How do I know if my dog has an ear infection?

Ear infections are no fun for anyone, pets included. Whether you’re dealing with a dog or human, the signs and symptoms of an ear infection can be pretty easy to spot. What can you do as a pet parent to ease the telltale discomfort that comes with an ear infection? 

We’re covering the basics of dog ear infections, home remedies to try, and helpful hygiene tips for your favorite four-legged friend.

Symptoms of ear infection in dogs

1. Pawing at the ear 
In the early stages of an ear infection, dogs will do their best to resolve the issue on their own. A common behavior is pawing at the ear, which is their attempt at removing the irritant and stopping discomfort. The ear is made of delicate tissue and cartilage, so pawing and scratching at the ear may cause unnecessary pain and injury to your pup. 

2. Head-shaking
If your dog won’t stop shaking their head, chances are there’s something in the ear that shouldn’t be there. Shaking the head–like pawing at the ear–might be your dog’s way of dislodging whatever is in the ear that’s bothering them.
Identifying Ear Infections in Dogs
3. Redness inside the ear 
Redness is a sign of inflammation, which is your dog’s body’s way of signaling that something is wrong–it’s also one of the easiest symptoms for a pet parent to spot! Redness inside the flap of your dog’s ear or around the ear canal are both clear signs of irritation and potentially infection. 
4. Odor
We’re not saying we know exactly what our dog’s ears smell like, but with an ear infection, the smell will be obvious and not pleasant. An infected ear area will smell unpleasantly sweet and musty, which is often characteristic of a yeast infection. Ears can also have a putrid smell when bacteria is present due to the pus formation. 
5. Discharge
Is there fluid or discharge coming out of your dog’s ear? Yellow, brown, or red (bloody) discharge likely means an infection is active and warrants immediate treatment. 

6. Pain
Is your pet whimpering while exhibiting other ear infection symptoms? Ear infections can be painful for your pet, and reactive behaviors like pawing and scratching can make the pain and tenderness worse. Some dogs will act head shy, others will rub their ears on surfaces to relieve the pain. 

6. Itching
One of the main symptoms of ear infections in dogs is itching, and it’s often the reason for scratching and head shaking. As part of the body’s inflammatory response, itching and redness often go hand in hand–so don’t be surprised if your pet is experiencing both simultaneously. 

7. Rubbing on surfaces
If your dog is desperate to scratch an itch, they may resort to rubbing their ear along things like furniture, carpet, or even on you to relieve the discomfort. 

8. Holding one ear lower
A lesser-known sign of ear infection in dogs is tilting the head or holding one ear down. This symptom can occur when a dog feels pain or pressure in the ear. Tilting the head or one ear appearing to sag lower than the other might be a sign of an ear infection, especially one that’s deeper inside the ear.


There are three types of ear infection in dogs: otitis externa (outer ear), otitis media (middle ear) and rarely otitis interna (inner ear). Infections of the outer ear are more common, while infections of the middle and inner ear can be more problematic. 

4 common causes of ear infections in dogs

When a dog is experiencing pain or discomfort in their ear, the most common culprit is otitis externa. This diagnosis is marked by inflammation of the outer ear, which includes your dog’s ear flap and ear canal. There are multiple causes of otitis externa, but the most common culprits are: 

Pets & People

The common term for otitis externa in humans is ‘swimmer’s ear’.

1. Water in the ear 
When water stays in a dog’s ear for too long, trouble won’t be far behind. Accumulation of water or moisture in the ear can lead to an overgrowth of yeast and bacteria, both of which can lead to infection. 

2. Environmental debris
It’s standard for people to wash their hands after being outside to avoid germs and organic debris. The same logic applies to your outdoor-loving pup. A dog’s ears will likely come into contact with plenty of environmental debris like dirt, plants, and dander or saliva from other pets.

3. Allergies
Allergens are a common cause of ear infections, and are especially troublesome for dogs with allergies. Foods, pollen and other allergens can cause inflammation and swelling in the ear, leading to wax buildup and overgrowth of bacteria and yeast, which can lead to infection in the ear canal. 

4. Floppy ears
While floppy ears aren’t a cause of ear infections, they can make a dog more susceptible to one. A good example is bathtime: if your dog has a bath and doesn’t have their ears dried completely, it’s possible that moisture could accumulate inside the ear. Floppy ears that cover the ear canal can prevent airflow and make it even more difficult for water to properly drain from the ear.
Common causes for ear infections in dogs


Ears are what give our pups their signature expressions and are a big part of their personality! Dog ears are gloriously diverse, and ear shape varies greatly between breeds. But what all dogs have in common is a deep, L-shaped ear canal. This makes them more susceptible to ear infections making good hygiene all the more important!

Home remedies & treatments for dog ear infections (and when to call the vet)

The best way to avoid an ear infection is by practicing good hygiene with your dog. Dogs can’t exactly tell us when they need an ear inspection, so we’ll have to compromise with a few best practices! Good ear hygiene for dogs can include:

  • Gently wiping out the ears after bath or swim time. Focus on cleaning the inside of your dog’s ear flap, entry to the ear canal, and the fur surrounding the ear with a soft towel or a drying ear wipe. This step is extra important for parents of floppy-eared pups!

  • Inspecting your dog’s ears after outdoor play. Looks for signs of environmental debris like dirt, thorns, bugs like ticks, or anything that doesn't belong in the ear. If you think debris has already entered your dog’s ear canal, use a gentle ear wash to flush the area. 

Cleaning a Dog's Ear to treat dog ear infections

First time giving your dog an ear flush? Whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned pro, it’s helpful to remember the basics: 

  • Create a calm environment for your pet. Jumping right into things can be stressful for your dog, so get them relaxed with gentle petting or snuggling before you begin.

  • Start by wiping down the area to prevent additional debris from entering the ear. Using an ear wipe can also acclimate your dog to the feeling of your touch–this is especially important if the area is already tender.

  • Apply the tip of the dog ear wash bottle to the ear canal and fill the entire ear canal with fluid. Then gently–but firmly–massage the base of the ear. 

  • Your dog will often shake out the excess fluid after this step. Then be sure to wipe out the excess fluid with a cotton swab, makeup remover pad or soft cloth and dry the ear flap to prevent residual debris or moisture from getting into the ear canal. 

If you suspect that your dog already has signs of an ear infection, there are a few home treatments that might help you keep symptoms in check until you can get to a vet:

  • If your dog is itching or experiencing redness and inflammation, try a vet-recommended antibacterial ear flush. Certain ingredients can help target uncomfortable symptoms for your pup! Chlorhexidine is a disinfectant that decreases bacteria in the ears, while Ketoconazole is an antifungal designed to treat yeast ear infections.

  • Keep the area free of wax, discharge, crust, and debris with a cleansing ear wipe that’s designed specifically for dogs.

If you don’t see improvement after a few days of home treatment, contact your vet for next steps. The same advice stands if you’re unable to administer home treatments on your own, or if your pet is experiencing new or worsening symptoms.

How vets treat an ear infection

It can be stressful taking your dog to the vet, especially if they’re in pain. Knowing what to expect can help you prepare yourself and your pet and can be helpful for keeping things calm when you arrive. 

So what should you expect when visiting the vet for an ear infection? 

At your visit, your veterinarian will likely begin by assessing your dog’s pain level by gently palpating the area around the ear. They’ll also do a visual inspection of the outer ear for signs of inflammation, discharge, or redness.

To get a better look at the ear canal, your vet might employ an otoscope: a magnifying tool that’s held inside the opening of the ear. They may also swab the area to examine under the microscope. This is called cytology and will allow them to diagnose whether an infection is present and if bacteria or yeast are causing the infection. 

In advanced or chronic cases of ear infection in dogs, your vet may prescribe topical ointments or oral antibiotics. They may also want to schedule a video otoscopy or CT scan to rule out more serious causes related to foreign objects or ear canal tumors. Biopsy may be recommended if the ear lesions are sterile and not caused by bacteria or yeast. 

While sometimes painful and uncomfortable for your pet, ear infections in dogs are fairly rare. You can keep ear concerns at bay with support from your vet and with the use of safe, vet-recommended home treatments. Keep an ear out for more pet health tips!

Putting the Vet in Vetnique

Joya Griffin, DVM, DACVD
Dr. Joya Griffin is an Ohio native and graduated from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. She has a special interest in fungal and immune-mediated skin diseases as well as feline and equine dermatology. Dr. Joya always strives to care for her patients as if they are her own pets and loves building long-lasting relationships with their pet parents. Dr. Joya also stars in the Nat Geo WILD television series, “Pop Goes the Vet with Dr. Joya,” which highlights the challenging and mysterious cases she encounters in veterinary dermatology.

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