What Owners Should Know About Dog Ear Infections

Updated December 1, 2021
Veterinarian cleaning Dog ears

Preventing dog ear infections is easier than treating them, and it can save your pet a lot of misery. If you see the signs and symptoms indicating your dog may have infected ears, don't delay in bringing them to the veterinarian before the problem worsens.

Defining Ear Infections

Veterinarians define dog ear infections, referred to as otitis, by the depth they occur within the ear. In general, the deeper the infection lies, the more severe it becomes because it is harder to reach for treatment.

Infection in dog ear
  • Otitis externa is the term used for infections located in the outer ear canal.
  • Otitis media defines dog ear infections in the middle ear region.
  • Otitis interna pertains to infections of the inner ear.

Symptoms of a Dog Ear Infection

English bulldog puppy scratching

Reading your dog's body language will give you clues about how they are feeling. If you notice one or more of the following signs, it's time to pay your veterinarian a visit.

  • Your dog paws at their ears a lot.
  • They may also rub their head and ears against the ground, furniture, and anywhere else they think might bring some relief.
  • Some dogs shake their heads quite a bit.
  • The ear flaps may become red and somewhat swollen. The skin may also become broken and bleed if the dog scratches at it too hard.
  • The inside of the ear seems exceptionally moist, and may contain brown material that looks similar to coffee grounds.
  • You may notice a foul smell coming from your pet's ears.
  • Your pet may hold their head tilted to one side, and their overall balance may be affected if the infection becomes severe. This is particularly the case with middle and inner ear infections.

Yeast and Bacterial Infections in a Dog's Ears

Yeast and bacteria are two of the primary culprits causing infections in your dog's ears. Unfortunately, the symptoms are very similar, so it's challenging to know exactly which one your dog has. It's not uncommon to have a combination of both.

  • Bacteria: Because dogs have a uniquely shaped ear canal (it looks like the letter "L"), ear wax and debris can easily become trapped inside. This accumulation leads to an infection. If it's left to fester, the infection can continue until there's discharge or pus in your dog's ear.
  • Yeast: Yeast naturally occurs on a dog's skin, but a yeast infection happens when there's an overgrowth of yeast. Allergies are often an underlying cause for this problem. Yeast infections also have the risk of developing secondary bacterial infections, which makes them a bit harder to treat.

Further Complications with Bleeding

If the flap of your dog's ear feels swollen or blown up like a pillow, this could be a complication of an ear infection. Head shaking, scratching, and rubbing can cause a blood vessel in a dog's ears to burst. The blood that collects in the flap then develops into an aural hematoma. In mild cases, the blood can be drained or absorb on its own, but most aural hematomas need surgery. Both processes will leave scars on the affected flap.

Bleeding can also occur in the ears when a dog breaks the skin while scratching at them because of the pain. These open wounds can lead to a secondary skin infection and cause your dog more discomfort. If you notice blood in your dog's ear, it's important to see your vet. In the mean time, put a cone on your dog to prevent further trauma to the ear.

In some cases, bleeding from inside a dog's ear could point to a ruptured ear drum. This can happen as a result of trauma or from the infection. Dogs with this condition may be off balance or uncoordinated, appear to be in a lot of pain, experience hearing loss, or tilt their head.

Treatment for Dog Ear Infections

Treating dog ear infections is a multi-step process that needs to be done under the guidance of a qualified veterinarian.

  1. First, your vet will take a swab of the ear to find out if the infection is bacterial, yeast, or a combination of these, and identify any ear mites (if present) so they can make an appropriate treatment plan.
  2. The next essential step is to make sure that the ear drum is intact. If the drum has ruptured, cleaning it with the wrong type of solution can lead to irreversible deafness. Your vet should examine your dog to make sure the ear drum hasn't burst.
  3. The canal of the infected ear must be thoroughly cleaned before anything else can be done. This can include swabbing the canal, removing hair and other debris, and may even require flushing the canal out in order to remove excess waste and pus. Since dog ear infections are quite painful to your pet, it's usually best to let your vet take care of this as part of the office call.
  4. In most cases, a dog-specific topical medication such as Panolog or Baytril Otic will be prescribed for you to administer directly into the ear. This will treat the inner irritation that is causing so much discomfort. Dr. Sandra Kock, DVM, MS, DACVD, reports that using solely topical treatment should be enough to resolve most cases of ear infections, and this is often the preferred route to take. Depending on the severity of the infection, your vet may also recommend an oral antibiotic, steroid, or anti-inflammatory medication that you should give your pet at home.
  5. Using a dog cone is usually suggested to prevent scratching. The average ear infection case can take from 10 days to about a month to clear up, although more severe cases can take longer.
  6. Occasionally, it's necessary to anesthetize a dog for deep flushing and suctioning of the ear canal. And in the most severe cases, surgery may be required to open the canal for cleaning and treatment because scar tissue can make the area unreachable.

Treating Dog Ear Infections at Home

There are many suggested remedies for dealing with a dog's ear infections on the internet, such as using hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, or oil. Do not use these products without professional guidance. Ear infections are painful for a dog and can easily become serious without proper treatment. If you suspect your dog has an ear infection, bringing them to your veterinarian is the safest course of treatment and the one most likely to bring them the fastest relief.

Never use any remedies at home or even over-the-counter medications and cleaners without discussing them with your veterinarian first. Not only can these be detrimental if used incorrectly, but your dog could also be suffering from ear mites or other parasites. Without a diagnosis from the vet, you could end up treating the wrong condition with a substance that will have no effect or even make the condition worse.

Why Are Dog Ear Infections So Common?

Veterinarian doctor examining dog ear

The canine ear may be one of the most wondrous hearing devices ever designed, but that same design also makes it the perfect environment for spawning dog ear infections. The main problem seems to be with the structure of the ear canal itself.

  • The canal begins at the opening of a dog's ear and takes an almost straight vertical drop, followed by a hard right angle turn that leads to the eardrum. Once moisture makes its way into the canal, it has a difficult time drying out.
  • Couple this with the fact that many breeds have quite a bit of hair growing in the opening region of the canal, and you get exactly the kind of dark, warm, moist environment where bacteria thrives. Dogs with long, floppy ears, such as Beagles and Irish Setters, are at higher risk for infections because their ear shape helps foster a bacteria-friendly environment.
  • As the bacteria population increases, pus painfully builds up within the canal. This is hard enough on your pet when only one ear is infected, but it's possible to have an infection in both ears, increasing your pet's misery.

Dealing With Chronic Ear Infections

Unfortunately, no matter how diligent an owner is about ear cleanings and medication, some dogs are prone to relapses and medication seems to have no effect. Cases like this are referred to as "chronic," and there are two common options for treatment.

  • Your vet may choose to take a culture of the fluid in your pet's ears in order to diagnose and treat the exact organism causing the infection.
  • Surgical removal of the affected ear canal (a procedure called Total Ear Canal Ablation or TECA) may become necessary to eliminate the source of the infections if treatment with medications doesn't work.

When an Infection Is Really a Mite Infestation

Ear mites can easily take up residence in your dog's ears, and the symptoms of an infestation can be similar to those of an ear infection. In cases like this, your vet will still thoroughly clean out your dog's ears and then treat them with mite medication to kill the current population. Be prepared to continue the treatment at home for seven to 10 days to make sure there are no recurrences. Some oral and topical flea preventatives can also treat ear mites.

Preventing Ear Infections

using a cotton ball to wipe the beagle's dirty ears clean

Follow these measures to keep your dog's ears clear and free of infection.

  • Prevent water from getting in the ears during baths or swimming to keep the canals dry.
  • Weekly ear cleanings will help keep the canals free from debris and increase the amount of air flow to make the area less hospitable to opportunistic organisms.
  • Keep your pet on a monthly parasite prevention treatment to prevent fleas and mites that could contribute to infections.
  • Address any underlying skin allergies that could be causing recurrent ear infections, as this is the primary cause in dogs.

Head Off Ear Infections with Early Intervention

As always, the best way to head off ear infections and mite infestations is to pay attention to the condition of your pet's ears. When you're familiar with the way your dog's ears look when they're healthy, you'll find it easier to notice unfavorable changes early on. Make touching the ear flaps and peering inside part of your daily routine to catch infections early.

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