canal. This can determine whether yeast or bacteria make up most of the infection and can also indicate if there are multiple agents present.

Most common symptoms include scratching or rubbing the ears, foul odor coming from the ears, redness, heat, and pain. Some dogs may shy away when you try to pet their head, others may yelp or try to bite when the ears are touched. Long-eared dogs like spaniels tend to be more prone to ear infections than dogs with upright ears, as there is little air circulation in the ear canals of the floppy eared dogs. Bacteria and yeast grow well in warm, dark, moist environments - just like the ear canal.

A healthy dog with no allergy problems should have minimal problems with ear infections. Getting water in the ears can lead to bacterial infections; this is commonly seen with dogs that swim a lot or after grooming or bathing if water enters the ear canals. Bacterial infections most commonly show up as yellow or green discharge from the ears that looks like pus, with a very foul odor and significant pain. If bacteria are present, a culture and sensitivity should be sent to the lab to determine which antibiotic would be best to treat the infection.

In Scout's case, he started with an Enterococcus bacteria sensitive to Gentamicin. After many weeks of treatment, the problem was not resolved. A second culture revealed an E. coli sensitive to Baytril. After many weeks of treatment, the problem was not resolved. A third culture revealed both bacteria, resistant to all but two antibiotics - chloramphenical and neomycin. We are on week four of the new treatment combination, with only minimal response. Unfortunately, this has morphed into an extremely resistant infection in an old dog with a weakened immune system. We tried some natural remedies and had no luck with those. He will have another culture later this week to see if we are making any headway at all. Scout came to us 18 months ago with infected ears and skin that had not been treated for years. We have managed to get his skin cleared, the swelling down and the ear canals open, but they just keep draining. Believe me, I understand the frustrations clients undergo when problems continue long term.

Yeast infections, on the other hand, tend to have a brown or dark gold greasy discharge (seen in the photo above). The yeast is usually described as smelling like "corn chips" or "Fritos". These infections may not be quite as painful, but do seem to cause more scratching. Yeast and bacteria are always present in the ears and on the skin, but in amounts that are not problematic in animals with a healthy immune system. When there is a yeast overgrowth, the body is not able to deal with the infection. Many pets will actually develop an allergy to the yeast, causing more itching, swelling, and pain.

Chronic yeast infections are commonly associated with a food intolerance, particularly protein intolerance (proteins are not found just in meats; grains and legumes also provide significant levels of protein). If the pet is fed a chicken-based diet, he may fare better on a fish or beef based diet. Yeast feeds on sugar; sugar is a breakdown product of carbohydrates. Diets high in carbohydrates will feed the yeast overgrowth. By changing the diet from a high carbohydrate product (i.e.- dry kibble) to a more species-appropriate, meat-based diet, many pets will show significant improvement in chronic yeast infections. Foods that contain sugar, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, maltodextrin, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, grains, peas, chickpeas, and lentils provide a growth source for the yeast. Anti-fungal additions to the diet like oregano, garlic, calendula, spearmint, and turmeric may help your pet fight the yeast. If your pet is not able to fight off the yeast infections with changes in diet, bathing, and ear cleaning, the immune system needs to be strengthened. Probiotics, coconut oil, and a good diet can be very helpful.

Careful cleaning of the external ear canals to remove debris should be performed when there is a lot of discharge. Daily cleaning can be very painful and many pets will not allow cleaning until the infection has diminished. Medications should not be applied directly after cleaning, as cleaning agents may interfere with active ingredients in the medicated drops. All hair should be shaved surrounding the ear canal to allow air flow. A drying agent should be used to flush the ears after cleaning. I recommend never using cleaning agents that contain dyes or fragrances, water, or peroxide. Peroxide breaks down into hydrogen (the bubbles) and water. Cleaning with water leaves water in the ear canal, which sets up the scenario for more infection.

Most infections can be cleared fairly quickly with careful cleaning and appropriate treatment, along with a diet change if yeast is the predominant problem. Ear infections that are not treated for long periods of time will result in swollen ear canals that may develop calcified scar tissue, diminished hearing, and possibly rupture of the ear drum. The sooner an infection is treated, the better the chance for recovery.

Natural products that I have found to be helpful may contain enzymes, with or without steroids. Colloidal silver products may also be effective for some dogs.