Ear Infections in Dogs

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Due to the structure of their ears, dogs are highly prone to getting ear infections and ear diseases. Knowing the signs and symptoms of ear infections as well as how to clean your dog’s ears can make a huge difference in protecting the health of your dog. Read on to learn all of this and more.

In This Article

What are ear infections in dogs?

Ear infections in dogs occur when the air-filled spaces behind the eardrum become infected. This is typically caused by either bacteria or yeast that’s trapped inside of the ears.

How common are ear infections in dogs?

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:

  • Discharge

  • Odor

  • Redness

  • Swelling

  • 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.

Ear infection symptoms vs. ear mites syndromes

Ear infections and ear mites have several overlapping symptoms such as scratching, head shaking, and black discharge. However, it is more common for puppies and kittens to get ear mite infections. It is possible for adult dogs to contract ear mites from a puppy or kitten that is infected, however, it’s not very common. Another major difference is ear mites will create an environment inside of the ear canal that will tend to lead to a secondary yeast or bacterial infection.

What causes ear infections in dogs?

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.

Common causes include:

  • Breed predisposition

  • Allergies

  • Parasites

  • Foreign objects

  • Bacteria

  • Yeast

  • 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.

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 ear 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.

Treatment for dog 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 surgery may be required 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.

Possible impacts of ear infections in dogs if not treated

Ear infections in dogs are very painful and can be harmful to your dog’s health if they remain untreated. A deep ear infection can damage or rupture the eardrum, causing an internal ear infection, and in severe cases, permanent hearing loss. It is essential that you see your veterinarian as soon as you see signs of an ear infection.

Is there a cure for ear infections in dogs?

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 in dogs 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 in dogs?

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.

Recovery and management of ear infections in dogs

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.

Preventing ear infections in dogs

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 in dogs?

There is no vaccine for ear infections.

Summary of ear infections in dogs

Ear infections in dogs are fairly common, but are extremely uncomfortable and can lead to complications if left untreated. Common symptoms include swollen, red, itchy ears that may smell. They can usually be easily cured with medication, but it’s important to determine the cause to prevent recurrence. While ear infections are not always preventable, owners can help lower their dog’s chances of getting an ear infection by establishing healthy ear hygiene practices.

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Ear Mites in Dogs

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