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Dog Ear Infections: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

by American Kennel Club


  • As many as 20% of dogs have some form of ear disease

  • Dogs are more prone to ear infections than humans because of the shape of their ear canals

  • Prevention is key — learn how to clean your dog’s ears safely

  • If your dog is showing any of the common signs of ear infections, it’s important to visit your veterinarian as soon as possible


Many dog owners have learned to recognize the telltale signs of an ear infection: whining, scratching, and head shaking are often the first symptoms of the problem.

Ear infections are common conditions in dogs, especially those with floppy ears such as Basset Hounds and Cocker Spaniels. An estimated 20 percent of dogs have some form of ear disease, which may affect one or both ears. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce the length and severity of these episodes for your dog. There are even several over-the-counter remedies.

There are three types of ear infections, known formally as otitis externa, media, and interna. The most common is otitis externa, in which inflammation affects the layer of cells lining the external portion of the ear canal. Otitis media and interna refer to infections of the middle and inner ear canal, respectively. These infections often result from the spread of infection from the external ear. Otitis media and interna can be very serious and may result in deafness, facial paralysis, and vestibular signs. That’s why it’s important to prevent infections and seek early treatment when problems arise.


Symptoms of Dog Ear Infections

Some dogs show no symptoms of ear infection aside from a buildup of wax and discharge in the ear canal. But ear infections often cause significant discomfort and affected dogs may show signs such as:

  • Head shaking

  • Scratching at the affected ear

  • Dark discharge

  • Odour

  • Redness and swelling of the ear canal

  • Pain

  • Itchiness

  • Crusting or scabs in the ears


What Causes Ear Infections in Dogs?

  • Foreign bodies (grass awn, foxtails) that get into the ear

  • Ear mites

  • Excessive moisture from bathing or swimming

  • Food allergies

  • Environmental allergies

  • Endocrine issues such as hypothyroidism

  • Autoimmune diseases such as pemphigus, lupus, or vasculitis

  • Polyps (fleshy growths inside the ear canal)

  • Certain types of cancer

  • Trauma to the ear

The canine ear canal is more vertical than that of a human, forming an L-shape that tends to hold the fluid. This makes dogs more prone to ear infections. Ear infections are typically caused by bacteria, yeast, or a combination of both. In puppies, ear mites can also be a source of infection.

Factors that may predispose your dog to ear infections include:

  • Moisture, which can create a prime growing environment for bacteria and yeast

  • Allergies, which lead to ear disease in about 50 percent of dogs with allergic skin disease and 80 percent of dogs with food sensitivities

  • Endocrine disorders, such as thyroid disease

  • Autoimmune disorders

  • Wax buildup

  • Foreign bodies

  • Injury to the ear canal

  • Excessive cleaning

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Precise Diagnosis Needed for a Dog’s Ear Infections

If your dog is showing any of the common signs of ear infections, it’s important to visit your veterinarian as soon as possible. Quick treatment is necessary not only for your dog’s comfort (these conditions can be painful!) but also to prevent the spread of infection to the middle and inner ear. Do not try to treat ear infections at home.

Be prepared to provide your vet with a thorough history of the problem. This is especially important for first-time infections, or if you are seeing a new veterinarian. Your vet will want to know the following:

  • Duration of any symptoms, such as pain, swelling, discharge, and odour

  • If your dog has any allergies or other underlying medical conditions

  • If your dog is on medication

  • What your dog has been eating

  • How often do you clean your dog’s ears and which products do you use

  • If you’ve trimmed or plucked the hair in your dog’s ears

  • Recent activities, such as baths, grooming, or swimming

  • If your dog has a history of ear infections when they occurred, and how they were treated

After obtaining your dog’s history, your veterinarian will perform a physical examination. In severe cases, your vet may also recommend sedating your dog to facilitate examination deep within the ear canal. Your vet will evaluate both ears, and the exam may include:

  • Visual assessment to look for signs such as redness, swelling, and discharge

  • Examination with an otoscope, which allows evaluation of the ear canal and eardrum

  • Gentle palpation of the ear to assess the level of pain

  • Microscopic examination of samples taken by swabbing the ear

  • Culture of samples from the ear

  • Biopsies or X-rays in severe or chronic cases


How are Dog Ear Infections Treated?

Your veterinarian will thoroughly clean your dog’s ears using a medicated ear cleanser. Your vet may also prescribe an ear cleanser and a topical medication for you to use at home. In severe cases, your vet may prescribe oral antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications.

Most uncomplicated ear infections resolve within 1–2 weeks, once appropriate treatment begins. But severe infections or those due to underlying conditions may take months to resolve or may become chronic problems. In cases of severe chronic disease where other treatments have failed, your veterinarian may recommend surgery such as a Total Ear Canal Ablation (TECA). A TECA surgery removes the ear canal, thus removing the diseased tissue and preventing the recurrence of infection.

It is important to follow your veterinarian’s instructions closely and return to the veterinary hospital for any recommended recheck appointments. Lapses in your dog’s treatment may lead to the recurrence of the infection. It is especially important that you finish the full course of your dog’s medication, even if your dog appears to be getting better. Failure to finish the full course of treatment may lead to additional problems such as resistant infections.


Can You Prevent Ear Infections in Dogs?

As with most diseases, prevention is always best. Excess moisture is a common cause of ear infections, so be sure to thoroughly dry your dog’s ears after swimming and bathing. If your dog is prone to chronic or recurrent ear infections, identifying and managing any underlying causes such as allergies can help prevent new infections from occurring.

Cleaning your dog’s ears at home can also help prevent ear infections. Jeff Grognet, DVM, a columnist for AKC Family Dog, advises the following steps for ear cleaning: “First, fill the canal with a dog ear cleaning solution and massage the vertical ear canal from the outside. Wipe out the canal with absorbent gauze. Don’t use paper towels or cotton because these may leave fibres behind, and those could cause irritation.” Cotton swabs may also be useful for cleaning your dog’s pinnae (the external ear flaps) but avoid using them in the ear canal, which may inadvertently push debris deeper into the canal.

Ear infections are a common and often recurrent problem in many dogs, but, with your veterinarian’s help, you can keep your dog’s ears clean and comfortable. If your dog is showing signs of an ear infection, seek treatment right away to ensure the problem does not become serious.


Are Dog Ear Infections Contagious?

It depends on the cause, but the majority of dog ear infections are not contagious. If the cause is ear mites, though, these parasites are extremely contagious.

With ear mites, all pets in the home must be treated simultaneously. Ear mites are relatively common in puppies and kittens and may not be noticed initially when adopting a new pet. But shortly after bringing your new pet home, multiple pets in the house will be scratching and shaking.

Rarely, a methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or possibly other contagious infection can be cultured from an infected ear.

It is recommended to practice good handwashing when interacting with a pet with an ear infection and to limit other pets from licking the infected pet’s ears. Good handwashing is also recommended after cleaning or medicating the ear to limit any topical absorption of the medication.

Will a Dog Ear Infection Go Away on Its Own?

Most often, a dog ear infection will not go away on its own. All types of otitis require a veterinarian to evaluate the infection and the eardrum. If the eardrum is ruptured, certain cleaners and medications can be toxic to the middle ear.

Can You Treat Dog Ear Infections at Home?

The simple answer is no. Dog ear infections require vet treatment and medication in order to restore a healthy ear canal.

After the veterinarian has evaluated your pet, they will determine if any further home treatment is appropriate. This can be done if a small amount of debris is present and the eardrum is intact.

Dr. Wendy Brooks, DVM, DABVP, notes that if a large amount of debris is present, a veterinarian must perform a thorough deep clean while the pet is under sedation.

How to Treat Dog Ear Infections Properly

Your veterinarian will likely need to test the ear debris or perform scans of your dog’s ear to choose the appropriate treatment. These are some tests that your vet might conduct:

  • Cytology uses special stains on the swab of debris to colour the microscopic bacterial cells or fungus. Viewing these under the microscope can identify the specific cause.

  • Culture/sensitivity testing uses a special medium/broth to grow and identify the specific bacteria that are causing the infection. It also tests which antibiotics will be effective in eliminating the infection.

  • Blood testing may be needed to check for endocrine disease as an underlying condition.

  • Skull x-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI may be needed to assess the extent of severe or inner ear disease.

Once the details of your dog’s ear infection are known, therapy will likely consist of multiple elements that may include topical, oral, or surgical therapies.

Topical

Often, a cleanser in combination with an ointment or eardrop can be used. This medication typically needs to get deep into the ear canal. Sometimes an oti-pack is used. This medication is in a lanolin base that is slowly released and does not require daily cleaning or application of drops.

Oral

Depending on the severity of the infection, an oral antibiotic, antifungal, or steroid medication may be used to help heal the ear from the “inside out.”

Surgical

Ears that have had severe chronic disease may no longer respond to medical treatments. The goal of surgery for these ears is to open the canal or sometimes to completely remove all diseased tissue.

What If Your Dog Has Chronic Ear Infections?

Chronic ear infections can be time-consuming and frustrating for the pet, the owner, and even the veterinarian.

Certain breeds of dogs are known to more commonly experience recurring ear infection issues, according to the Veterinary Information Network.3 This can be partly due to genetics, ear shape, or ear confirmation. Over time, proliferative ear tissue can form, making treatment more difficult.

Chronic dog ear infections require close working with your veterinarian to treat. It is important that your vet does testing to choose the appropriate medication. Chronic infections can require medication consistently for 6 to 8 weeks.

After treatment, testing is needed again to ensure that all the infection has cleared. If we stop medicating too soon or do not treat underlying problems, it is easy for the infection to return, sometimes even becoming resistant to many medications.

How to Prevent Ear Infections in Dogs and Puppies

Regular grooming, ear cleaning, and ear maintenance are important parts of pet care. Routine ear cleansing is especially important if your dog swims often.

Cleaning is best accomplished with a professional dog ear cleaning product. These typically have been specifically formulated for effective pH ranges for dogs and contain drying agents.

Key Points for Dog Ear Cleaning

  • Do not use alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, as they can kill healthy ear cells.

  • Do not stick cotton swabs down into your dog’s ear, as this can risk rupturing the eardrum.

  • It is okay to use cotton balls or ear wipes to clean crevices and the earflap.

Dog Ear Cleaning Technique

  • Apply liquid cleanser to the ear as directed.

  • Close the earflap and massage the base of the ears.

  • Gently wipe clean with a cloth or cotton balls.

  • Apply any medication prescribed.

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