Canine Chronic Ear Infections: Phoenix’s Story

Ear infections in dogs typically secondary to another underlying condition—most commonly allergies.

Chronic ear infections, unless addressed, will continue to get worse as the tissues are changing due to the condition.

Thank you, Brook, for sharing Phoenix’s story.

Chronic Ear Infections in Dogs: What You Need to Hear

Phoenix’s story

Phoenix is a fourteen and a half-year-old male yellow Labrador Retriever. I received him in July of 1998 from the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides when my first guide retired after only a year of working.

Phoenix and I bonded easily and became inseparable within months.  

He attended my final year of high school and then guided me through my Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Guelph.

Phoenix was always a great worker and a wonderful companion, but he had one worrisome issue, constant ear infections.

Troublesome ears

For as long as Phoenix’s puppy raisers could remember, he has always had problems with his ears.

They told me that they had to clean them at least once a week and he’d had at least two infections during the year they fostered him. When we were matched, I was shown how to clean his ears by one of the kennel staff members and told that I would need to purchase some ear cleaner and continue the weekly cleaning regiment they had been following because Phoenix had a tendency to get dirty ears.

Phoenix’s chronic ear infections

I did not realize that he would end up getting almost bi-monthly infections, with major ones usually in the spring and fall.

For the first five years, his vets just treated the symptoms, which usually meant antibiotics and Surolan.

But, after having watched me pay pretty much the same amount of money each visit, my now husband, suggested we try looking for a different vet to care for him. Phoenix was about seven and a half at this point and had been having severe infections a little more frequently.

A new vet, a new plan

It didn’t take long with the new vet to have a new attack plan proposed.

After the second time we brought Phoenix in to see him, he suggested the ear infections and constant paw chewing (a symptom his old vets did not notice) could be caused by a food allergy and not just because he was prone to getting them.

We immediately started Phoenix on an elimination diet and after three days of fasting, he began twelve weeks of just eating a hypoallergenic food. 


Within weeks we noticed Phoenix chewing his paws less and around the end of the twelve weeks, we realized that we hadn’t taken him to the vet in over two months!

We were then instructed to begin adding things back into his diet, leaving about three weeks between each new addition and watching for signs of allergies to return.  We were told that if his symptoms returned to stop whatever we had added and only feed the food along with whatever had already been determined as safe for six straight weeks before trying something else.

Phoenix has gluten allergy

This process helped us to determine that Phoenix’s constant ear issues were being caused by a gluten allergy.  

Phoenix’s ears remained almost infection-free for about five years, only having to take him to the vet for annual check-ups and one or two infections a year – usually after swimming, a bath or rolling in the snow.

He still got itchy ears during the summer, but by giving him Benedryl or Allegra from April until October, he never really had any major ear problems.

A broken tooth

Shortly after Phoenix turned ten he broke a tooth and we learned it would need to be removed in order to prevent an infection. We discussed options with his vet and were told it would cost close to a thousand dollars for the procedure. My husband and I were still in school, so asked if there was a way to pay in installments.

The vet shook her head and proceeded to tell us that it had been our choice to keep him and that there was nothing they could do to lessen the cost. We were shocked by her cold response and decided then and there that we would be changing vets because obviously this one truly did not understand the bond between a retired service dog and their human.

Phoenix ended up having his tooth removed by a dental specialist, who charged us half of what our vet was requesting, and while waiting for Phoenix to come out of recovery, we learned of Dr. B and her more natural approach to veterinary medicine.

Even though she does not provide the service dog discount our previous vet offered, we were attracted by the option to have her visit the house and her knowledge surrounding a more holistic approach to veterinary care.  We’ve actually enjoyed her service so much that we still bring the dogs to her, even after moving seven hours away.

In April of 2009, Phoenix started his usual seasonal allergy issues and for the most part, we were able to control his ear issues with the daily dose of Allegra.

The infections get out of control

At some point though that summer, he started developing an ear infection and no matter what we did, it just wouldn’t clear up.  

It would get close to resolving itself and then flare up again, leading us to look at other treatment options. We tried a new ear cleaner first, which seemed to help a bit, but then Dr. B suggested we try a different ear ointment from the usual Surolan we were using.

The new medication really didn’t seem to help much so we returned to the Surolan and just did the best we could to keep his ears from getting any worse.

In November of 2010, we were still battling the nasty ear infection of 2009 and were met with a new challenge…

… Phoenix had shaken his head so much that he had broken a blood vessel in his left ear flap and created a hematoma (his ear flap looked as though someone had inserted a small egg).

We were not able to get to Dr. B until after the weekend so she instructed us to start cleaning his ears daily and try to keep him from shaking his head when possible.

At the veterinarian

When we finally reached her office, she inserted an IV catheter and withdrew over 20cc of blood and fluids.  

She then flopped his ear onto the top of his head and proceeded to wrap his head in a colorful vet wrap to keep it in place. With time, his ear flap sort of returned to normal, but has more of a crinkled look to it now. We also returned to using the Surolan, hoping it would finally resolve his infection.

Loss of balance

Well, on the 1st of December, Phoenix came out of the bedroom, where his favorite spot to sleep is, and began trembling before he fell onto his right side.

He tried to get back up, but couldn’t – we thought he had had a stroke!

My step-dad had been taking care of him for us while we were away, so did all he could for him until we returned the following night.

When we pulled up, Dad came out with a really upset look on his face and said that something had happened to Phoenix.  

He explained the whole scene and we rushed inside to be with him.  Phoenix could barely hold up his head (which was tilted to the right), he was drooling excessively, his eyes were twitching, his nose was running and he couldn’t get up at all, but he wagged his tail like crazy as I approached.

It was already 10:00 pm so we knew there was nothing we could do until the following morning, so we put Phoenix on our bed and tried to rest up for the long drive.

It was a terrible night.  

Phoenix was having so much trouble staying comfortable because he couldn’t adjust himself and if he laid on his right, he had to hold his head in an almost upside-down position.

Around eight o’clock the following morning, we put all the dogs into the truck and had Phoenix lie on a blanket between us in the backseat while Dad drove.

It was a tense ride, but we knew that we had to do what was right for Phoenix and that if Dr. B said there was nothing we could do, then we had to let him go, it wasn’t fair to ask him to live this way.  Well, after a brief stop at his puppy raiser’s house for a “final” goodbye (we wanted them to be prepared), we arrived at Dr. B’s office and carried him in.

Vestibular disease

After a brief examination, Dr. B looked up and before I could say anything, told us it wasn’t as bad as it looked.  

Phoenix was diagnosed with Idiopathic Vestibular Disease.  

She explained that there wasn’t really any treatment and that it would just take time and patience for him to recover almost fully. She then looked him over a little more thoroughly before giving him a homeopathic remedy and instructing us to begin making his kibble into a mushy consistency and adding some canned food for palatability.

Changing diet

It was at this point that she suggested we begin looking into a homemade or raw diet. 

She was convinced it would help alleviate some of the ongoing ear issues and because she was concerned that he may aspirate on the kibble when vacuuming up his meals.

Within a few hours of getting his first dose of the homeopathic remedy, Phoenix became more alert and able to hold his head a little steadier.

After about seventy-two hours, he was able to somewhat weight bare and continued to improve steadily from there. He was pretty much back to himself by Christmas and even joined us on a 3km walk we took Christmas Day.

I think the most amazing part of this whole experience though, was to watch Phoenix’s high level of determination to get better and the fact he never once had an accident but instead made sure we knew he had to go out and waited to be set down on the grass.

Since then, we’ve started Phoenix on a raw diet and a semi-regular homeopathic regiment for his ears.

He got his first dose around the end of February and his energy level increased, along with some improvements in his ear health.

Then, around the end of March, we noticed his energy level decreasing and his ears backtracking, so we asked Dr. B for a phone consult.  She instructed us to give him another dose of the remedy and then let her know what happened after two weeks time.

Dramatic improvement

It has been three weeks since Phoenix received the second dose, and his ears are now at the same stage in healing, with very little inflammation or discharge – a drastic improvement!

I’m not sure if we’ll need to repeat the remedy again, but since the diet change and the implementation of the homeopathic regiment, we’ve noticed he sheds less, moves around easier and seems more alert and cheery, as well as, being more energetic and having his ears begin to clear up after a year and a half of issues.

I hope that Phoenix’s story might help other dogs, who’d been suffering from a lifetime of ear problems.

Related articles:
Angry Vet On Ear Infections (Part I)
Chronic Ear Infections: Tootsie’s Story
Ear Infections in Dogs: Titan’s Excessive Head Shaking

Further reading:
Chronic Ear Infections in Dogs: What You Need to Hear

Categories: ConditionsEar infectionsReal-life Stories

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Jana Rade

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience.

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