Causes and Remedies For Pet Ear Infections

Ear infection definition:

Bacteria and yeast are present naturally, throughout the body, including the ears, part of the balance of life. When environmental or other factors disrupt the balance, they may grow out of control and an ‘infection’ results. Deep-seated infections can take long time to clear.

How it affects pets:

A common symptom is a pet shaking his head and/or scratching excessively at his ears. Otitis (inflammation of the ear canal) is usually accompanied by redness of the ear flaps. Signs may be subtle, such as a very slight tilt of the head, or one ear being held at a different angle than the other. You may notice a pungent, yeasty odor often accompanied by a dark reddish-brown waxy substance.  Some dogs may scratch and shake incessantly, causing damage to the pinna (ear flap).  In severe cases, a hematoma (swelling) can develop.


Certain breeds are pre-disposed to infections and yeast buildup, e.g. Setters, Spaniels and Retrievers, because the longer ear flaps provide an internal ear environment that’s dark, moist – perfect for the growth of yeast and bacteria.

Food (or environmental) allergies may be the cause if both ears are involved. An excess of grain and/or sugar in the diet is a common causes of ear infections in dogs. Sugar feeds the yeast already in the body and causes an overgrowth, which results in the dark, yeasty-smelling buildup inside the ears.

Dogs that spend time in lakes, oceans, and swimming pools can be more prone to ear problems. The ears should be gently dried afterwards, using a soft towel or cotton wool to remove the excess moisture.

What types of foods do holistic vets recommend?

A grain-free diet is almost always helpful in combating chronic yeast infections. Grains contain natural sugars which yeasts can feed upon, and multiply.

A raw or natural, minimally-processed diet can be very helpful.  It provides the natural, whole-food nutrition that the dog’s immune system needs to be strong. Removing toxic chemical preservatives and excessive gluten, by-products and fillers can have a marvelous effect on most of the body, including the condition of the ears.

Consider supplementing the diet with a good probiotic supplement containing acidophilus to help maintain the balance of good bacteria in the dog’s system. Live-culture plain yogurt with lactobacillus and acidophilus can also help, especially if prescribed antibiotics.

Other modalities to consider:

Natural topical treatments can be used routinely, or on an as-needed basis, to gently clean the ears. Apply the product onto a cotton pad and very gently wipe out excess wax and buildup.

Consider Calendula Lotion, Comfrey, and Tea Tree Oil products, as well as those containing Niaouli.  Gentian Violet, Mullein Oil, and Colloidal Silver may also be helpful.

Underweight Pets

The first thing to check with a dog who’s struggling to gain weight, is the feeding amount. Some dogs who struggle to reach or maintain a correct body-weight simply need to have their food intake increased to an amount usually served to puppies or more active dogs. However, if the volume of food is already high (and particularly if stool volume is on the high side as well) it may be necessary to look at what types of food are being offered and swap out some for foods that are more calorie dense. Also consider full fat cottage cheese, plain yogurt or an egg cracked into the meal, a few times each week.

Fat and carbohydrates are especially important for weight gain. Consider supplementing with meat such as lamb, which is especially fatty and calorie-dense. If you feed chicken, include the skin, which is the fattiest part. Some grain-free and low carb diets such as Embark cause a pup to become quite trim (just as with low carb diets for humans) so increasing the grain content slightly or adding a vegetable such as sweet potatoes, can help.

Also, consider a veterinary checkup to be sure no underlying health conditions exist. Unexplained weight loss can be a sign of a medical problem that requires veterinary attention. However in most cases, it’s just a matter of establishing the necessary quantity and the right types of food, for the individual animal. If you feed commercial food, a simple change to another recipe may be all that’s needed to meet your pet’s unique nutritional requirements.

Some pets do experience increased stool volume and a slight slimming down when they first change to a new diet, as a natural part of the detox process – especially when transitioning to a higher fiber diet than before. This usually subsides naturally after a few weeks. If it doesn’t, that may be a sign that a different recipe should be tried.

aafco and pet food regulations

One aspect of pet food that many dog owners find mystifying is regulation. Some pet owners and stores believe that  AAFCO, The Association of American Feed Control Officials is responsible for approving pet foods but in fact this isn’t the case. Here are a few facts and examples of what AAFCO does and does not do, to help clarify the situation.

AAFCO does not regulate feeds or pet products.

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is responsible for regulating pet foods.  The FDA monitors food branding to make certain that labels are not misleading and that the manufacturer is recorded on the label.  Pet food processing plants may also be inspected by the FDA although many manufacturers will voluntarily recall their products before FDA involvement to limit the bad press that might accompany any deaths or illness from tainted products.

AAFCO is a private corporation, not a government regulatory agency.

AAFCO is a voluntary organization, which is comprised largely of regulatory officials who have responsibility for enforcing their state’s laws and regulations concerning the safety of animal feeds.  This should fall under the auspices of the FDA but according to the FDA “AAFCO is vital to the continued regulation of pet food products because FDA has limited enforcement resources that are focused on human food safety issues.”

AAFCO advisors and committee members include representatives from major feed manufacturers and ingredient suppliers such as Nestle Purina, Hills Pet Nutrition, Nutro Products and Cargill Animal Nutrition.  Despite this, AAFCO claims that its function is to protect the consumer.  Despite its regulations, AAFCO has no means of enforcement, nor do they perform any analytical testing of foods. Regardless, AAFCO’s regulations are adopted by most states and are the standard to which pet and livestock feed manufacturers must adhere.

AAFCO devises pet food and feed labeling guidelines

AAFCO endeavors to protect the consumer through labeling requirements, ingredient requirements and nutritional requirements.  Any dog food manufacturer that wants to make the claim that their food is ‘nutritionally complete’ must meet AAFCO’s nutritional requirements, feeding trial requirements, or produce a food similar to one which has met these requirements.

The nutrient profiles set forth by AAFCO list minimum and maximum levels of intake for protein, fat, vitamin and mineral content of foods.  The level of nutrients is expressed on a ‘dry matter’ basis.  The levels of nutrients listed in the guaranteed analysis on the pet food label are expressed on an ‘as fed’ basis. To convert ‘as fed’ to ‘dry matter’ the consumer must do some calculations. If a dry food has 10% moisture it will have 90% dry matter. If protein matter is listed as 20% on the pet food label, you must divide the 20% protein by the 90% dry matter to calculate the amount of protein on a dry matter basis.

The nutrient profiles were originally based on minimum nutrient requirements established by the National Research Council Committee on Animal Nutrition (NRC) in 1991.  In 1995, AAFCO changed these standards to incorporate ‘new scientific information’ completed by the pet food manufacturers.  One such change was to lower the minimum protein content from 22% to 18% which is noteworthy as protein is the most expensive ingredient on the dog food label.

The source of food nutrients is not regulated by AAFCO.  Protein can be derived from meat or from shoes, from human-grade chickens, or road kill.   As long as it is protein, it meets AAFCO nutritional standards.  Bioavailability and digestibility of nutrients is not a consideration for AAFCO.

AAFCO establishes feed ingredient definitions.

AAFCO regulations state that a pet food manufacturer must provide not only a guaranteed analysis on the food label, but a list of ingredients presented in descending order with the ingredient with the most weight listed first.  This nutrient listing is a common source of confusion to the consumer as protein is further divided into meat meal, meat digest, fat meal, bone meal and animal by-product meal (instead of beef muscle meat, chicken beaks, pig ligaments, blood, intestines, and the infamous 4-D meats – dead, dying, diseased and disabled).  Manufacturers can further confuse the consumer by ‘splitting’ less nutritional such as corn or wheat to move the ingredient down the list.  For example, by dividing corn into corn, corn bran, corn germ meal, corn gluten, corn gluten meal and corn syrup, a manufacturer can produce a food that is perhaps 50% corn and 10% chicken appear to have chicken as the main ingredient by splitting the corn into the above ingredients, effectively moving it down the list of ingredients.

AAFCO establishes guidelines for feeding trials.

In addition to establishing pet food labeling regulations and ingredient definitions, AAFCO formulates protocols for feeding trials. AAFCO states that a minimum of eight healthy dogs are required for one trial and that the trial must last a minimum of 26 weeks where only one formulation of food is tested and is the sole source of nutrition (except for water).  A quarter of the dogs may be removed from the study for ‘non-nutritional reasons’ and data from the dogs removed from the trial does not need to be provided in the results (although dogs who die during the test do require a necropsy and the findings are to be recorded).

An AAFCO feeding trial takes place in a testing facility / test kennel. Food consumption may be measure and recorded. Test subjects’ bodyweights, as well as hemoglobin, packed cell volume, serum alkaline phosphatase and serum albumin are measured.  If these are all within normal ranges (although the dog may lost 15% of his body weight during the study), and six dogs have survived for six months on the food, the formulation will be determined as nutritionally complete.

Feeding trials are not commonly performed due to expense, so AAFCO allows pet food manufacturers to claim their food as nutritionally complete if one of the following requirements is met:

  • The food meets the nutrient requirements of the nutrient profile
  • The food is similar to a food that a product that does

Many holistic vets, pet owners and smaller manufacturers do not place a priority on AAFCO standards because their nutritional profiles are different from those established by the NRC (National Research Council) and do not reflect the newest research on the nutritional needs of pets. Many pet owners and smaller pet product companies are dubious of AAFCO because it is partly made up of major manufacturers within the industry who have a large influence on how the regulations for their own industry are established, and in determining the feed ingredient definitions that allow by-products, 4-D meats (dead, diseased, decaying and disabled) and other non edible ingredients to be used in pet food.

Most consumers want to feed their dog a product that is not only nutritionally balanced and complete, but does not contain substances which are potentially harmful for their dogs.  The labels on dog food with their complicated, scientific jargon and seemingly sound nutritional claims can fool even the most intelligent people into believing that the product behind the label is conscientiously prepared and rigorously regulated through governmental control.  The reality is the fox is watching the henhouse:  a $12 billion henhouse.  Consumers spend $12 billion on commercial pet foods each and every year and we have to question just what exactly do they get in return?

Gluten Intolerance: Pets can have problems with gluten, too

Gluten is a generic term, that’s used to describe the proteins found in wheat and other cereal grains, which are classified into two groups, called prolamines and glutelins. Gluten has become a ‘red flag’ ingredient in many foods (for both people and pets) in the past few years, but what’s all the fuss about?

Gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease, is an immune response that occurs in the human body, when gluten is consumed. The villi, which are tiny hair-like projections in the small intestine that absorb nutrients from food, become damaged during the immune response. Damaged villi don’t effectively absorb basic nutrients and gastro-intestinal problems occur.

While dogs in general don’t suffer from true celiac disease (with the possible exception of Red Setters), gluten can be a problematic ingredient for many dogs, and can cause problems like gastro-intestinal upset similar to that seen in humans, as well as itchy skin and ear infections. In many cases, simply reducing or eliminating the grain content of the diet can actually reduce or even eliminate the need for prescribed steroids and antibiotic treatments, which are so often a conventional vet’s first port of call in trying to combat allergies. Many dogs literally end up taking prescribed medications for years on end, to keep their reactions under control – before their guardian finally makes the link to grain in the food bowl – and takes dietary action!

Genetically modified (GMO) grains are thought to be especially risky for the gluten intolerant. Studies show that when butterflies and other species come in contact with pollen from genetically modified crops, they suffer a number of health problems, and genetic mutations eventually occur. It is possible that a similar thing happens when other species consume GM grains – especially species whose systems aren’t designed to cope with a grain overload in the first place, and they’re eating the same diet day after day for years on end.

While there are other possible causes like environmental triggers or seasonal factors, the consumption of glutenous grains in sensitive pets, can lead to:

    • Chronic GI upset – intermittent or continuing diarrhea and / or constipation including mucus in the stools and flatulence. Vomiting may also occur in more severe cases.
    • Repetitive chewing at the feet , as well as red and inflamed paw pads.
    • Dermatitis – chronic dry and flaky skin, hair loss, hot spots, redness, bumps, rashes and constant scratching are classic signs of a food intolerance.
    • Chronic ear infections – over-consumption of grain can lead to a buildup of excess sugars in the system. This in turn can contribute to yeast overgrowth, leading to dark, smelly waxy debris in the ears, head shaking and scratching.
    • Other health problems that may be related to food intolerances such as grain sensitivity include: arthritis, epilepsy, abnormal behavior, allergic and inflammatory reactions (including inhalant allergies due to a compromised immune system as well as conditions like pancreatitis and hepatitis, as well as an increased susceptibility to infection, Cushing’s, Addison’s, and thyroid problems.

Some animal health experts think that long-term undetected food intolerances may be the underlying cause of degenerative diseases such as cancer, heart conditions and kidney failure, too. Of course not all health conditions are directly related to grain consumption, but the overload of grain and lack of general color and variety in most modern commercial pet diets is thought to deplete the animal’s natural state of good health and immunity over time, leaving him more susceptible to many problems occurring.

When it comes to discovering whether or not your pet is sensitive to grains, there are a couple of different options to choose from. Diagnostic blood tests are available, but they’re not always completely accurate – and can be very costly indeed. A newer alternative is the allergen saliva test available from Nutriscan, and our very good friend Dr. Jean Dodds. Nutriscan tests for twenty of the most common ingredients in pet foods, and provides specific results about food intolerances and sensitivities. It’s non-invasive, and a much more convenient way to detect food sensitivities in dogs.

An elimination diet is another great way to determine if your pet is sensitive to grains. It can be a time-consuming process, to pin down what foods cause their reactions, but for many pets, cutting out all gluten or feeding a completely grain-free pet food is the answer to painful and uncomfortable problems that have been plaguing them for years.

Wheat, barley, rye and triticale all contain gluten. Oats, amaranth, buckwheat (which is actually a seed and not related to wheat), millet, rice and quinoa are all free of gluten but may have the potential to pick up small traces of gluten during processing in facilities that also mill glutenous grains. Other gluten-free starches include garbanzo beans, lentils, nuts (remember dogs must not eat macadamia nuts), maize / corn, fava beans and cassava.

Dogs are scavengers. A wild dog’s diet includes almost any food that provides calories, including meat (the main food) as well as berries and wild grasses – but very little grain. According to a recent study by biologists Ray and Lorna Coppinger, the natural diet of dogs included, “Bones, pieces of carcass, rotten greens and fruit, fish guts, discarded seeds and grains, animal guts and heads, some discarded human food and wastes.”

Cats are more selective about food by nature and anatomy. Their ancestral diet consisted of small rodents. Just as is the case today, their usefulness to humans had a lot to do with their eagerness to dispatch the rodents so plentiful around human habitats.

However, some individual animals actually do need a certain amount of grain in their diets, to maintain a healthy body weight or because they get dry skin and dull hair when they go ‘grain-free’. As with almost every aspect of holistic health, the answers vary depending upon the individual animal. Even littermates can vary from one another, in their requirements. One pup might get an ear infection every time she eats any sort of grain. Another might be able to tolerate just oats or rye but not wheat – and a third might end up thin and uncomfortable when fed only meats and veggies.

Most modern commercial pet foods contain way too many glutenous carbohydrates, poor quality protein, and insufficient moisture. A highly processed, grain-based diet fed to an animal designed to thrive on a meat-based, fresh food diet is very likely to produce symptoms of ill-health over time. Diets to address disease most frequently deal with the symptoms that are the result of a lifetime of inappropriate food, not the true cause of their symptoms. The optimum diet for a dog or a cat should closely resemble their natural diet.

A diet heavily weighted in grain promotes insulin production and the production of inflammatory chemicals. Over-production of insulin makes it hard for the body to maintain its correct weight, which can lead to diabetes and other problems. An overabundance of inflammatory chemicals means more aches and pains. A word of caution: Diabetic animals or any other animal with a medical condition making a switch to a more protein-based diet should be under the close supervision of a veterinarian. Many diabetic pets do require some complex carbohydrates, often in the form of whole grains, in order to maintain more balanced blood sugar levels.

If your pet suffers with chronic itchiness, digestive upset, ear infections or some of the other conditions listed here, give a grain-free diet a try for a few weeks and see if you notice a difference, You might be pleasantly surprised!


  1. Do not change the food the first day the puppy arrives, and only make food available to the puppy for brief intervals: five times a day for five minutes would appear sufficient.  Do not linger while the puppy is eating.  Subsequently, it is preferable to offer meals for a brief period (five minutes) at regular times.  The ideal number of meals for a weaning puppy is five daily and for an adult dog it is two daily.
  2. From day one, do not allow your dog to approach the table during your own mealtimes, whatever its age.  This rule must never be broken.  Remember that breakfast is also a meal.
  3. Select kibbles in a rational way, without succumbing to impulse buying.  Any changes should be transitional.  Do not trust in the preferences of your dog or cat, which are based on flavor and are not always best for the animal’s health.
  4. Use small pieces of food as a reward after exercise, but ensure that these treats correspond to an effort made or a command learned.
  5. Give the dog its meal after you have had your own or at a completely different times.
  6. Leave the room when the dog is eating.  Do not try to take the bowl, as this will provoke a conflict and you cannot be sure that you will come out on top even if you do get the bowl.
  7. Contrary to the popular belief, most treats do not provide the dog with much in the way of nutrition.  Make sure the treat is used to reinforce good and learned behavior.  Leave the dog in peace when it is busy with its treat.