A large percentage of the dogs we see are smaller breeds, and many of these have a predilection to ear infections. Also, a lot of them are breeds that have naturally hairy ears. Breeds like poodle, Bichon Frise, shih tzu, Lhasa Apso, and many others traditionally have a lot of hair in their ear canals.
For years a debate has raged over whether we should pluck this hair from dogs’ ears. I’ve been practicing for over 29 years now, and have seen the pendulum on that argument swing both ways. My personal feelings are that it is in the dog’s best interest to have the hair in the ears consistently and periodically removed. Keep reading and I’ll explain why.
When I graduated from vet school in 1987 it was widely agreed that all dogs with naturally hairy ear canals should have the ears regularly plucked and cleaned. However, about 15 years ago the board certified dermatologists (we don’t have EENT specialists in veterinary medicine, so difficult ear cases are referred to dermatologists) started recommending that if a dog doesn’t have a recurrent ear infection problem, that the hair in the ears should be left alone, and not routinely plucked out.
The reasoning behind their recommendations requires a little understanding of the nature of most ear infections in dogs. The vast majority of the ear infections we see in dogs are not due to bugs they “caught”, like one might catch a virus. Instead, most ear infections in dogs are caused by organisms or bugs that are naturally present in the dog’s ear all the time.
In our practice, about 70% of ear infections are caused by one specific yeast called Malassezia pachydermatis. Malassezia is a normal, commensal organism on dog skin. What this means is that there is always some (a little or a lot, usually just trace amounts) of this bug all over the dog’s skin, including in the ears. So even in a dog’s ear that looks 100% completely clear, there are still a few of these yeast organisms in the ear. Of the other 30% of ear infections we see, a majority of these are Staph, a bacteria that, again, is normal in the ear all the time.
In most dogs, the immune system functions properly to keep these yeast and bacteria in check, and keep it from flourishing. So a dog only gets an ear infection when the immune system is not working correctly. So what are some of the things that can keep the immune system from functioning properly? Here are just a few:
- Hair in the ears
- Floppy ear flaps, as in the retrievers and hound breeds, among others
- Naturally tight ear canals, as in pugs, Shar Peis and bulldogs, along with many small breeds
- Water in the ears – this applies to the dogs that swim a lot, like the retrievers, as well as any dog after getting bathed
- Warm, moist environment – we see a lot more ear infections in Florida than I did in Ohio, in part due to the warm, moist weather
Internal factors include anything that can contribute to weaker immune systems in the dog:
- Allergies – in Florida, this is by far the number one contributing factor to ongoing ear issues in dogs. Because of our warm, moist weather year-round, as well as an abundance of pollen and mold in the air all year round, many dogs suffer from allergies. In dogs, allergies manifest as itchy skin and poor skin immunity. This routinely leads to ear infections in dogs.
- Underlying disease – dogs with ongoing medical issues such as diabetes and hypothyroidism are much more prone to ear infections than otherwise healthy dogs
- Pure bred dogs – most pure bred dogs have naturally weaker immune systems than their mixed-breed brethren
So, the thinking of the dermatologists in recommending not plucking ears is that when the hair is plucked it causes a small micro-inflammation in the hair follicles. This small micro-inflammation then weakens the immune system of the ear canal, and that leads to ear infection by organisms already present in the ear, as previously outlined.
However, it’s been my experience in the 15 years or so that we’ve not been plucking ears that dogs’ ears were much healthier and the micro-environment of the ear canal much healthier back when we routinely plucked ear hair.
When a dog’s hair is plucked for the first two or three times, yes, there might be a little micro-inflammation. However, the follicles rapidly adapt to the plucking, and soon the hair plucks out extremely easily, and with little or no inflammation. So by starting hairy-eared puppies early with routine grooming – including a thorough plucking of any hair in the ear canals – the ears can be kept healthy and hair free very easily.
Should You Pluck Ears or Not?
So we’ve now traveled full circle, and our strong recommendation is that any dogs (at any age) with significant amounts of hair in their ears should have the hair plucked out routinely, usually at least every 6 weeks. It’s been our experience that that is the easiest, most reliable way to keep the ears clean and infection free.
Plucking hair from the ears allows a deep, thorough cleaning of any built-up wax or debris, and allows the canal to breathe, thus keep the canal drier. It’s the warm, dark, moist environment of the hairy ear canal that contributes to ear infections. So if you’re an owner of one of these hairy-eared breeds, advise your groomer that you want a thorough ear plucking and cleaning on every visit. It’s what’s best for your dog.