By: Dr. Juli, DVM @itsdrjuli
The bond with your pet is special, and many pets have their owners well-trained for mealtime, treat time, and their favorite playtime activities. Forming a close bond and observing your pet’s daily activities and behaviors is a critical part of responsible pet ownership and can make it easier to recognize when your pet is experiencing a medical problem. Many pet owners have been awakened by the thumping sounds of their dog’s leg scratching their painful, itchy ears. In fact, one of the most common reasons pet owners bring their dog to the DVM is because their pet is experiencing problems with their ears. Lost sleep for both pets and pet owners can strain the human-animal bond and can affect your dog’s overall health and wellness. Although ear infections are less common in people, those who have been affected are familiar with the discomfort and may have also experienced temporary deafness or difficulty hearing, which can also occur in affected pets.
Anatomy of a dog ear infection
Your pet's ears are anatomically different from a human ear canal because their ear canal is a unique L-shape. The outer ear canal, which is the vertical part of the “L”, is the portion most easily visualized by pet owners. The deeper, or horizontal, portion of the canal is connected to your pet’s eardrum. This tubular portion of your pet’s ear carries sound to their eardrum and is known as the external canal. Inflammation of the external ear canal, or otitis externa, is the most commonly diagnosed ear disorder in dogs. Their long, uniquely shaped canal increases the chances of debris or bacteria becoming trapped. Pets who suffer from chronic or recurrent otitis externa also have an increased risk for problems in their middle ear canal (otitis media), or the inner ear canal (otitis interna), which can lead to neurological problems and permanent hearing loss in severe cases.
Risk factors and causes of dog ear infections
There are numerous common causes of ear infections in dogs, and in some cases, there may be multiple contributing factors. Any age, sex, or breed of dog can be affected, but breeds that have floppy ear flaps, large ear flaps, narrow canals, or excess hair in their canals have an increased risk. Commonly affected breeds include Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, cocker spaniels, poodles, schnauzers, German shepherds, terriers, and basset hounds. A small amount of bacteria and yeast is a normal finding in your dog’s ears. However, changes in the ear's environment, such as excess water, can disrupt the natural flora and lead to an increase in these microorganisms. The most common underlying causes for ear infections in dogs include allergies to the environment, food, or fleas. Other common underlying causes may include:
- Bacterial infection
- Yeast infection
- Viral disease
- Parasites (e.g., ear mites, mange mites)
- Endocrine disease (e.g., hypothyroidism )
- Foreign bodies (e.g., grass, foxtail)
- Autoimmune skin disease
- Excessive cleaning
- Ear polyps
Recognizing dog ear infection signs
The occasional ear scratch, or face rub on the carpet, may be a normal dog response to a temporary irritation. However, dogs who excessively scratch their ear(s), or who have a foul odor coming from their ears, may be suffering from an ear infection. Bring your dog for a veterinary examination if they are showing any of the following ear infection signs:
- Redness, swelling, or blood in or around the ear
- Black discharge (common with ear mite infections)
- Dark brown, dark yellow, or white discharge
- Crusting or ulceration in, or around, the ear
- Head shaking
- Ear flap swelling
- Pawing, scratching, or rubbing the ears
- Whining or attempting to bite when ears are touched
- Behavior changes
- Decreased appetite
- Decreased hearing, or sudden deafness
- Neurologic signs, including head tilt, circle, or abnormal eye movement (this may indicate otitis media or otitis interna)
Diagnosing a dog ear infection
An ear infection diagnosis is based on your dog’s symptoms and a veterinary otoscopic exam of the ear canal. Ear infections are painful, and some dogs may require a sedative or anesthesia to ensure a proper examination can be completed. Your veterinarian may take a swab of the ear debris to microscopically examine the cells lining your dog’s ear canal. Pets with recurrent ear infections may require additional diagnostics to determine the underlying cause, including an ear sample bacterial and fungal culture, allergy testing, blood tests to check overall health, and for underlying hormonal or immune-mediated diseases. Advanced imaging, including computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be recommended for dogs with associated neurological signs.
Treating a dog ear infection
Bringing your dog for a veterinary examination at the first sign of infection will ensure the most positive outcome for the resolution of symptoms. Ear infections will not resolve on their own, and without proper treatment will become more painful for your dog. Although it may be tempting to treat your dog’s ear(s) with a natural or over-the-counter (OTC) medication or cleanser, never place anything in your dog’s ear unless advised to by your veterinarian. Many popular home remedies, including vinegar washes, can irritate the ear canal and cause swelling or increase the production of secretions, which can promote bacterial or yeast infections. Additionally, many OTC remedies contain propylene glycol, which can exacerbate an already inflamed ear.
The goal of treatment is to reduce pain and swelling and address the underlying cause of the infection. Treatment is based on the underlying cause and severity. Most simple ear infections can be resolved with a professional cleaning and veterinary prescribed topical antibacterial and/or antifungal medication that is placed in your dog’s ear. However, if your dog has a ruptured eardrum, some commonly prescribed topical medications, like the aminoglycoside medication gentamicin, can cause ototoxicity or permanent deafness. So, never use any leftover, expired, or non-prescribed medication in your dog’s ear. Patience and regular veterinary checkups are essential to evaluate your dog’s healing because infections can take time to resolve, and some pets may require treatment for several weeks or months. Other ear infection treatments may include:
- Regular ear cleaning (avoid placing any cotton-tipped applicators in your dog’s ears)
- Anti-inflammatory medications, like prednisone, to decrease ear canal inflammation and relieve pain
- Oral antibiotics or antifungal medications
- Allergy shots and/or antihistamine medications
- Specialized allergy diet
- Hormone regulation medications
- Surgery to remove swollen ear canal tissue
Tips to prevent dog ear infections
Dog ear infections are not always preventable, especially in pets who have a genetic predilection or when the underlying cause cannot be identified. Regular veterinary care and frequently inspecting your dog’s ears for infection signs will ensure an early diagnosis and help prevent a more severe infection, which can lead to hearing loss or neurological problems. Other prevention tips include:
- Dry your dog’s ears after bathing or swimming.
- Regularly handle and look in your dog's ears. This decreases the chances of them resisting an otoscopic examination or required treatment.
- Support your dog’s skin barrier with nutritional supplements, like Native Pet Omega Oil.
- Support your dog’s overall immune health with good nutrition and supplements like Native Pet Allergy Chews
- Bring your dog for a veterinary examination at the first sign of an infection.
- Never place anything in your pet’s ears unless advised by your veterinarian.
- Provide your pet monthly preventive care to prevent mites, fleas, and other parasitic infections.
To read more about your dog’s health and wellness needs, visit the Native Pet blog.