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Swimmer's Ear in Dogs
Published: June 25, 2018
Remy at the beach, livin' large in the summer. Photo courtesy of Dr. Amelia White.

Summer has officially hit the northern hemisphere. People are slathering on sunscreen and squeezing into their swimsuits. Sometimes they hit the beach with their dogs. After a long day of swimming, most people recognize the all too familiar symptoms of the dreaded swimmer's ear. Pain, itchiness or even burning may be the first signs that our ears will be protesting the water tomorrow. If a few drying ear drops and ibuprofen don’t kick this pain in the butt (or ear), then it’s poolside fun only tomorrow.

Dogs can also suffer from swimmer’s ear. They can’t tell us that their ears feel like a 10-ton weight is inside their ear canal, but they will display clinical signs consistent with swimmer’s ear such as head shaking, pawing at the head/ears, rubbing ears on objects, and twitching of the ears. Sometimes they may whine or be restless.

So what causes some people and dogs to develop swimmer’s ears while other water lovers go unscathed? 

Swimmer’s ear is another term to describe inflammation in the outer ear canal (otitis externa) which is the part of the ear canal extending from the ear drum to the outside of the ear. The condition develops when water contaminated with bacteria is trapped in the ear canal for a long period of time. If the body’s immune system, its natural defense system, does not attack and kill the bacteria, then they will invade and cause inflammation. The trapped water combined with the warm, dark environment of the ear canal is the perfect brewing pot for bacteria. Swimmer's ear can be mild or severe, and it may require professional medical intervention to cure. 

Swimmer’s ear is commonly misdiagnosed in dogs that frequently develop ear infections after swimming or being bathed. Because most dogs that swim do not go on to develop ear infections, there usually is something unique about the dogs that do. Take one of my favorite allergic Labrador retrievers, Remy, for example. He loves to swim in his owner’s pool during the hot summer months. I can guarantee that at least once each summer the combination of high pollen counts and daily dips in the pool will land him a lovely ear infection requiring medical intervention. But why doesn’t every Labrador retriever develop an ear infection after a single day of swimming? Man if they did, I would never go out of business! 

So what is different about Remy and dogs like him? Usually they have some underlying condition that causes them to develop ear infections after swimming. The most common reason for this is an underlying allergy (environmental allergy/atopy and food allergy). Remy is allergic to grasses, trees and weeds. He suffers from increased itchiness and redness of the skin, paws and ears starting every spring extending well into the fall months. Other conditions that can cause ear infections include parasites, endocrine disorders, systemic immune-suppressive disorders, and tumors in the ear canal. These primary conditions cause underlying inflammation and/or bacterial overgrowth in the ear canals. When water enters the ear canal during swimming, the moisture level increases and these normal doggie bacteria and inflammation worsen leading to signs of an ear infection. In other words, the increased water in the ear canal predisposes your dog’s infection-primed ear to do what it does best – get stanky!

The best way to know if your dog has swimmer’s ear (bacteria-contaminated water causing inflammation) versus an ear infection due to some other cause (such as allergies) is to monitor for trends. Does your dog have ear infections at times when not swimming? Does your dog have an increased itch level compared to normal dogs? Has your dog suffered from bacterial skin infections too? If you answered yes, then your dog is not suffering from swimmer’s ear. If you are not sure, chat with your veterinarian to see if they can help to identify trends.

Worst case scenario: stop swimming! If the inflammation goes away, then presto! But I'd be greatly surprised if you can keep your water-loving dog from diving head first off the dock. You might consider wearing a life jacket and pair of water skis because you’ll be getting al  wet!

As for Remy, we have found a good management protocol for his environmental allergies using allergen-specific immunotherapy injections combined with routine ear flushes to keep those bacteria and yeast from over-growing during his Olympic swim team training seasons. He is happy and healthy, swimming his summers away.

Speak with your veterinarian about ways to help prevent swimmer’s ear flare-ups. Just as in people, we can use ear flushes and drying ear drops to help keep this pesky condition from inhibiting your summer fun!

P.S. – don’t forget that dogs can get sunburned too! Consider an SPF sun shirt to protect Fido from the sun’s damaging UV rays.

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