Ear infections in dogs are common, especially among certain breeds. Although an ear infection is not a veterinary emergency, it does require medical treatment to resolve and can be painful for your pet.
Ear infections commonly lead to inflammation of the outer ear, a condition called otitis externa. The inflammation causes many of the symptoms associated with ear infections and is often very uncomfortable for the dog. Infections in the middle or inner ear, on the other hand, lead to otitis media and otitis interna, respectively. Recognizing the symptoms of ear infections is important for owners of dog breeds with a predisposition toward ear infections. However, ear infections can affect all breeds, and can even be a sign of an underlying condition.
Signs & Symptoms of Ear Infections in Dogs
Symptoms of ear infections in dogs may range from very mild to extreme. You may see:
- Head shaking
- Pawing at the ear
- Loss of hearing
Regardless of the cause, ear infections typically lead to inflamed, red, itchy, painful ears for one or both ears. Your dog may scratch or paw at his ear in an attempt to relieve the discomfort, which can further aggravate the condition. As the infection progresses, you may notice discharge coming from the ear and even an unpleasant odor. Yeast infections, in particular, have a distinctive smell.
Dogs with ear infections often shake their heads. This motion, like scratching, can lead to further problems like hematomas, which are areas of localized bleeding that occur outside of blood vessels as a result of trauma. Decreased hearing is also a sign of an ear infection, and dogs with severe infections or middle or inner ear infections may tilt their heads.
Infections of the middle and inner ear are less common. Symptoms of middle/inner ear infections differ from outer ear infections, and you may notice vestibular signs consisting of head tilting, circling, nausea, falling, vomiting, and abnormal eye movements or eye position.
The symptoms of outer ear infections in dogs include redness, swelling, discharge, odor, and loss of hearing. Dogs can make the condition worse by shaking their heads or pawing at their ears, leading to secondary infections or conditions like a hematoma.
How Did My Dog Get an Ear Infection?
Dogs contract ear infections in several ways. Some of the reasons are hereditary or congenital, like breed disposition and ear shape, while other causes are environmental.
- Breed predisposition
- Foreign objects
- Ear conformation (ie., “floppy” ears)
- Ear canal shape
- Autoimmune diseases
- Hormonal disorders
- Tumors and polyps
- Frequent swimming
- Overcleaning by owners
Cocker Spaniels, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Miniature Poodles are some breeds predisposed to ear infections. Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, Cocker Spaniels, and Beagles, on the other hand, are prone to an idiopathic congenital disease that can cause inflammation and infections of the inner ear.
The shape of the dog’s ear can also play a role in getting an ear infection. Dogs with long, floppy ears are more likely to develop an infection than dogs with upright ears. Dogs with small ear canals, excess hair in the ear canal, or overproductive wax glands are also more prone to getting an infection.
Allergies, autoimmune diseases, and hormonal disorders can lead to ear infections as well. These conditions cause inflammation, which can result in infection from bacterial, yeast, or fungal agents as a result of self-trauma or immunosuppression. Similarly, parasites like ticks can cause inflammation, as can foreign bodies like pieces of grass or an excess buildup of dirt. Polyps and tumors can also change the shape of the ear canal, which increases the odds of infection. These growths can be either cancerous or benign and may need to be removed. Fortunately, however, cancerous growths in the ear are very uncommon.
In some cases, environmental factors can create the perfect environment for infections. Swimming is perhaps the most common cause, especially in breeds already predisposed to infections. This condition is often called “swimmer’s ear.” Overzealous cleaning, especially with harsh or homemade cleaning agents, is another common cause. Excessive cleaning removes the natural oils and waxes from the ear, causing inflammation, and using drying agents or cotton-tipped applicators can cause mechanical trauma, opening the way for infection.
There are many causes of ear infections in dogs, including predisposing factors like breed, primary causes, like parasites and allergic skin diseases, and perpetuating causes, like bacterial and yeast infections.
Diagnosing Ear Infections in Dogs
Veterinarians diagnose ear infections in dogs based on clinical signs and diagnostic tests. Upon examination, your veterinarian will take a look at your dog’s ear. They will most likely use a tool called an otoscope, which allows them to see into the ear canal and look for changes and signs of damage to the eardrum. This might require sedating your dog, as it might be uncomfortable. Your veterinarian may then take a swab of the ear canal to examine under a microscope, which allows them to look for bacteria, yeast, and signs of mites.
Inner ear infections may require a complete neurological examination. Additionally, your veterinarian may recommend laboratory tests for diseases like rickettsial, a deep ear flush, radiographic imaging, and an MRI.
Once the ear infection is diagnosed, your veterinarian will start looking for the cause of the infection. This is important for treatment, as the infection is likely to return if the underlying cause is not addressed. Depending on your dog’s condition, this may include blood work, skin scrapings, allergy testing, and biopsies.
Diagnosing ear infections in dogs is a two-part process. The first step involves diagnosing the ear infection, and the second consists of figuring out for the underlying cause of it. This can take time but ultimately will help your dog get the best treatment.
Treating Your Dog for Ear Infections
Treating ear infections in dogs, like diagnosing ear infections, consists of several steps. The goal of the first part of treatment is to relieve inflammation, reduce pain, remove debris, and resolve the infection. This may be done with a combination of antibiotics and antifungals, cleaning agents, and steroids, which relieve the itching and swelling. Severe ear infections may also require oral medications.
The veterinarian will also begin treating for the underlying condition by prescribing medications to treat hormonal imbalances or autoimmune diseases, or eliminating exposure to allergens.
Occasionally, medications cannot resolve the cause of the infection, and may require surgery to remove the ear canal or to remove polyps and tumors. A total ear canal removal, called an ablation and bulla osteotomy, may be necessary in these cases, and can also remove masses in both the outer and middle ear.
Inner ear infections may require long-term oral antimicrobial medications. Your veterinarian may also prescribe antivertigo drugs for dizziness, and surgery may be necessary to remove inflammatory polyps or tumors.
Is there a cure for ear infections?
Yes, there is a cure for ear infections. Medications like antibiotics and antifungals can eliminate the infection. Resolving the underlying cause of the infection will help prevent recurrence.
Are Ear Infections Contagious For Humans or Other Pets?
Ear infections are not contagious for humans or other pets. But some parasites, like ear mites, can spread to other pets. If your veterinarian diagnoses your dog with ear mites, you may have to treat all other animals in the household.
What is the cost of treating ear infections?
The cost of treating ear infections will depend on both the severity of the infection and the underlying cause. Simple cases may only require a cleaning and a round of antibiotics in addition to the cost of the office visits, which are comparatively inexpensive, while serious infections may involve surgery or lifelong treatment of the underlying condition.
Ear infections are treatable conditions. While the extent of the treatment will vary by case, you can expect treatment to include medications to resolve the infection, as well as a treatment plan to counter the underlying condition. Surgery may be necessary in some cases. Luckily, ear infections are not contagious, although some of the underlying causes, like mites, are infectious.
Recovery and Management of Ear Infections
You can expect at least one follow-up visit to the veterinarian during the recovery process. During this time, it is essential to follow your veterinarian’s instructions and administer all medications for the prescribed time. Clinical signs often resolve shortly after starting medical therapy, which can tempt owners to stop treating. However, the infection may still be present, and stopping and restarting medications can lead to medication resistance and additional complications.
During your dog’s recovery, try to prevent your dog from irritating his ears or getting his ears wet. Doing so slows the healing process and can aggravate the condition or introduce new bacterial or fungal infections. Veterinarians may also recommend additional steps to manage ear infections, like removing the hair from the ear canal.
In cases with recurring infections, treating the underlying cause is especially crucial, and it requires time, additional diagnostic testing, and follow-up visits.
Ear infections are managed with medications. Treating the underlying condition provides the best prognosis, and your veterinarian may recommend further management strategies to treat recurring infections.
Preventing Ear Infections
Ear infections in dogs are not always preventable, but owners can take steps to reduce the risk, especially in breeds with a predisposition. Keeping your dog’s ears dry and clean helps prevent ear infections, but excessive cleaning can be harmful. The best thing owners can do to prevent ear infections is to inspect their dogs’ ears regularly. Look for changes in skin color, condition, and temperature, and sniff your dog’s ears to check for odors. While it may seem odd, owners should know what a healthy, clean, dog ear smells like so they can tell when something may be off.
If your dog regularly swims, talk to your veterinarian about additional steps you can take to prevent infections, like using veterinary-approved drying agents or clipping the hair around your dog’s ear canal.
Is there a vaccine for ear infections?
There is no vaccine for ear infections.
Ear infections are not always preventable, but owners can help lower their dog’s chances of getting an ear infection by establishing healthy ear hygiene practices.