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Dog Ear Infections
A Guide to Ear Conditions & Treatments for Dogs
Dog Ear Anatomy
Allergens are a common cause of ear infections and are especially troublesome for dogs with allergies. Food, pollen, and other allergens can cause inflammation and swelling in the ear. The result? Wax buildup and an overgrowth of bacteria and yeast can lead to infection in the ear canal.
Shih-Tzu Ear Issues
Are you looking for obvious dog ear infection symptoms? First, let’s do a side-by-side of a normal, healthy ear and a dog ear infection picture for reference:
Healthy dog ear
Infected dog ear
If you suspect your dog has an ear infection but aren’t sure what to look for, here are a few symptoms you could be seeing:
In the early stages of a dog’s ear infection, your pet will do their best to resolve the issue on their own. One common behavior is pawing at the ear, which means they’re attempting to remove the irritant and stop the 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 dog–which is why some dogs may whine while scratching.
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 is a clear sign of irritation and potentially infection.
A healthy dog ear won’t have any noticeable odor; with an ear infection, the smell will be obvious and distinctly unpleasant. An infected ear area will smell unpleasantly sweet and musty, which is often characteristic of a yeast infection. Dog ears can also have a putrid smell when bacteria is present due to the formation of pus within the ear canal.
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. Dog ear discharge can be easy to miss–especially if your pet’s ears are extra furry or floppy. Maintaining a regular ear cleaning schedule with a cleansing ear wipe for dogs can increase your odds of catching–and cleaning up–early signs of ear discharge.
A combination of discharge, redness, and a sickly-sweet smelling odor can all be signs of a yeast infection in the ear. If you suspect that’s the cause of symptoms, keep pictures of yeast infection in your dog’s ears to show to your vet for confirmation. In the presence of yeast, a dog ear infection picture might look a little something like this:
While you might recognize the common symptoms of dog ear infection, signs could be a bit more subtle. Dogs who are desperate to scratch an itch (or relieve painful pressure or throbbing in the ear) may resort to rubbing their ear along things like furniture, carpet, or even you to relieve the discomfort. While we love snuggles from our furry friends, this is likely a sign that they need our help clearing the ear!
A lesser-known sign of a dog ear infection is tilting the head to one side or holding one ear down. This symptom can occur when a dog feels pain or pressure in the ear and is often a sign of infection deeper inside the ear.
If dog ear issues and symptoms go untreated, your dog could be at risk for some even more painful complications–making early detection a big deal. Still, it’s possible that your pet’s signs were more subtle or the infection progressed rapidly, and now they’re left with more serious dog ear issues. What could be at stake?
If your dog has scratched their ear raw and bloody, injury and scarring can occur. The ear flap, aka the pinna, is very delicate. Skin, cartilage, and fur can all be damaged by excessive scratching and, in serious cases, aggressive scratching can lead to an aural hematoma. A hematoma happens when blood pools or collects in one area, making the ear look thick and spongy and requiring surgery to correct it.
What if your dog can’t stop shaking their head? Constant head shaking could give your dog unnecessary stress and anxiety, for one–and even make them more irritable. Head shaking can also affect their sleep and yours, especially if your dog wears a collar. In extreme cases, head shaking can also cause injury to your pet’s neck muscles or cause an aural hematoma.
A dog losing their hearing is potentially one of the scariest potential side effects of an ear infection. Trauma and blockages in the ear canal are two causes of hearing loss related to dog ear infections, which is why early detection and treatment are so important. Untreated otitis externa–ear infections of the outer ear–are most commonly linked to hearing loss in dogs.
For ear infections left untreated in the inner ear (otitis interna), there are other serious diagnoses to worry about. Your dog’s balance and coordination rely on a healthy equilibrium, which is affected by conditions in the inner ear. A loss of balance can put even the most youthful, agile dogs at higher risk of injury and dangerous accidents.
To prevent serious complications caused by your dog’s ear infections, you’ll need to employ a mix of home and veterinary care. Don’t worry–you don’t have to know how to pluck dog ear hair or stick a Q-tip in your dog’s ear in order to treat an ear infection at home! If you’re ready to dive in, check out these over the counter dog ear infection treatments:
One of the most effective ways to target bacteria in the inner ear is with medicated dog ear infection drops. A few drops can have a big impact on reducing inflammation, redness, or bacteria in the ear canal. The best ear drops for a dog’s ear infection will be made with hydrocortisone for a more effective treatment.
Ear flushes can be used at the first sign of infection, or used preventatively for drying and cleaning the ears if you suspect your dog has been in an environment that puts them at higher risk for contracting an ear infection. Antifungal and antibacterial ear flushes usually contain medicated active ingredients that help rinse away debris while treating symptoms of irritation deep within the ear.
When treating your dog’s ear infection, medicine might be necessary. Your veterinary provider might prescribe antibiotics for a dog’s ear infection if the cause is bacterial, especially if symptoms are persisting and you’ve already tried medicated drops, ear flushes, and other treatments at home.
Wondering how to clean your dog’s ears without causing a panic, or which tools you should use to safely clean dog ears at home? When used regularly, these vet-recommended tips and tools could be your ticket to preventing dog ear infections:
When should you clean your dog’s ears? If you’re wondering how to clean a dog’s ear infection, a good rule of thumb is to do it after water play, outdoor play, or social play (dog parks, play dates). Here’s how to practice better ear hygiene with your dog:
Gently wipe out the ears after swim or bath 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!
Inspect 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.
Wipe down your dog’s ears after visits to the dog park or any area where they interact with other animals. Bacterial or viral pathogens, parasites, and allergens passed from other animals can be impossible to see with the naked eye, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Your dog may not love having their ears handled, and we can’t really blame them–especially if the ear is feeling tender! To maintain your dog’s ear health and hygiene, you might need to give them a calming behavior supplement to help them cooperate. Giving them a calming chew 30-60 minutes before a routine ear cleaning might be the missing link to making things easier for you both!
One of the easiest ways to clean your dog’s ear is with an ear wipe. The type of ear wipe you use might depend on the size and shape of your dog’s ear. Breeds with short or pointy, upright ears can use standard dog ear cleaning wipes. For pet parents with breeds like Basset Hounds or Bloodhounds, an extra large ear wipe will help you reach every surface of your furry friend’s long, floppy ears.
Wondering how to clean a dog ear infection at home? A dog ear rinse could be your first treatment to try! Is it your first time cleaning your dog’s ear with an ear flush? Whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned pro, it’s helpful to remember the basics:
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.
At your visit, your veterinarian will start by gently palpating (touching) the area around the ear to assess your dog’s pain level. They’ll also check for signs of inflammation, discharge, or redness with a visual inspection of the outer ear.
To get a closer look inside the ear canal, your vet might use an otoscope: a magnifying tool that’s held inside the opening of the ear. They may also swab the ear flap or opening of the ear canal to examine under the microscope. This is called cytology, which allows them to diagnose 1) whether an infection is present and 2) 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. In some cases, they may also want to schedule a video otoscopy–a procedure in which a thin, flexible camera is inserted into the ear canal to view the inside of the ear canal. Depending on your pet’s comfort level with having their ears touched, they may need to be sedated to ensure their safety during the procedure.
CT scans may also be recommended to rule out more serious causes related to foreign objects or ear canal tumors. Biopsy–a collection of tissue from the affected area–might be recommended if the ear lesions are sterile (not caused by bacteria or yeast), to rule out more serious conditions like cancer.
While dog ear infections left untreated can become serious, your dog will be pretty good about showing you early warning signs! Keep in mind that regular ear hygiene practices using ear wipes, ear flushes, and more can prevent most ear infections–and keep your dog’s ears perky and healthy!