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Throughout my career, one of the most common reasons dog owners give for bringing their dog in for care is due to ear problems. This is true even when they don’t realize that the problem is inside their dog’s ears. Here are some tips for noticing the signs of ear infections, how to treat them, and how to prevent them.


Take a good look at both ears. Gently, but thoroughly lift each ear flaps and point them to the ceiling. Both ears should be similar in appearance and smell. A dog’s ears should look and smell clean, free from excessive discharge, and not bright red. They should never smell foul or “yeasty”.


There are a variety of causes of ear problems – including food allergies! Your veterinarian can help you identify the root problem. Possible causes of ear problems include:

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  • Bacteria
  • Fungus
  • Parasites such as ear mites
  • Foreign material
  • Cysts or masses
  • Hair build-up
  • Moisture from swimming or baths
  • Environmental Allergies
  • Food allergies/sensitivities
  • Irritation due to excessive cleaning of the ears


Ear problems can have a variety of symptoms including:

  • Painful when their ears are touched
  • Pawing or scratching the ears
  • Shaking or tilting the head
  • Redness or inflammation on any part of the ear
  • Foul, funky smell to the ear


A dog’s ear canal can be divided into 3 general sections: the outer canal, the middle and the inner ear canal. The two types of ear infections are:

Outer ear infection (otitis externa). A waxy, yellow, or reddish-brown, or dark black-brown ear discharge can be a sign your dog has some sort of problem or infection, A problem like this requires prompt attention from your veterinarian because there can be many different causes of the discharge or inflammation. A prompt and accurate diagnosis will help decide the appropriate medication needed to effectively treat the underlying cause of the problem, so it doesn’t get worse.

Inner ear infection (otitis interna) or middle ear infection. An untreated external ear infection can easily lead to a very painful middle or inner ear infection, both of which mirror otitis externa symptoms as well as a reluctance to open the mouth or problems with balance or wobbliness. Some dogs may walk in circles or become nauseous.


Treating and cleaning ears are not the same thing.  An owner can clean a normal healthy ear but only a veterinarian should attempt to diagnose or treat any ear that is unhealthy. Any ear that is inflamed, weepy or is painful must be seen by a veterinarian to diagnose the underlying issue properly and then to start appropriate treatment. Treating an external ear infection may require topical medications such as antibiotic, antifungal, anti-inflammatory medications, or a combination of topical and systemic oral medications. Chronic issues sometimes require surgery.

Treatment for middle or inner ear infections is more serious and extensive and should only be diagnosed and treated by a licensed veterinarian or surgeon as a dog’s ear drum and sense of hearing may be in jeopardy. Treatment may require antibiotics, flushing the ear by your vet, or surgery if the condition is serious

Sometimes it becomes easier to diagnose the cause by noticing if only one ear is affected or if it’s both ears. If both of your dog’s ears are affected and it is a chronic and difficult issue to treat, your dog may be experiencing a systemic cause for the problem, such as allergies or food sensitivities, especially if there are other itchy conditions elsewhere on the body, such as toes or paws or undersides.


An owner can clean a healthy ear on their dog when instructed properly and with the right tools. A dog’s ear canal goes down and then in. I always tell my clients that you can clean whatever you can visibly see: the inside of the ear leather (the pinna) and the downward visible part of the ear canal. You shouldn’t go digging deeply inwardly to excavate as you may either push material further down the canal or possible damage the sensitive ear drum. Remember, only clean what you can see.

To clean a dog’s ear, I recommend a cotton ball saturated with a vet-recommended ear cleaner. Wipe out the inside of the ear, never going too deep. Gently squeeze the ball and gently massage the base of the ears. Most dogs love this if their ears are not overly inflamed or painful.  Since most vet-approved medications have some form of anti-inflammatory medication combined with other medications, subsequent cleaning of the ears tends to become easier, and your dog will generally tolerate them or even like the procedure. Allow the dog to shake their head which may bring material closer to the surface where you can see it and wipe it clean.   Always read the label instructions and follow them exactly as directed.

It is never recommended to use cotton topped stick swabs to clean ears. I have seen the cotton dislodge and get stuck deep in the ear canal, requiring a trip to the emergency room to have it removed.

Though the internet is full of make your own concoctions to clean dog ears, it is always recommended to check with your veterinarian first. Some homemade remedies may clean an ear adequately for the short term but may cause long term concerns by significantly drying and altering the ear’s natural pH or flora. If used on an irritated or damaged ear, it could cause excessive pain and possibly more severe damage to sensitive tissues and the ear drum.


Certain breeds or types of dogs tend to get more hair production in the ear canal or tend to produce more or heavier amounts of ear wax. This includes breeds such as Poodles, Schnauzers, Cocker Spaniels.


The best way to prevent ear problems with your dog is to make it part of a routine checkup to look at your dog’s ears. Always remember to dry your dog’s ears every time they get wet, like after a bath or swimming, or place a cotton ball inside your dog’s ears at the start of the bath. Just remember to take them out when you’re done!