You know something is wrong. Your dog is pawing at his ears, shaking his head and whining and his ears have a gunky discharge and a foul odor. It could be an ear infection.
According to the American Kennel Club, an estimated 20 percent of dogs have some form of ear disease, making it one of the most common reasons for a vet visit.1 While any dog can be diagnosed with an ear infection, certain breeds are at increased risk of the painful condition due to their long hair or the shape of their ears—we’re looking at you Basset Hounds, Golden Retrievers, and Beagles!2
What is a dog ear infection?
Your vet might use the term “ear infection” as a catchall for bacteria or fungi (or even parasites, like mites!) that cause inflammation in the ear. But there are three distinct kinds of ear infections, depending on where the infection is:
- Otitis externa affects the external portion of the ear canal
- Otitis media affects the middle ear
- Otitis interna affects the inner ear canal
Left untreated, otitis externa can spread, leading to otitis media and otitis interna, and can cause serious health issues, including loss of hearing.1
Why do dogs get so many ear infections?
Dog ear infections are the most common ear problem in dogs. In fact, ear infections are one of the most commonly claimed illnesses for owners with pet insurance.3
While some estimates indicate that up to 20 percent of dogs experience ear disease,1 additional research revealed that more than 7 percent of dogs were diagnosed with external ear infections (otitis externa) in a single year.2
Your dog’s breed also influences its likelihood of developing an ear infection. Breeds with pendulous ears (those that hang straight down from the head) have a higher risk of ear infection than breeds with erect ears.2
Breeds at higher risk for ear infection include:2
- Basset Hound
- Chinese Shar Pei
- Golden Retriever
Symptoms of ear infections in dogs
Most pet owners never have to wonder, “Does my dog have an ear infection?” because the signs are generally obvious, especially if you know what to look for. These are the most common symptoms of dog ear infections:1
- Wax buildup, which can look gray, brown, black or yellow
- Scratching or pawing at the ear
- Excessive head shaking
- Crusty ears
- Scabs in the ears
- Redness and swelling in the ear canal
- Foul odor
- Dark discharge
While most dogs have at least some of these symptoms, dog ear infections can be subtle, too. It’s important to check your dog’s ears for wax buildup, redness or odor that might not be immediately obvious.
What causes ear infections in dogs?
The underlying causes of bacterial and fungal ear infections in dogs are varied. These are some of the most common causes of dog ear infections:4
- Parasites: Ear mites, ticks and mange can all increase the odds of an ear infection in dogs.
- Allergies: If your dog has environmental allergies or allergies to food, fleas or certain medications, it could trigger an ear infection. In fact, almost 50 percent of ear infections are thought to be caused by underlying environmental or food allergies.3
- Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, including hypothyroidism, lupus, glandular disorders and tumors of the ear canal, have all been linked to higher rates of dog ear infections.
- Ear conformation: Dogs with excessive hair in the ear canals or narrower ear canals have an increased risk of developing ear infections because the canals don’t dry out as well. Floppy-eared dogs are also more predisposed to ear infections because the ear flap covers the canal and invites bacteria and fungus to grow.
- Environmental factors: Excessive moisture (from swimming or humidity in the air) and foreign bodies (such as plant material and sand) can both cause ear infections in dogs. Even excessive cleaning and rinsing of the ears, which can create mild trauma and increase inflammation, can be a culprit.
Diagnosing ear infections in dogs
Skip the home remedies for dog ear infections and schedule an appointment with the vet for an accurate diagnosis and dog ear infection treatment. Your vet will ask questions about the symptoms, history of ear infections, medications and exposure to possible risk factors like swimming, bathing and grooming.1
A physical exam to check your dog’s ears for redness, swelling, discharge and odor is also key to a proper diagnosis. Your vet might use an otoscope to look deep into the ear canal to ensure there is an intact eardrum and to rule out foxtails (a spiky grass) or other foreign bodies in the ear.
An ear swab may be used to collect a sample to evaluate under the microscope, called a cytology. Cytologies are needed to properly diagnose mites or bacterial or fungal infections. In chronic infections or bacterial infections that are resistant to treatment, an ear culture may be needed as well.
Treatment for ear infections in dogs
Ear infections are painful, and if left untreated, they can cause long-term damage and even hearing loss. Immediate and appropriate treatment is important, and following instructions from your veterinarian to clear up the ear infection can prevent it from becoming a chronic problem.1
Dog ear infection treatment starts before you leave the vet clinic. Your veterinarian will likely thoroughly clean your dog’s ears with a medicated cleanser and provide instructions for treating the ear infection at home.1
Medications will be recommended, depending on the cause. Fungal infections are generally treated with topical antifungals, while bacterial ear infections may require oral antibiotics. Anti-inflammatories are often indicated to help reduce the swelling, pain and itchiness associated with infections.
Treating underlying allergies, such as those to food, may be indicated as well. If there is a foreign body like a grass awn or foxtail, your dog may need to be sedated in order to remove it safely.
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Dog ear infection prevention
Some of the more common causes of ear infections can be prevented. While chronic and repeated ear infections can be frustrating, learning tips to prevent them can reduce the number of times you find yourself at the vet’s office for prescription ear meds. Take the following precautions to prevent ear infections from becoming a chronic problem:1
- Dry the ear canals: After bathing or swimming, use a towel to pat both sides of your dog’s ears to remove excess moisture that can cause ear infections. Use a product meant as an astringent in the canals to break the surface tension of water and dry them out.
- Manage allergies: Food and environmental allergies are major triggers for ear infections. Talk to your veterinarian about treatments, which might include switching to a new food or using prescription medication to keep allergies in check. Preventing allergic flares can prevent ear infections, too.
- Clean their ears: Using a dog ear-cleaning solution at home is a good way to prevent ear infections. In general, these cleaning solutions are antifungal and antiseptic, as well as drying. They can help remove excess debris from the canal, which can be a breeding ground for infectious organisms. Squirt a liberal amount of ear-cleaning solution into your dog’s ear canal, gently massage the canal to agitate the liquid and then wipe with absorbent gauze (not paper towels or cotton, which can leave fibers behind). Never use cotton swabs in the ear canal because they could push dirt and debris deeper into the ears, causing an infection.
- Consider surgery: Dogs with chronic ear infections, especially those with conformational ear issues, may benefit from surgery. A lateral ear canal resection removes one side of the external ear canal to enable better drainage and easier ability to medicate topically.5 In dogs with severely painful ear infections that are resistant to treatment, a surgery called total ear canal ablation and bulla osteotomy (TECABO) may allow for a more comfortable and infection-free life. The surgery involves removing the whole ear canal, including the diseased tissue and middle ear.6 With no ear canal or middle ear, there is nothing to become infected. While this seems drastic, it can greatly improve a dog’s quality of life if it cures painful ear infections.
From Pets Best
Remember, your dog’s ear infections won’t go away on their own. Early diagnosis and treatment are vital, and Pets Best Insurance can help when it comes to covering unexpected vet expenses. It’s important to provide the correct treatment and address the underlying causes to clear up the symptoms, relieve the pain and help your dog feel better.
1Racine, E. (2019, September 2). Dog Ear Infections: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and Prevention. American Kennel Club. www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/dog-ear-infections. Accessed October 17, 2022.
2O’Neill, D.G. et al. (2021, September 7). Frequency and predisposing factors for canine otitis externa in the UK – a primary veterinary care epidemiological view. Canine Medicine and Genetics. https://cgejournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40575-021-00106-1. Accessed October 17, 2022.
3Miller, W. et al. (2012, November 9). Diseases of the eyelids, claws, anal sacs, and ears. Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology, 7th ed. St. Louis, Elsevier Mosby, pp. 739-741: https://www.elsevier.com/books/muller-and-kirks-small-animal-dermatology/miller/978-1-4160-0028-0
4Koch, S. (2017, April 14). The Challenge of Chronic Otitis in Dogs: From Diagnosis to Treatment. Today’s Veterinary Practice. https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/dermatology/the-challenge-chronic-otitis-dogs-diagnosis-treatment. Accessed October 17, 2022.
5Bacon, N.J. (2018). Pinna and external ear canal. In Johnston S.A. and Tobias K.M. (eds.): Veterinary Surgery: Small Animal Expert Consult, 2nd ed. St. Louis, Elsevier Saunders, p. 2309: https://evolve.elsevier.com/cs/product/9780323320658
6Smeak, D.D. and DeHoff, W.D. (1986, March). Total ear canal ablation: Clinical results in the dog and cat. Veterinary Surgery. Volume 15 (2): 161: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1532-950X.1986.tb00197.x