Pet Corner

An Earful of Health


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It’s a good idea to heed what our pets’ ears have to tell us. In addition to listening, animals also talk with their ears. By using dozens of ear muscles to transform and mobilize their ear flaps into a pattern, many animals, especially cats and dogs, have the ability to create a virtual dialogue. Ears erect, for example, means, “I am alert and listening.”

In addition to their ability for two-way communication, an animal’s ears have more basic functions — hearing and balance — and either function can be disturbed by disease, age-related changes or nerve disruption from various causes. The ears are a prime site for disease, and are thus one of the first areas we veterinarians examine.

Determine the Problem

Dogs with ear infections (medically known as otitis externa) typically shake their heads and dig at their ears, and they may roll along the ground to relieve the itch. There may be discharge from the ear, along with an unpleasant odor.

Predisposing factors often instigate the infection. For example, long ear flaps that trap moisture and heat help provide an ideal environment for bugs to grow. Many cases of otitis are related to allergies. Accumulation of earwax and oils in the ear canal creates an environment that encourages yeast to grow.

Ear mites can occur in dogs, although not as often as they do in cats, where mites account for about 50 percent of all ear infections. Ear mites are small parasites that roam freely in the ear, and they can drive a critter crazy — frantic ear scratching is a common symptom. The mite-infested ear typically has a dry, crumbly, blackish exudate that can be seen in the ear canal.

Mites are generally easy to treat — oils cover the breathing apparatus of the adults and eventually kill them. Some herbal remedies have anti-parasitic activity and can be added to an oil-based treatment. Usually, dogs acquire their ear mites from cats, so if there are any cats in the family, treat the cats and dogs together.

A simple, soothing oil applied directly in the ear canal often is enough to kill mites. Repeat every three days for four to six weeks. Mullein (Verbascum spp.) has insecticide activity and can be added to the oil mixture; other herbs also may be helpful, including yellow dock (Rumex crispus), thyme (Thymus vulgaris) or rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). The high sulfur content in garlic (Allium sativum) may be helpful in killing mites.

To make the oil, cover several ounces of your herb of choice with almond or olive oil. Let mixture sit for several days, then strain and apply the oil, several drops per ear. Herbal mixtures may contain one herb or several; for additional antibiotic activity, you can add a clove or two of garlic to the original mixture. If inflammation or swelling is present, mix with approximately equal amounts of witch hazel. Add several drops of vitamin E oil per ounce of fluid as a preservative.

If your pet has difficulty balancing, stumbles and falls, staggers or trips when first getting up or if he tends to circle in one direction, you might suspect otitis media or otitis interna (infections of the middle and inner ear). These infections are beyond the reach of herbal remedies. See your veterinarian.

Natural Home-Care Tips

Antioxidants are crucial for the effectiveness of the animal’s immune system, and they will aid circulatory and nerve health in the ears. Consider supplementing your pet’s diet with antioxidants, such as vitamins A and E, coenzyme Q10 or any number of culinary herbs, including rosemary and thyme. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is high in antioxidants and has specific beneficial effects for the ears.

Zinc quickens the immune response, and vitamin C is needed for proper immune function. Vitamin B complex is essential for healing and has been shown in humans to reduce ear pressure. Potassium is important for a healthy nervous system and for transmission of nerve impulses, and manganese deficiency has been linked (in humans) to ear disorders.

Because ear infections may be linked to hypothyroidism (a disease common in dogs), you may want to add to the diet one of the seaweed herbs, such as bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus) or kelp (Laminaria spp.).

Best Herbs for Happy Ears

There are many herbs with excellent medicinal activity for preventing and/or treating ear conditions. Antimicrobial herbs act against a broad spectrum of microbes — bacteria, yeast and fungi, and many also are calming, anti-inflammatory and help ease pain. Some herbs taken internally enhance the immune system, and their antimicrobial activity may enhance other treatments, but the real benefit of herbal remedies is their use in solutions that are applied directly in the ear canal (see “Try a Mild Ear Wash,” below). The flowering tops of mullein have antimicrobial properties with a special application for ear infections, and they appear to have a calming and soothing effect. Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium) is especially useful for treatment of problems related to the ears. Oregon grape root has antimicrobial activity against bacterial, fungal and yeast infections.

Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), due to its high content of soothing and protective mucilaginous compounds, is good medicine for alleviating irritations. Marshmallow root has antimicrobial and immune-enhancing properties, and animal studies have shown that it is active against several types of bacteria that can create especially nasty and chronic ear infections.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virgin-iana) is an herb with strong astringent properties, and at the same time it seems to be soothing to external tissues. It is thus an excellent choice for the inflamed ear canal that may have become swollen.

Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medi- cine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for 10 years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri. Visit our website,, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.

Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.