Dog diving underwater in a pool at risk of swimmer's ear

As summer approaches and the weather heats up, many dogs and their parents head to the water for some refreshing fun. Whether it's a trip to the beach, a dip in the pool, or simply playing with the garden hose, water activities are a great way for your furry friend to cool down and enjoy themselves! While these activities are enjoyable, they can also pose a risk to your dog's health––specifically, to their ears. 

Water in a dog's ear can lead to discomfort and even infections if not properly managed. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean your pup needs to avoid swimming or water play this summer! In this blog, we will explore what dog swimmer ear is, how to recognize it, and most importantly, how to prevent and treat it to ensure your pet stays happy and healthy.

What is dog swimmer’s ear?

Dog swimmer’s ear or canine swimmer’s ear, also categorized as a type of otitis externa, is an infection of the outer ear canal that often occurs when water gets trapped in a dog's ear. A moist environment creates the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and yeast, leading to an ear infection in dogs. Unlike humans, dogs have an “L-shaped” ear canal, which makes it harder for water to escape once it gets inside. This trapped water in a dog’s ear can cause irritation and inflammation, setting the stage for an infection to develop.

Dogs who frequently swim or bathe are at a higher risk of developing this condition. However, it's not just limited to avid swimmers; any dog can get water in their ears during routine activities like playing in the rain or being washed. Knowing what dog swimmer’s ear is and how it develops is the first step in protecting your pet from this uncomfortable and potentially painful condition. 

Signs that your dog has water in their ear

Recognizing the signs that your dog has water in his or her ear can help you address the issue before it turns into a full-blown ear infection. One of the most common signs of ear infection is frequent head shaking or tilting. Dogs will often shake their heads vigorously in an attempt to dislodge the trapped water. If you notice your dog doing this after swimming or bathing, it's a good indicator that they may have water in their ear.

Another sign to look out for is scratching at the ears. If your dog is constantly pawing at their ears or rubbing them against furniture or the ground, it could be a sign that they are experiencing discomfort due to water in their ear. Additionally, you might notice a change in your dog's behavior, such as increased irritability or reluctance to have their ears touched, due to discomfort. HI QUINN!

Lastly, a telltale sign of water being trapped in the ear is the presence of unusual odors coming from your dog's ear. This smell is often caused by bacteria or yeast starting to grow in a moist environment, and it can be an early warning sign of an impending infection.

Dog shaking head to get water out of the ear

Symptoms of a dog having water in their ear

When a dog has water in their ear, they may exhibit several symptoms that indicate discomfort or the beginning stages of an infection. Apart from head shaking and scratching, you may observe redness and swelling in the ear canal. This inflammation is a result of the body's response to trapped water and excessive moisture and can cause significant discomfort for your pet.

Another symptom to watch for is discharge from the ear. This discharge can vary in appearance, ranging from clear fluid to yellow or green pus, depending on the severity of the infection. If you notice any discharge, it's essential to consult your veterinarian as it may indicate that the water in your dog’s ear has led to an infection.

Pain and sensitivity are also common symptoms. Your dog may whine or yelp when their ears are touched or when they are scratching at them. They might also show signs of general discomfort, such as decreased appetite or lethargy. These symptoms are indicative of more serious issues and should be addressed promptly to prevent complications.

Can water cause dog ear infections?

Yes, water in a dog’s ear can indeed cause ear infections. The primary reason for this is that moisture creates an ideal environment for bacteria and yeast to thrive. When water gets trapped in the ear canal, it can lead to inflammation, which compromises the natural defenses of the ear. This allows bacteria and yeast to multiply unchecked, resulting in an infection.

Dogs with floppy ears, such as Cocker Spaniels and Basset Hounds, are particularly susceptible to ear infections caused by water in the ear. Their ear flaps cover the ear canal, creating a dark, warm, and moist environment that is perfect for microbial growth. Additionally, dogs with allergies or existing skin conditions are also at higher risk, as these conditions can further weaken the ear's defenses against infections.

It's crucial to address any signs of discomfort or infection early on to prevent more serious complications. Left untreated, ear infections can lead to chronic issues, including hearing loss and persistent pain. Regular ear checks and proper ear care are essential in preventing these infections, especially for dogs that love to swim or play in the water.

Hand holding circular wipe for drying water in dogs ear

How to protect your dog from ear infections & swimmer’s ear

Preventing ear infections and dog swimmer’s ear involves a combination of proactive measures and regular ear care. One of the most effective ways to protect your dog is by using dog swimming or bathing ear protection. Earplugs or ear wraps can help keep water out of the ear canal during swimming and bathing sessions but are not always practical. Ear wraps can be a more comfortable alternative since most dogs won’t tolerate earplugs.

After your dog has been in the water, it's important to dry their ears thoroughly. Use a soft, dry towel to gently pat the ears dry, and consider using a dog-friendly ear drying solution or drying ear wipes. These solutions are designed to evaporate excess moisture and prevent the buildup of bacteria and yeast.

Regular ear cleaning is another crucial step in preventing ear infections in dogs. Use a veterinarian-recommended ear cleaner to remove dirt, ear wax, and debris from your dog's ears. Be gentle and avoid inserting anything deep into the ear canal, as this can cause injury. Consistent ear cleaning helps maintain a healthy environment in the ear and reduces the risk of infections, especially in highly susceptible dogs.

Lastly, keep an eye on your dog's ears and be vigilant for any signs of discomfort, irritation, or infection. Early detection and treatment are key to preventing serious issues. If you notice any symptoms, consult your veterinarian for advice and appropriate treatment.

Other causes of ear infections in dogs

While water in a dog's ear can be a common cause of ear infections, other factors can contribute to this condition. Allergies are a major culprit. Dogs can be allergic to various substances, including pollen, dust mites, and certain foods. These allergies can cause inflammation and excess ear wax production in the ear, leading to an increased risk of infection.

Parasites, such as ear mites, can also cause ear infections. These tiny creatures can irritate the ear canal and cause inflammation, which can lead to a secondary bacterial or yeast infection. Regular check-ups and maintaining good hygiene can help prevent infestations and subsequent infections.

Another factor is foreign objects. Dogs, especially those that spend a lot of time outdoors, can get small objects like grass seeds trapped in their ears. These objects can cause irritation and create an environment conducive to infection. Regularly inspecting your dog's ears and removing any foreign material can help prevent issues.

Lastly, underlying health conditions such as hypothyroidism or autoimmune diseases can predispose dogs to ear infections. These conditions can affect the body's ability to fight off infections and maintain healthy skin and ear tissue. If your dog has a chronic issue with ear infections, it’s important to consult your veterinarian to rule out any underlying health problems.

The bottom line is that while water activities are a great way for your dog to enjoy themselves, it's essential to be aware of the potential risks associated with water in your dog's ear. By understanding the signs, symptoms, and preventive measures for dog swimmer’s ear, you can ensure that your furry friend stays healthy and happy. Regular ear care, proactive protection, and early intervention are key to preventing ear infections in dogs and keeping their ears in top condition. If you have any concerns about your dog's ear health, don't hesitate to consult with your veterinarian for guidance and support.

This blog exists to provide general information and education about veterinary health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this blog, website, or in any linked materials is not intended as and should not be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. We cannot diagnose conditions, provide second opinions, or make specific treatment recommendations through this blog or website.

If you suspect that your pet has a medical concern, you should consult with your veterinary health care provider or seek other professional medical treatment immediately. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something that you have read on this blog, website, or in any linked materials.

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Written By a Vetnique Vet

Dr. Joya Griffin, DVM, DACVD

Dr. Griffin is an expert in veterinary dermatology, with a focus on helping pets and their parents cope with fungal and immune-related skin diseases. She’s also the star of the Nat Geo WILD television series, “Pop Goes the Vet with Dr. Joya.”

Veterinarian & Board Certified Dermatologist

Louisville, KY

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