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

If your dog suddenly starts whining and scratching at her ears, sometimes hard enough to make them red and raw, she may have a common canine health problem—an ear infection.

There are three kinds of ear infections—otitis externa, media, and internal—affecting different parts of the canine ear. These are common conditions in dogs, especially those with floppy ears, such as Basset Hounds and Cocker Spaniels. It's estimated that about 20 percent of dogs have some form of ear disease. Here's what you need to know to reduce the incidence and severity of these painful episodes, that can affect one or both ears at a time.

Otitis externa means that the inflammation affects the layer of cells lining the outer or external portion of the ear canal. Otitis media and interna refer to infections of the middle and inner ear canal, and they are most often are a result of the spread of infection from the external ear. These more advanced cases can be very serious, and could lead to deafness, facial paralysis, or signs of vestibular disease, such as head tilting, circling, and lack of coordination. That's why it is important to prevent and seek early treatment for ear problems.


Symptoms of Dog Ear Infections

Ear canals are very sensitive, so the symptoms of infection are often clear, including:

  • head shaking
  • odors
  • scaly skin
  • whining and pawing at the affected ear
  • dark, smelly discharge
  • redness and swelling
  • itchiness
     

border collie ears up

What Causes Ear Infections in Dogs?

The structure of the canine ear canal, which is more vertical than that of humans and has an "L" shape, that tends to hold in fluid. This makes dogs prone to ear problems. Some of the most common causes include:

  • bacteria
  • yeast/fungus (aspergillosis)
  • moisture (which can create a prime growing environment for bacteria and yeast)
  • viruses
  • mites (more common in puppies than in adults)
  • drug reactions
  • allergies (about half of dogs with allergic skin disease and 80 percent of dogs with food sensitivities will develop ear inflammation)
  • thyroid disorders
  • autoimmune disease (pemphigus)
  • endocrine disorders
  • wax buildup
  • foreign bodies
  • excessive cleaning
  • injury
  • meningitis or encephalitis


Precise Diagnosis Needed for a Dog's Ear Infections

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


Be prepared to provide your vet with as thorough a history as possible. This is especially important if you have to take your dog to an emergency room, where you may be treated by a vet who has never seen you before. Ear infections can strike at any hour and can be very painful. It's not unusual, for example, for a puppy to wake up in the middle of the night, whining, head shaking and scratching her ears. So be prepared for an ER visit.


Your vet will want to know the following:

  • duration of any symptoms—pain, swelling, discharge, odor
  • what your dog has been eating
  • if your dog has any allergies or other conditions
  • if your dog is on medication
  • how often you clean your dog's ears
  • if you've trimmed hair in them
  • recent activities, such as baths, swimming, romping in a field, visiting the groomer
  • history of ear infections (is this the first one, or have there been others? When did they occur? How were they treated?)

Then the vet will conduct an examination, which might require sedation, depending upon how painful the ear is and how well your dog deals with being handled. Both ears will be examined, even if only one seems to be the problem.


The exam may include:

  • visual assessment, looking for such signs as redness, crusts, swelling, blood;
  • gentle palpation of the ear to assess level of pain;
  • microscopic examination of a tissue samples taken from ear;
  • tissue culture;
  • examination with an otoscope, which can look into the ear to identify foreign objects, impacted wax buildup and debris, ear mites, or eardrum damage
  • Biopsies and X-rays, for extreme or chronic cases


How are Dog Ear Infections Treated?

In the office, your vet will thoroughly clean your dog's ears and prescribe a topical medication or systemic antibiotics, that you will probably need to continue administering at home. Your vet will likely also prescribe something for pain, generally Tramadol, or steroids to ease inflammation.

You may also have to clean your dog's ears, but usually after the first recheck, which is generally in five to seven days.
 


Uncomplicated cases can take about 10 to 30 days to resolve. But some may take months, and others may be chronic.

Follow your vet's directions to the letter. Lapses in treatment might lead to a recurrence. It's extremely important to complete the full course of medication, even if it appears as if the ear looks better halfway through.


Can You Prevent Ear Infections in Dogs?

As with most diseases, prevention is always best. Learn the proper way to clean your dog's ears. If moisture is a contributing factor, make sure that you thoroughly dry ears after swimming or prevent water from getting in during baths. Cotton balls can be very useful for this purpose.

Here are some ear-cleaning guidance from Jeff Grognet, DVM, columnist for AKC Family Dog: "First, fill the canal with a cleaning solution and massage the vertical ear canal from the outside. Wipe out the canal (paper towel or cotton can leave irritating fibers behind) with absorbent gauze. Don't use paper towels or cotton because these may leave fibers behind, and those could cause an irritation.

Cotton-tipped sticks may be useful in cleaning the folds on your dog’s ear flap, but don’t use them in the ear canal. You might inadvertently push debris deeper into the canal and pack it at the bottom.

This video from Colorado State University offers some instruction on cleaning and medicating a dog's ears.
 


Sources include the Merck Veterinary Manual and Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

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