Picture this: A dog with big, floppy ears stares up at you and tilts his head to one side. As dog owners and dog lovers, we all recognize this image as a sign of an attentive dog and a very good boy. But, it can also be a sign of something else — a dog ear infection

Ear infections are extremely common in dogs — even more so than in people — and a head tilt can be one of the signs. 

Sure, if you just said "Wanna go for a walk?" or "Treat?," that head tilt probably means exactly what you think it means. But, if your dog is regularly tilting their head to one side, especially at times when they aren't trying to communicate with you (like when they're resting), it might be time for a vet appointment. 

Learn to recognize the underlying causes of ear infections as well as the symptoms and treatment options. That way, you'll know when it's time to call your vet so you can help your furry friend find relief. 

What Causes a Dog Ear Infection

A true ear infection is caused by the growth of bacteria, yeast, or fungus in the ear canal. But, your dog's ear woes can also be caused by other conditions, including:  

  • Ear mites: Ear mites are more common in puppies than in adult dogs, but they are highly contagious. Ear infections are not. So, if multiple pets in your house are itching their ears, you'll need to take them all to the vet. Mites need to be treated in all your pets at the same time to ensure they don't keep getting passed back and forth.
  • Foreign bodies: Foreign bodies, like sand or grass seeds, that get stuck in your dog's ear canal can cause itchiness and inflammation, mirroring an ear infection. This initial itchiness and inflammation can then weaken the skin barrier in your dog's ears and lead to an actual ear infection.
  • Allergies: Like foreign bodies, environmental and food allergies can lead to itchiness and inflammation, opening the door for ear infections. Allergies are the most common cause of recurrent ear infections in dogs, so it's important to work with your vet to identify and address any underlying conditions.
  • Polyps and tumors: Polyps and tumors are both rare, but your vet will check for them if your dog is suffering from chronic ear infections.

In addition to underlying conditions, there are a few everyday causes of ear infections in dogs. Getting water trapped in the ear canal is a common cause of infections, so dogs that swim can be more prone to this issue. 

Dogs with floppy ears are also more prone to infections because their long ears trap water, dirt, and debris. And certain dog breeds, especially breeds with floppy ears or an overgrowth of hair inside their ears, get more infections. These breeds include: cocker spaniels, poodles, schnauzers, basset hounds, bloodhounds, golden retrievers, and setters.

The Types of Ear Infections in Dogs  

We've already mentioned that your pet's ears can get yeast, fungal, or bacterial infections. Determining which type of microbe is present in your dog's ear is essential for planning your dog's treatment, but the type of ear infection your dog has isn't related to the microbe. 

Instead, your dog will get diagnosed based on how far into the ear the infection has progressed, and there are three types of ear infections your dog can be diagnosed with: 

Most dog ear infections are otitis externa, and they're confined to the ear canal. But, if an outer ear infection goes untreated for too long, it can progress past the eardrum and into the middle and then the inner ear.

If this happens, it can lead to serious complications, including facial paralysis, partial hearing loss, and total deafness. It's important to be able to recognize the symptoms of an ear infection early so you can prevent its spread to the inner ear

What Are the Symptoms of a Dog Ear Infection?

Dog ear infection: dog shaking his head

The most common signs of ear infections include: 

  • Head shaking  
  • Pawing or scratching the ears
  • Red or inflamed skin in and around the ears
  • Tilting the head to one side
  • Whining or growling when the ears are touched 
  • A yellow or black build-up in and around the ears 
  • A foul smell  
  • Scabs in or around the ears 

If you notice any of these symptoms, call your vet to make an appointment. 

Can You Treat Your Dog's Ear Infection at Home? 

To treat an ear infection, you will need prescribed medication from a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM). Your vet will need to examine your dog to determine what type of microbe is causing the infection. Only then will they know which medicine to prescribe. 

Pet owners should never try to use rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide to treat an ear infection or clean a dog's ears. This can damage your dog's skin barrier and lead to additional problems. You should also never stick a cotton swab in your dog's ears because it can push debris further into the ear canal, creating a risk of rupturing the eardrum

But, if your vet isn't able to get you into the office right away, you can use an over-the-counter enzymatic ear solution from a local pet store while you wait. This may help ease itching and keep the infection from getting worse before you see the vet. 

If your vet can see you the same day, don't put any solutions in your dog's ears. Your vet will need a clear view into your dog's ear.

What to Expect at the Vet 

Dog ear infection: person putting medicine into a dog's ear

During your appointment, your vet will examine your pet's ears with an otoscope. This is the same device that your doctor would use to look in your ear. They will examine your dog's ear for foreign objects and make sure your dog's eardrum hasn't ruptured. Note: Many ear drops and topical medications can't be used with a ruptured eardrum.

They may also gently massage your dog's ear to determine how much pain your dog is experiencing. In severe cases, your dog may not let the vet examine them at all. In this case, your dog may need to be put under general anesthesia for the examination.

Next your vet will take a swab of your dog's ear, which they will use to determine which type of bacteria or yeast has infected your dog's ear. A yeast infection needs to be treated with different medication than a bacterial infection, and different types of bacteria may respond better to different types of antibiotics. 

Once your vet has determined the best course of treatment, they'll prescribe medication. Most external ear infections can be treated with topical medications, but some cases will also require oral antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications. You should never give your dog any human medications unless you're specifically directed to by your vet. 

If your dog has growled at you when you've tried to touch their ears, tell your vet — your pet may not let you put medicine in their ears. But, there are newer medications that your vet can apply once and they will stay in your dog's ear, continuing to provide treatment for weeks.  

How to Prevent Ear Infections in the Future

Ear cleaning solutions can help prevent some ear infections. Choose a cleanser with antifungal and antimicrobial properties, like an enzymatic cleaning solution from the pet store or from your vet. You should also look for a solution that includes a drying agent, especially if your dog is a frequent swimmer. 

Squeeze the solution into your dog's ear canal and gently massage your dog's ear until you hear a squishy noise. This sound means the solution has made it down to the bottom of the ear canal

You can also put a little solution on a cotton ball to clean your dog's external ear, but don't stick any cotton balls, tissues, or cotton swabs down into your dog's ear canal. If you do, you could damage the ear canal or ear drum

Don't clean your dog's ears more than once a week. Too much cleaning can disrupt your dog's natural microbiome and destroy some of the good bacteria that help keep your dog's ears healthy. 

If you want to give your dog's ears more support between cleanings, try adding a probiotic supplement to their diet to support a healthy microbiome. If your dog suffers from allergies, you can support their immune system with an air-dried allergy supplement and these proven home remedies for dog allergies

Ease Your Dog's Ear Infections 

Person holding the ears of their dog

Dog ear infections are common, but you can help restore your dog's ear health, ease their pain, and prevent future infections. 

The first step in keeping your dog healthy is recognizing when something is wrong. If your dog is shaking their head, scratching their ears, or whining when their ears are touched, make an appointment with your vet. 

You can't treat an ear infection at home, but once your vet determines the right treatment for your dog, you can clear up their current infection and take steps to prevent future infections. 

To learn more about your dog's health and wellness, visit the Native Pet Blog.

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