What Are Ear Infections in Dogs?
A healthy dog ear is clean and dry.
It’s normal for small amounts of microscopic bacteria and yeast to live in a dog's outer ear canal, but when a buildup of debris occurs—or the normal, healthy ear canal is compromised—bacteria and yeast can overgrow and cause an infection.
Ear infections are one of the most common type of infections in dogs and typically affect the outer ear (otitis externa). Basset Hounds, Shar-Pei, Labradoodles, Beagles, and Cockapoos are the five breeds with the highest rate of ear infections—but any dog can have an ear infection.
Common clinical signs include head shaking, scratching at the ears, ear odor, and visible debris in the ear.
Types of Ear Infections in Dogs
The anatomy of a dog's ear starts outside the head and moves in as follows: Ear flap (pinnae), ear canal, ear drum, middle ear, inner ear.
Otitis is divided into three types based on the location of a dog’s ear infection:
Otitis externa—inflammation of the ear canal
Otitis media—inflammation of the middle ear
Otitis interna—inflammation of the inner ear
Otitis externa is the most common infection, as this part of the ear is most exposed to the outside world. Ear infections can be acute (quick onset) or chronic (recurrent). Dogs may have an infection in one or both ears.
If your pup has chronic ear infections, treatment will require working closely with your veterinarian. It's important that your vet does testing on your dog to choose the appropriate medication. Chronic infections can require medication consistently for six to eight weeks.
After treatment, testing is needed again to ensure that the ear infection has cleared. If your vet stops medicating your dog too soon or doesn’t treat underlying problems, the infection can return. It may even become resistant to certain medications.
Symptoms of Ear Infections in Dogs
Common signs of dog ear infections include:
Odor (a yeasty, corn chip-like smell)
Itching/scratching at ears
Shaking of the head
Scabs or crusting around the ear pinnae
Dogs may also experience hearing loss or balance issues.
Rarely, a dog ear infection may affect a pup’s appetite if your pup is having system-wide effects. This is seen more often with otitis media or interna.
Causes of Ear Infections in Dogs
Several factors can cause dog ear infections.
Often, an underlying problem leads to the inability of the normal protective barrier of a dog’s ear to work properly. Once the ear becomes moist or inflamed, it's easy for bacteria or yeast to overgrow and cause infection in a pup.
A few common causes of infection include:
Foreign bodies (grass awn, foxtails) that get into the ear
Excessive moisture from bathing or swimming
Endocrine issues such as hypothyroidism
Polyps (fleshy growths inside the ear canal)
Trauma to the ear
These issues can make the ear canal vulnerable to a bacterial infection and/or a yeast infection.
When a dog is in pain and scratching and shaking excessively, an aural hematoma can develop. This is seen in the pinna or earflap, where ruptured blood vessels leak blood that clots. This causes swelling and pain.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Ear Infections in Dogs
Your vet will need to test the ear debris or perform scans of your dog’s ear to choose the right treatment for your pup.
These tests may include:
- Cytology—This test uses special stains on the swab of debris to color the microscopic bacterial cells or fungus. Viewing these under the microscope can identify the specific cause of infection.
- Culture/sensitivity testing—This test uses special medium/broth to grow and identify the specific bacteria that are causing the infection. It also tests which antibiotics will be effective in eliminating the infection.
- Blood testing—This test may be needed to check for endocrine disease as an underlying condition.
- Skull x-rays, CT scan, or MRI—These tests may be needed to assess the extent of severe or inner ear disease in your pup.
Treatment of Ear Infections in Dogs
Once the details of your dog’s ear infection are known, treatment will likely consist of multiple elements that may include topical, oral, or surgical therapies.
Depending on the type and severity of ear infection, an ear cleaner may be recommended that could be medicated or non-medicated.
Typically, cleaning a dog's ears with an ear cleaner will be recommended every day or every other day while treating an ear infection. It's important to follow your veterinarian’s instructions for ear cleaner.
Ear cleaner should be done before applying medications—you don’t want to clean out the medications.
Ear medications will likely come in the form of ear drops that will come with an applicator for ease of getting the medication into your pup's ear canal. Depending on the type of ear infection, ear medications may be an antibiotic, anti-fungal, or both.
Some medications also include topical steroids to help with the itch. Ear medications are typically recommended once or twice a day for seven to 10 days, so it’s important to follow your veterinarian’s specific instructions.
Depending on the severity of your dog's ear infection, an oral antibiotic, antifungal, or a steroid medication may be used.
Ears that have had severe chronic disease may no longer respond to medical treatments.
The goal of surgery for these ears is to open a pup's ear canal or sometimes to completely remove all diseased tissue. This procedure is called a total ear canal ablation (TECA) and ventral bulla osteotomy (VBO).
Recovery and Management of Ear Infections in Dogs
Most dogs recover uneventfully from ear infections.
However, if your dog is having frequent or chronic ear infections, your vet will likely recommend additional testing to determine if there is an underlying cause.
Long-term management may include weekly preventative cleaning of the ears and/or diet change.
Prevention of Ear Infections in Dogs
Cleaning is best accomplished with a vet-approved ear cleaning product made specifically for pups. These typically have been specifically formulated for effective pH ranges for dogs and contain drying agents.
Dog Ear Infections FAQs
How do I treat my dog’s ear infection at home?
Dog ear infections require vet treatment and medication to restore a healthy ear canal.
After your vet has evaluated your pup, they will determine if any further home treatment is appropriate. This can be done if a small number of debris is present, and the eardrum is intact.
Can a dog ear infection heal itself?
Most often, a dog ear infection will not go away on its own. All types of otitis require a veterinarian to evaluate the infection and the eardrum.
If the eardrum is ruptured, certain cleaners and medications can be damaging to a dog's middle ear.
What happens if a dog’s ear infection goes untreated?
Untreated ear infections can result in damage to a dog’s hearing and ear. Ear infections can progress to systemic illness and cause additional symptoms such as not eating or lethargy.
Ear infections are painful for your pup. If you think your fur baby may have an ear infection, make an appointment to see the vet right away.
Can a dog ear infection spread to a pup’s brain?
It's extremely rare but possible for an ear infection to spread into the brain. Most ear infections in dogs are of the external ear—meaning in the area from the ear flap (pinnae) to the ear drum.
However, dogs can also get middle and inner ear infections, though less commonly. If a dog has a severe inner ear infection, it's possible that the infection could invade or extend into their brain.
Are dog ear infections contagious?
It depends on the cause, but most dog ear infections are not contagious.
However, if the cause is ear mites, these parasites are extremely contagious. With ear mites, all pets in the home must be treated simultaneously.
Ear mites are relatively common in puppies and kittens and may not be noticed initially when adopting a new pet. However, shortly after bringing your new pet home, multiple pets in the house will be scratching and shaking.
Rarely, a methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or possible other contagious infection can be cultured from an infected ear.
Practice good hand washing when interacting with and treating a pet with an ear infection. Limit other pets licking the infected pet’s ears.
Featured Image: megaflopp/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images
Top Dog and Cat Claims of 2018. Embrace Pet Insurance, www.embracepetinsurance.com/about-us/press-media/press-release-detail/2019/01/10/top-dog-and-cat-claims-of-2018.
Brooks, W. DVM, DABVP: 9/30/2020 (revised) 1/1/2001 (published). Veterinary Partner, Ear Infections (Otitis) in Dogs.
Rothrock K. DVM: 5/19/2019 (revised), Morgan, RV. DVM, DACVIM, DACVO: 7/19/2003 (initial author). Veterinary
Information Network, VINcyclopedia of Diseases: Otitis Externa, General Information.
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