Q: Lucas, our 5-year-old Labrador retriever, has seen his veterinarian many times over the past two years for gradually worsening ear infections. Why do they keep coming back?
A: The most common cause of recurrent ear infections is an underlying allergy, an inherited condition common in retrievers.
Two types of allergies can be responsible: atopy (or atopic dermatitis) and food allergy. Both manifest the same way, as itchiness, redness or infection of the ears, face, armpits, belly, groin, feet or anus. Some dogs manifest their allergies only as recurrent ear infections.
Atopy is an allergy to substances in the environment, like pollen, mold or grass. Food allergy is hypersensitivity to one or more food ingredients, usually proteins. Atopy often develops around the age when Lucas started experiencing his ear infections. Food allergy can begin any time, but often it strikes dogs either under one year of age or over six.
Atopy starts seasonally and then often becomes a year-round problem, while food allergy begins year-round if the dog eats the same food every day. To complicate matters, a dog like Lucas may have both atopy and food allergy. If standard allergy medications don’t help, ask your veterinarian to refer you to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist.
Alternatively, your veterinarian can explain how you can conduct a food trial at home to determine whether Lucas has a food allergy. For a couple of months, you’ll feed him a home-cooked diet containing only one protein and one carbohydrate that Lucas has never before eaten.
Commercial over-the-counter foods have been proven to contain ingredients not listed on the label, so they can’t be used for a valid food trial. Furthermore, veterinary dermatologists agree that blood testing cannot accurately diagnose food allergy.
So, consulting a veterinary dermatologist is the fastest way to determine the cause of Lucas’ recurrent ear infections and find an effective treatment.
Lee Pickett, V.M.D. practices companion animal medicine in Pennsylvania. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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