Pet Corner: Herbal Help For Ear Infections

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Ear infections are one of the most common problems in pets.
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Ear infections are one of the most common problems in pets.

Otitis externa, external ear infection, is one of the most common problems veterinarians see in their practices today.

Otitis is caused by a wide variety of microorganisms–bacteria, fungi, and yeasts. It is often the result of other primary causes such as hypersensitivity diseases, foreign bodies, hypothyroidism, autoimmune diseases, parasites, and the use of inappropriate treatments and/or irritating cleansers in the ear.

The recommendations listed below are for otitis externa only. Otitis media and otitis interna–infections of the middle and inner ear–are problems for your veterinarian only. Be sure to get an accurate diagnosis before you begin home treatment.

Herbal remedies work nearly as fast as veterinary drugs. 

Symptoms and Traditional Treatment

Symptoms of external ear infections include head shaking, crying, and scratching the affected ears. The ears may feel hot and show evidence of scratching and irritation. Gently swabbing the ear canal with a large chunk of cotton may reveal a gooey brown to black discharge.

In Western medicine, after flushing and cleaning the ear canal (often under general anesthesia), various antibiotic or combined antibiotic/steroid preparations are used. Surgery to open up the ear canal for better circulation may ultimately be indicated for cases of otitis externa that do not respond to normal treatments.

Unfortunately, many of the proprietary preparations contain corticosteroids (cortisone), the theory being that they counteract inflammation and thus diminish the pain and irritation. Although there are some rare occasions when I feel I need to resort to steroids, I almost never use them. Steroids retard the long-term healing process, and their list of potential adverse side effects is enough to make anyone who can read hesitant to ever use them.

Finally, it’s been my experience that many of the antibiotic preparations commonly used for otitis do a fair job on bacterial infections, but the reduction of bacteria is often followed by severe fungal or yeast overgrowth. It’s almost as if the yeasts and fungi feast on the drugs used in Western medicine preparations.

Holistic Care

It’s important to first see your veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis. He or she should visually examine your pet’s ear canal and take a swab to identify the primary bugs involved and the severity of the disease.

Herbs are a primary line of defense and my first choice for external ear infections.

For obviously infected cases, I recommend several herbs, discussed below. If the pet’s ears are relatively clean, a mild mix of vinegar and water (in equal proportions) and/or an occasional herbal preparation, applied into the ear canal, may be sufficient for prevention of otitis externa. How often you use the vinegar/water or herbal solution depends on the individual case.

Making Mullein Mix

Pack mullein leaves and flowers in a glass jar and cover with olive oil. For increased antibiotic effectiveness, you can add a clove or two of garlic per pint of oil. Let the mixture sit for two to three weeks. Strain and apply several drops of the warmed oil into the ear canal. 

Many of the chronic ear infections I see also have cervical subluxation (the chiropractic term that refers to partial dislocation of the neck vertebrae). Cause or effect? I don’t know, but adjusting the upper cervical vertebrae (and the way it “hooks onto the head”) just makes sense to me. I’ve seen some dramatic cures using chiropractic and mild herbs alone.

The Best Otitis Herbs

Following is a list of my favorite herbs for otitis. Topically, I use herbal drops inside the ear canal to bring the ear’s flora back into balance. Internally, I use herbs to enhance the immune system, thwart microorganism overgrowth, and to relieve pain and inflammation. Many of these herbs are available commercially, usually as a mixture of several herbs in tincture or herbal oil form. Look for them in health-food stores or the better pet stores as over-the-counter preparations. (For an easy-to-make-at-home preparation for mild infections, see “Making mullein mix” at left.)

Please note that the key to curing external ear infections is getting the herbal mixture into contact with the offending bugs. Have your veterinarian show you how to properly apply vinegar or herbal solutions so that they reach deep into the ear canal. And remember, as always, it’s much easier to prevent infection than to cure it. For prevention, I recommend using a mild herbal ear remedy once a month or so throughout your pet’s lifetime, both internally and topically into the ear canal. For infections, the duration of use can vary on a case-by-case basis from once or twice daily for a few weeks to once a week for several months.

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) has relaxing, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, sedative, and antiseptic qualities and is perfect for soothing sore ears. Taken internally, it has a powerful ability to calm your pet and help her sleep through the pain.

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) has antibiotic properties and is wonderful, both internally and externally, for calming your pet during an infection.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) has an amazing healing ability and is one of the best herbs for treating local skin and external ear problems. Used either internally or externally, it is a potent antifungal herb.

Mullein (Verbascum spp.), extracted in olive oil, is perhaps the best single remedy I’ve found for soothing and healing inflamed surfaces. For otitis, use the solution externally in the ear canal.

Garlic (Allium sativum) is often added to otitic herbal mixtures for its antibiotic properties.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is an excellent astringent that decreases swelling in the ear canal and eases pain.

To balance the immune system and help counterattack the microbes from the inside out, I typically recommend a combination of echinacea (Echinacea spp.) and Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium), given as a tea, tincture, or capsules/tablets. Read the label and adjust the dosage for the weight of the animal based on a human weight of 150 pounds.

The good news is that herbal remedies are effective against fungal, yeast, and bacterial infections. So herbal ear-infection remedies won’t allow the yeast overgrowth common with antibiotic use. What’s more, several of the above herbs (chamomile, mullein flowers, and witch hazel) relieve the pain, inflammation, and irritation common with ear problems. This means that when you’re using herbs, you almost never need to resort to ear medicines that contain steroids.

However, herbal remedies are not the magic bullet for all external ear infections. Remember that herbs tend to act slowly. While your pet’s ears are healing, you may want to give them soothing herbs such as valerian (Valeriana officinalis) or chamomile internally to keep them calm. It’s been my experience that the herbal remedies work nearly as fast as other veterinary drugs, and whatever we lose in quickness of response we get back with a more completely healed ear at the end of the therapy.

Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for ten years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri.

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

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