One of the unique characteristics of the Shar-Pei breed is their unique ears. Their ears are naturally small with tight ear flaps. This design can cause problems with the ear canal and many Shar-Peis will suffer from infections or canker.
Symptoms that indicate that a Shar-Pei has ear problems may include:
- Head shaking and head tilting
- Scratching at the ear area
- An ear discharge with an unpleasant odour
- Swollen painful ear
- Reddening of the ear flap
The anatomy of the Shar-Pei ear
There are 3 main components to the ear, the ear flap, the vertical ear canal and the horizontal ear canal.
All dogs have a very long ear canal with a horizontal and vertical component. In the Shar Pei the vertical ear canal which is about one inch long is often only a quarter of the diameter of a similar sized dog. The horizontal canal is generally a similar size to other dogs. This narrowing of the ear canal combined with skin disease often leads to repeated and prolonged infections. Understanding this difference in anatomy is important for treatment as surgery can make a major difference to the long term outcome of this condition.
Causes of ear infections
There are numerous causes of ear infections in Shar-Peis and often the cause can be a combination of factors. Common causes include:
Yeast: This is the most common cause of ear infections in Shar –Peis. Yeast grows in warm, dark and moist environments and the Shar –Pei ear is the perfect environment. If yeast is present you would expect to see a discharge from the ear that has a distinctive musty smell.
Bacteria: Most of the bacterial infections in Shar –Pei ears are secondary to yeast infections. They are also highly resistant to treatment with common antibiotics. Bacterial ear infections are accompanied by a foul smelling watery discharge and sometimes there may be ulceration of the ear canal and ear flap.
Allergies: Most allergies, whether from food or airborne will cause itching around the ear area. This causes them to scratch which can result in ear infections. Problems can also arise by using irritating substances around the dog’s ears.
Hypothyroidism: Some Shar-Peis may suffer from an underactive thyroid which in turn may cause increased wax production within the ear canal. Secondary infections may also occur with this condition.
Parasites: A wide range of parasites may cause ear infections including ear mites, demodectic mange, sarcoptic mange and fleas.
Autoimmune Diseases: The body’s natural immune system protects against disease and infection. In animals withan autoimmune disease the immune system attacks healthy cells rather than diseased cells. When it attacks the ears in a Shar-Pei it can cause a number of conditions, the most common being Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) and Pemphigus.
Softening / Soaking of the ear canal (Maceration) – When the ear canal becomes wet or soft through increased moisture this can cause skin damage within the ear canal and if frequent can lead to yeast and bacterial infections.
Climate – During warmer times of the year (late spring to early Autumn) there is more humidity in the air which increases the occurence of ear infections.
Treatment Errors – Some owners will try to alleviate their dogs suffering by having a go at cleaning out their ears without knowing the correct techniques. Highly invasive cleaning, hair plucking or the use of cleaning solutions in the ear is likely to disrupt the natural balance. This may lead to potential ear problems developing.
Cleaning your Shar-peis ears
- You must get your dog used to the procedure at a young age
- Try and clean the ears outside the home
- Use a vet recommended cleaning solution that you and your dog are comfortable with. Avoid Hydrogen Peroxide as it has a foaming action that many dogs don’t like and the peroxide can also affect the ear.
- Cleaning should be done using the ‘float’ method. This is where the cleaning solution is added to the ear. The ear is then gently massaged with the aim of loosening the debris which then floats. This usually triggers a head shaking response from the dog which will eject the debris from the ear. If some debris is left on the inside of the ear flaps it can be wiped away carefully with cotton wool. You may have to repeat the process a number of times until the ear is clean.
- If there is a need to soak up any of the cleaning solution left in the ear gently insert a cotton bud. Never use a cotton bud to clean the ear as you will just push the debris further down.
- Ears should usually be cleaned before adding any medication prescribed by your vet but if your dog has severe ear disease you may need to treat the infection for 2-3 days before you try cleaning the ear. This gives a chance for the swelling and pain to reduce. In severe cases the ear cleaning may be done by the vet with the dog under sedation.
- Rewarding your dog after ear cleaning will pay dividends for future ear cleaning.
Shar-Peis are also prone to two ear conditions – Hyperplastic Otosis and Proliferative Otisis. The disease is characterised by warty or polyp-like growths in the ear canal or on the ear flap. The cause of these growths is unknown but they restrict air circulation within the ear and are therefore a contributory factor to ear disease. Depending on the severity of the condition it can be treated with an oral steroid or surgery to remove the growths. In extreme cases the ear canal will need to be removed (Ear canal Ablation).
There is a surgical procedure to open up the ear canal called lateral Ear Canal Resection which can reduce the chance of infections.
Most ear conditions can be treated with topical or oral medications. Topical treatments include ear cleaners to dissolve wax but also medicated ear drops which contain 3 crucial components.
1) Topical steroids to treat allergic inflamation of the ear canal (90% of ear problems in Shar peis are of an allergic origin)
2) Anti bacterials. Bacterial infections will occur due to the hot and moist conditions in the ear. These are commonly used in conjunction with antiseptics.
3) Anti fungals. Yeast infections also commonly occur and need to be treated with anti fungals.
Ear drops bought from the pet shop cannot contain the above components – they are only designed to remove wax. The wax only forms secondary to inflamation so treatment for the underlying inflamatory and infectious cause is critical.
Application of ear drops: It is critical that ear drops are placed in the correct area of the ear. It is not where one would expect the drops to be placed. We will happily show you how to apply ear drops in the correct manner
Surgery is reserved for cases that have repeated ear infections and/or have a very narrow vertical ear canal. Essentially the dog will be sedated in the owners presence and when sedated taken into the prep room to be given a general anaesthetic. The vertical ear canal is opened up so that it exposes the much wider horizontal ear canal. The procedure is called Lateral Ear Canal Resection. The dog is generally sent home on the same day and returns 14 days later for sedation and suture removal. Sedation is necessary due to the number of sutures used and the difficulty in accessing these sutures.
Surgery does not eliminate all ear problems but improves hearing and almost always turns a severe problem into a mild problem.
If your Shar pei has ear problems it is very worthwhile coming to see Sean as it is critical that a long term preventative program is started early and for accurate instruction on what and how to apply ear drops. Sean regularly has clients cry when he shows them where to put the ear drops in an ageing dog that has had ear drops applied incorrectly for years.