6 Common Ear Problems in Dogs: How To Identify, Diagnose, and Treat Them

Published Dec. 4, 2023
female vet looking into ear of collie dog

Why Are Dogs Prone to Ear Problems?

Not all dogs are prone to ear problems. For some dogs, however, their specific ear structure or underlying medical conditions increase their likelihood to develop ear infections or ear problems.  

One study found that 7.3% of dogs get ear infections yearly. Dogs with droopy or V-shaped ears (think Basset Hound) have a higher risk of developing ear infections than dogs with “up” ears (think German Shepherd). This is due to several factors, including limited air circulation, increased moisture retention, and the specific anatomy of their ear canals.

Breeds with a higher risk of ear infections include:

Additionally, certain medical conditions, such as allergies in dogs and hypothyroidism in dogs, disrupt the normal barrier of the skin, including the skin within the ear canal. As a result, dogs with these conditions have an increased likelihood of developing ear infections.

Common Ear Problems in Dogs

Below, we’ll cover six common ear problems in dogs, but keep in mind this list isn’t exhaustive. Be sure to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian if you’re noticing foul odors from your dog’s ear, redness, debris buildup, or other changes to their ear.

1. Ear Infections

Normal dog ears have both bacteria and yeast in them. However, when there is an overabundance of yeast or specific types of bacteria, the dog develops an ear infection.

If your dog has a red, painful ear with a foul odor and buildup of debris, they are likely to have an ear infection. Your veterinarian can diagnose an ear infection in the clinic by looking at a swab of debris from the ear under the microscope. Ear infections can affect one or both ears. Either scenario is common.  

An untreated ear infection can cause permanent changes to the ear canal, such as thickening of the skin that can cause the canal to narrow, which can hinder a dog’s hearing. Additionally, some ear infections can penetrate the eardrum and move into the middle or inner ear, resulting in balance issues for your dog.

2. Ear Mites

Ear mites are parasites transmissible from one dog to another and can lead to dog ear infections. A dog of any age can get ear mites, but they’re most common in puppies. This is because puppies tend to have increased close contact with other dogs and are less likely to be on preventives.

A dog with ear mites usually has chunky, coffee-ground–looking debris in their ears. The mites, which are tiny arachnids, feed on the wax and oils in the dog’s ear canal. As they feed, they produce waste and secretions, contributing to the formation of a dark, crumbly material. Veterinarians can easily diagnose the presence of mites by looking at a sample of the debris from the dog’s ear under the microscope.

Ear mites cause intense itching, so affected dogs usually scratch at their ears a lot. Many preventatives effectively treat and prevent ear mites, so year-round parasite prevention is recommended. Preventative medications such as NexGard® and Revolution® are good options to discuss with your vet.

3. Allergies

Allergies in dogs most commonly show up as skin and ear problems in a dog. Dogs may have environmental allergies to dust or pollen, food allergies, or an allergic reaction to parasites such as flea bite dermatitis.

If your dog’s ear is simply red and itchy with no debris, this may be evidence of allergies. However, allergies in dogs frequently lead to ear infections. Dogs who have recurrent ear infections often have underlying allergies as a major contributing factor.

Your veterinarian or a veterinary dermatologist can help you determine the type of allergy and what treatments may be effective for your pet.

4. Ear Tumors

Ear tumors are growths on the ear flap or within the ear. Growths can be benign or malignant. Benign tumors, such as a wart or polyp, may grow in size but are unlikely to spread to other parts of the body. Malignant tumors are cancerous, meaning they can spread in the body.

Your veterinarian may take a biopsy to determine the type of tumor. Tumors deep within the ear may not be accessible for your veterinarian to take a sample and require a specialist to determine the tumor type. Once the tumor type is diagnosed, your veterinarian will work with you to determine a treatment plan.

Tumors cause ear problems in a couple of ways. They can directly change the structure of the ear. For example, if they grow within the ear canal, they can completely block the canal, leading to a buildup of debris and infections. Tumors deep in the ear may affect some of the sensitive structures of the ear like the eardrum, which impacts how well a dog can hear.

Tumors affecting the inner ear can also affect a dog’s balance. Tumors on the ear flap or in the canal may be itchy or painful, leading to scratching and head-shaking as well.

5. Ear Hematomas

Ear hematomas are collections of blood within the ear flap that form a soft, fluid-filled lump. Hematomas form because of excessive headshaking and scratching at the ears, which causes trauma to the ear flap.

Treatment of an ear hematoma can be surgical or medical depending on your veterinarian’s recommendation. An untreated ear hematoma can lead to scarring that distorts the appearance of the ear flap.

If your dog has ear mites or an ear infection, they should be treated to prevent recurrence of ear hematomas and further damage to the ear.

6. Vestibular Disease

Vestibular disease is a category of disorders that affect a dog’s balance and coordination. Most of the time, the underlying cause of vestibular disease is unknown and the condition improves on its own. However, inner ear infections are a frequent cause of vestibular disease.

Dogs with vestibular disease caused by an inner ear infection commonly have a head tilt, unintentional eye movement (nystagmus), and a faltering gait (ataxia). The dog may fall over, roll repeatedly, veer to one side, or circle.

Inner ear and middle ear infections are sometimes difficult to treat. Some cases may require surgical management to clean out the affected area.

Symptoms of Ear Problems in Dogs

Symptoms of ear problems in dogs may include:

  • Waxy or chunky debris in the ear canal

  • Redness of the ear

  • Foul or yeasty odor from the ear

  • Excessive headshaking

  • Scratching at the ear

  • Yelping when the affected ear is touched

  • A visible growth on or within the ear

  • Wounds behind the ear from scratching

  • Loss of fur or scaliness of the ear flap

  • Swelling of the ear flap

  • Loss of balance and coordination, rolling, or falling over

  • Unintentional eye movement (nystagmus)

  • Head tilt

How To Treat Ear Problems in Dogs at Home

If you’re noticing an ear problem in your dog, contact your vet. If your dog has known allergies or recurrent ear infections, your veterinarian may give you medications to help manage the condition while you wait for an appointment.

If your dog’s eardrum is torn, some ear cleaners and medications may not be safe to place in the dog’s ear. Some medications can cause hearing loss or changes to your pet’s balance when the eardrum isn’t intact. Always speak with your veterinarian before placing anything in the ear canal.

Many ear cleaners and wipes are available without a prescription, such as Virbac® Epi-Otic Advanced Ear Cleaner for Dogs & Cats or Veterinary Formula® Clinical Care Ear Therapy.

Some over-the-counter products reduce itching by reducing inflammation, such as Zymox® Otic Dog & Cat Ear Infection Treatment with Hydrocortisone. Always read the instructions and precautions on these products before use.

If your dog is excessively scratching at their ears, consider placing a recovery collar on them to prevent them from reaching or scratching their ears while treating the infection.

When to Contact Your Veterinarian

Contact your veterinarian if you’re noticing redness of the ear, a foul odor from the ear, buildup of debris in the ear with redness, excessive scratching of the ear, pain when the ear is touched, changes to your pup’s balance, or any sort of growth on the ear.

If your dog has a little debris in the ear with no other symptoms, you can gently clean the dog’s ear at home. However, keep in mind that this may be unsafe if your dog’s eardrum is ruptured. If the debris is deep within the canal, it’s best to seek a veterinarian’s advice prior to putting anything in the ear so as not to damage the eardrum.

Ear Problems in Dogs FAQs

Can an ear infection cause balance problems in a dog?

Yes, an ear infection can cause balance problems in a dog if the ear infection affects the middle ear or inner ear. If not treated, ear infections can cause rupture of the eardrum and move into the middle ear or inner ear.

Are ear problems common in dogs?

Yes, ear problems are common in dogs and are a common reason for pet parents to take their dog to the veterinarian. Ear problems can affect one or both ears in dogs.

Featured Image: didesign021/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Rhiannon Koehler, DVM


Rhiannon Koehler, DVM


Dr. Rhiannon Koehler is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Master of Public...

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