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Dog Ear Infections: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Written and published by Tails 'N' Tummies

Dog ear infections are one of the most common (and frustrating) health issues that a pet owner may face. If you’ve ever owned a dog with chronic allergies, or if your own pup sports gorgeous, floppy ears, you may already be all-too familiar with the telltale signs of an ear infection.

While there may be numerous causes for a dog ear infection, the conformation of the ear, itself, has a lot to do with it. Your dog’s ear may be much more susceptible to infection than your own simply because of the shape of their ear canal. And while most your pet’s ear problems are entirely preventable, there can be serious consequences to their overall health if left untreated.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Ear Infections in Dogs?

Experts estimate that nearly 20% of dogs will combat some sort of ear-related issue during their lifetime. If you awake one day to find that your own pet is scratching his ears incessantly or shaking his head, he may be experiencing pain or irritation from an infection.

While there are a variety of dog ear infection symptoms that your own pet may display, some of the most common include:

  • Excessive itchiness
  • Redness of the ear itself
  • Dark-colored debris (usually brown, black, or yellow)
  • Foul smell
  • Head shaking
  • Incessant scratching of the ears
  • Head tilting
  • Head shyness
  • Swelling of the ear
  • Crusting or scabbing on either side of the ear flap

Types of Ear Infections in Dogs

A dog’s ear infection may be labeled as one of the following: Otitis Externa, Otitis Media, or Otitis Interna. Derived from the Greek words ōtós (“ear”) and -itis (“pertaining to”), the term Otitis literally translates to “inflammation of the ear”. The secondary descriptive words pertain to levels of severity and the actual location of the infection itself.

Otitis Externa

Otitis Externa is, without a doubt, the most common type of ear infection in dogs. This term is used to describe inflammation that affects the layer of cells lining the external portion of the ear canal. In humans, Otitis Externa is often nicknamed “Swimmer’s Ear” and describes an infection of the outer ear canal.

This type of infection, in dogs, can affect either one or both ears. And while it may develop spontaneously for some, it can be a chronic, long-term issue for others. Signs of Otitis Externa include head shaking, redness, odor, and more.

Otitis Media

Otitis Media is an uncommon type of infection for dogs. This term is used to describe inflammation of the middle ear canal (Media = Middle). Otitis Media usually develops secondary to Otitis Externa.

If a dog’s initial (outer) ear infection goes untreated, the inflammation may spread to the middle ear canal. It is for this reason that Otitis Media is typically referred to as an extension of Otitis Externa. Symptoms of this condition are the same as those of Otitis Externa, though some dogs may also develop partial hearing loss, facial paralysis, and more.

Otitis Interna

Otitis Interna is perhaps the most dangerous type of infection that a dog may develop. Fortunately, it is very rare in household pets. Otitis Interna is a term used to describe inflammation of the inner ear structure (closest to the eardrum).

This condition usually develops when an infection goes untreated for a significant amount of time. Symptoms of Otitis Interna, in addition to those previously listed, may include loss of balance or coordination, circling, leaning or falling, focal nystagmus, and hearing loss. Left untreated, this condition can also cause the development of corneal ulcers, permanent facial paralysis, Horner’s Syndrome, and more.

What Causes Ear Infections in Dogs?

Now that we understand the different types of ear infections that a dog may combat, we want to focus our attention on another commonly asked question: How do dogs get ear infections?

For most dogs, an ear infection is categorized as either a yeast-based or bacterial infection. When these specific elements make themselves at home in your dog’s ear, they use that space as a breeding ground. The presence of these elements in conjunction with inflammation can cause your dog’s ears to be itchy and sometimes painful.

Yeast

For dogs, yeast ear infections are incredibly common. Yeast is a spore-like type of fungi that reproduces in your pet’s ears and on their skin. A small amount of yeast is considered normal and healthy for your pet. However, the presence of yeast becomes a problem when it begins to produce uncontrollably. This is the root cause for most yeast-based dog ear infections.

Yeast are an opportunistic fungi and will begin to populate in areas of the body that they wouldn’t normally occupy (and in higher numbers) when your pet is sick or when his body is not in perfect balance. It is for this reason that pets with autoimmune disorders and allergies are more susceptible to yeast infections. Dogs with floppy ears are also more susceptible because the conformation of their ears traps yeast inside.

Common causes of yeast-based ear infections include:

  • Trapped moisture in the ears (usually caused by swimming, bathing, or ear conformation)
  • Allergies
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Thyroid dysfunction
  • Prolonged use of antibiotics

Bacteria

There are two primary types of bacteria that can cause an ear infection: Rods and Cocci. While it is entirely normal for small amounts of bacteria to reside in the ear, these elements begin to cause a problem when, like yeast, they populate uncontrollably.

When a buildup of debris occurs in the ear, or when the ear itself is compromised, these types of otherwise-harmless bacteria begin to overpopulate, leading to infection and inflammation. Learning which type of bacteria you are dealing with is key to proper treatment. This is usually done with an ear cytology (examining a swab of your pet’s ear canal under a microscope).

Common causes of a bacterial ear infection include:

  • Trapped moisture in the ears
  • Allergies
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Thyroid dysfunction
  • Buildup of debris

Ear Mites

While rare in adult dogs, ear mites are a common problem in young puppies. An ear mite is a microscopic creature that may inhabit your pet’s ear canal, feasting on debris. An infestation of ear mites may cause your puppy to have itchy or painful ears. He may also lose his balance more frequently and you may notice a foul odor coming from the ears themselves.

Ear mites are treatable, though highly contagious to other animals. If you suspect your own pet may be dealing with ear mites, we recommend calling your family veterinarian for further advice on diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

Preventing Ear Infections in Dogs

When it comes to ear infections, prevention is key to avoiding chronic, life-long issues. Since excess moisture is one of the leading causes of infection, one great preventative tip is to thoroughly clean and dry your own pet’s ears after each swimming or bathing session.

If your dog is prone to ear infections due to allergies or breed, we recommend routine ear cleaning and examination. This allows you to prevent future incidents or, when applicable, to catch a budding infection early-on. The earlier an infection is treated, the better off your pup will be.

As previously discussed, ear infections are a common and recurrent issue, especially for floppy-eared dogs or those prone to skin issues. Some of the most affected breeds include:

  • Basset Hounds
  • Cocker Spaniels
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
  • Pit Bulls
  • Poodles
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Beagles

How to Clean Dog Ear Infections

To clean your dog’s infected ears, gently pour a small amount of cleaner (purchased either through your veterinarian or a trusted pet supply store) directly into the ear canal. Massage the ear for 30-60 seconds, then allow your dog to shake his head. This shaking motion allows the debris, which has been loosened by the cleaner, to come to the surface of the ear. Using a cotton ball, gauze pad, or tissue, gently wipe the debris away.

It is important to note that most pet experts will advise owners NOT to use cotton swabs or cotton-tipped applicators when cleaning. Though the canal itself is L-shaped, barring access to the eardrum, the use of these types of applicators has, in many cases, been known to push debris further into the canal, which may cause further problems and increase irritation.

Dog Ear Infection Treatment

Now that we’ve learned the symptoms and causes of an infection, it’s time to learn how to treat dog ear infections. Fortunately, there are many great treatment options available.

When deciding the best course of action for your own pet, be sure to consider the degree of the infection itself (based on look, smell, and symptoms), your pet’s comfort level, and duration of the infection. While many pet owners have seen outstanding results from at-home treatment, you may consider involving your family veterinarian if and when the infection becomes serious, chronic, or painful.

Veterinary-Strength Medications

Taking your pet in for a visit with your family veterinarian is a great way to “cut to the chase” when it comes to treatment. To start, your veterinarian will likely perform a thorough physical exam. They will then take samples of your pet’s ear and examine them under a microscope. This process is called an ear cytology and is used to determine the type and degree of infection.

Once your veterinarian has clearly diagnosed the issue at hand, they may recommend starting your pet on dog ear infection medicine. If the infection is minimal, this may include a daily medication and a prescription-strength cleaner. If the infection is severe or if your pet is painful to the touch, they may recommend a course of antibiotics, steroids, or even pain relievers. Some infections may require multiple rounds of treatment to fully resolve the issue at hand.

Home Remedies for Dog Ear Infections

If a vet visit isn’t in the cards due to time constraints, budget, or lifestyle preferences, you may be asking yourself, “how do I treat a dog ear infection without a vet?”

Many owners will consider using a home remedy for dog ear infections. Some of the most popular and effective include:

  • Thorough, frequent ear cleaning
  • Administering cooled, brewed green tea into the ear with a cotton ball or gauze pad (do NOT pour directly into the ear
  • Cleansing with a small amount of Olive Oil or Coconut Oil
  • Cleansing with a small amount of diluted Apple Cider Vinegar
  • Administer a mixture of essential oils to the ear (recipe by The Natural Pet Doctor)

As you browse the internet for effective home remedies, many sources may recommend using Alcohol, Vinegar, or Hydrogen Peroxide to clean the ears. While the chemicals in these products may kill yeast and bacteria, they can also cause significant pain when applied to an already sensitive ear.

In addition, these products are primarily water-based and may worsen or prolong the infection itself. As we’ve learned already, water is a leading cause for ear infections in dogs.

Probiotics

As Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates once said, “all disease begins in the gut.”

Your pet’s gut health is essential to their overall wellbeing. And while the idea that all disease begins in the gut may be tough to prove, it is true that your pet’s gut health often acts as a gateway for the entire body.

Much of the prevention (and introduction) of disease begins in the gut and, yes, this relates to ear infections as well. The use of probiotics and other gut-healthy supplements can play an essential part in reducing inflammation, thereby alleviating much of the pain and discomfort associated with ear infections.

Probiotics are especially useful following a course of antibiotics, allowing your pet’s body to restore good bacteria. While antibiotics are often essential in fighting off infection, they can also weaken your pet’s immune system, leaving it defenseless against pesky bacteria that want to take up permanent residence in your pet’s body.

To Sum It All Up

Treating your pet’s ear infection can be a frustrating and tedious process. Fortunately, by familiarizing yourself with the telltale signs of infection and introducing preventative care into your pet’s routine, you can keep chronic ear issues at bay. This ensures that your pet continues to live a happy, pain-free life… floppy-eared or otherwise.

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