Pet Corner

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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

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

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.