Pet Care Blog

Ear Infections in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Dr. Kate Boatright
Associate Veterinarian, Speaker, Author - Penn-Ohio Veterinary Services and KMB Veterinary Media LLC
Female vet examines dog ear infection

Ear infections (known medically as otitis) are common in dogs of all breeds. They can be uncomfortable for your pet, and the excessive scratching and head shaking they often cause can lead to sleepless nights for the whole family. Thankfully, most ear infections can be easily treated by your veterinarian.

Read on to learn how to tell if a dog has an ear infection, what causes them, how to treat them, and how to prevent this unpleasant condition in pets.

Table of Contents

How do dogs get ear infections?

There are many causes of ear infections in dogs, but they’re commonly due to bacteria and yeast. These organisms typically live on the surface of normal skin in the ear canal without causing a problem. However, a change in the environment of the ear canal or ongoing inflammation can allow these organisms to overgrow, leading to infection.

Allergies are the most common underlying cause of ear infections in dogs. They often lead to excess wax production in the ear, creating a moist environment that is perfect for bacteria and yeast overgrowth. Excess moisture can also occur due to residual water in the canals after swimming or bathing. Foreign material, ear mites, and excess hair growth in the ear canal are less common causes of infection in dogs.

Ear infections are much more common in dogs than in humans due to the unique shape of the canine ear canal. No matter what the outside of the ear looks like, all dogs have a vertical and horizontal ear canal. These two canals form a “J” shape, making it harder for wax, water, and debris to exit the canal, resulting in increased moisture and irritation. Because this condition is caused by an overgrowth of the normal bacteria and yeast in your dog’s ear canal, ear infections are not contagious between dogs or other pets.

Most ear infections in dogs occur in the external ear canal (known as otitis externa). With chronic infections and inflammation, rupture of the eardrum (tympanic membrane) can occur and lead to infection in the middle ear. Middle and inner ear infections are less common in dogs and are often accompanied by neurologic changes due to the effect on nearby nerves. This article will focus on the more common otitis externa.

What does a dog ear infection look like?

In most cases, dog ear infections are easy to recognize and they may occur in one or both ears simultaneously. The most common signs of an ear infection in dogs include:

  • Redness of the ear flap (known as the pinna)
  • Discharge that can range from dry to moist and vary in color from black to yellow or white
  • Crusting on the ear flap
  • Excessive scratching at one or both ears
  • Head shaking
  • Odor
  • Pain, resulting in dogs being reluctant to have their ears handled

Red dog ear infected from allergies

If you notice any of these dog ear infection symptoms, consult your veterinarian. In some cases, excessive head shaking can result in a hematoma. This forms when the blood vessels between the cartilage and skin of the ear flap rupture. You may notice that all or part of your dog’s ear flap appears swollen if this occurs. While this can be very dramatic in appearance, most pets have more discomfort from the ear infection itself than a hematoma.

How to tell if your dog has an ear infection

Call your veterinarian and set up an appointment for evaluation. In most cases, even with a hematoma, this is not a pet emergency and can be handled by your primary care veterinarian.

Your veterinarian will perform a full physical examination and check for symptoms of a canine ear infection, including evaluation of the ears with an otoscope (the same special light and cone that your doctor uses to check your ears). In cases with extensive swelling and pain, your vet may not be able to fully assess the ear canals during the initial visit.

Typically, the veterinarian or technician will collect swabs from the ear to examine under the microscope. This will determine if the infection is caused by bacteria, yeast, or a mix of the two, so they can recommend the best medicine for your dog’s ear infection.

Because there are many causes of ear infections in dogs, your pet should be evaluated every time one occurs. Not all infections have the same underlying cause, and the treatment that worked for previous infections may no longer be appropriate for the current one. For patients with chronic otitis, additional diagnostics may be necessary and your veterinarian may recommend referral to a veterinary dermatologist to assist with treatment.

Vet examines dog ear infection

How to treat ear infections in dogs

The treatment for ear infection in dogs has multiple goals:

  1. First, antifungal or antibacterial medications are used to treat the infection itself.
  2. Second, the painful, itchy symptoms of infection will be addressed, often through steroids or other anti-inflammatory medications.
  3. Finally, your veterinarian will try to determine the underlying cause of infection to help prevent future recurrences.

Otitis externa is treated with topical medications. These products often contain a combination of antifungal agents, antibiotics, and steroids. Due to the limited blood supply to the external ear canal, oral antibiotics are rarely helpful unless the infection involves the middle or inner ear.

For some dogs, ear handling is stressful, especially when a painful infection is present. Fortunately, there are long-acting ear infection medications for dogs available. This means that medicine can be placed in your pet’s ear during their appointment and you will not have to do any topical treatment at home. Ask your veterinarian if this type of treatment is appropriate for your pet’s condition.

Your dog’s ears will usually be cleaned during their appointment to remove debris. In chronic cases or cases with significant pain and narrowing of the ear canal, your veterinarian may recommend sedating your pet to perform a thorough ear flushing. You may be instructed to clean your pet’s ears at home, depending on what type of medication your veterinarian uses to treat the ears. In cases where a long-acting medication is used, you should NOT clean the ears at home until instructed by your veterinarian to avoid removing the medication from the ear.

If your dog has developed a hematoma, your veterinarian will discuss treatment options. There are many ways to treat hematomas, including oral medication, surgery, and sometimes doing nothing at all.

Vet massages dog with ear infection

Is there a home remedy for dog ear infections?

Once an infection has developed, there is not a good at-home treatment option, though you may find many suggestions if you search online. While there are suggested home remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) ear flushes and ear mite treatments available at pet stores, these products will rarely clear a true ear infection.

Additionally, there is no way for you to know if your dog’s eardrum has ruptured because of the infection. Home remedies and OTC products can cause more harm if they enter the middle ear through a ruptured eardrum. The best thing you can do if you think your dog has an ear infection is schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.

How to prevent ear infections in dogs

There are ways to decrease the recurrence of ear infections. Routine ear cleaning is the best way to prevent ear infections in dogs, especially if your pet swims regularly, plays in the sprinklers, has allergies, or frequent infections. Your veterinarian may recommend a medicated flush. For some pets, an OTC product may be appropriate, but many of these products may be irritating, so you should always check with your veterinarian first.

Because allergies are the most common cause of ear infections in dogs, diagnosing and treating their sensitivity is another important part in your prevention strategy. If your pet has allergies, talk to your vet about the best way to manage their condition.

Can pet insurance help with ear infections?

Otitis is one of the most common pet insurance claims made for dogs. While a vet appointment for a single ear infection is not hugely expensive (usually $100-200), treatment of recurrent infections, management of chronic ear infections, treatment of hematomas, plus the diagnostics and treatments for allergies can be much more expensive, accumulating over time.

Investing in a pet insurance policy for your dog can give you the financial security to be prepared for every ear infection and help get your dog feeling more comfortable and infection-free faster.

Key Takeaways

  • Ear infections (otitis) are common in dogs due to the unique shape of their ear canal.
  • Otitis has many causes, but allergies are the most common underlying cause in dogs.
  • Ear infections are usually easy to recognize, and your pet should be evaluated by a veterinarian to diagnose
  • Treatment includes ear cleaning, topical medications to treat the infection, medication for pain and inflammation, and treatment of the underlying cause.
  • Home remedies and OTC products are not often effective at treating ear infections.
  • Pet insurance can help cover the costs of diagnosing and treating otitis. It is one of the most common pet insurance claims made for dogs!

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Kate Boatright, VMD

Dr. Kate Boatright
Associate Veterinarian, Speaker, Author - Penn-Ohio Veterinary Services and KMB Veterinary Media LLC

Dr. Kate Boatright, VMD, works as a small animal general practitioner, freelance speaker, and author in western Pennsylvania. Since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with her veterinary degree in 2013, she has worked throughout Pennsylvania as both a general practice and emergency veterinarian. Both in the clinic and outside of it, Dr. Boatright enjoys building relationships with her clients and educating pet owners on how they can keep their pets as healthy as possible. She loves being a veterinarian and educating students and colleagues on wellness, communication, and the unique challenges facing recent graduates. Outside of the clinic, she is active in many veterinary organizations, enjoys running, watching movies, and playing games with her husband, son, and cats.

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