Dog Ear Infections

A Guide to Ear Conditions & Treatments for Dogs

dog itching ear with ear infection

Is your dog’s ear red, tender to the touch, and leaving your poor pet in pain?

Is your dog’s ear red? Maybe your dog scratched their ear raw and now it seems tender to the touch, leaving your poor pet in pain. If these symptoms sound familiar, you could be dealing with a dog ear infection–but how can you be sure, and when should you enlist your vet for help?

We’ll tell you how to treat dog ear infections at home while sharing insights on how to better prevent infection based on symptoms, ear shape, and more.

What Causes Dog Ear Infections?

To better understand (and anticipate) dog ear infection causes, it will help first to understand what ear infections are. A dog’s ear infection is a sign that foreign materials or pathogens have entered the ear, and a) have been there for too long or b) can’t find a way out. There are three types of ear infections in dogs: otitis externa (outer ear), otitis media (middle ear), and in rare cases, otitis interna (inner ear).

dog ear anatomy

Dog Ear Anatomy

When a dog is experiencing pain or discomfort in their ear, the most common culprit is otitis externa–causing inflammation of the ear flap and ear canal. There are multiple dog ear infection causes, but common culprits are:
Water in the Ear
When water stays in a dog’s ear for too long, issues can arise quickly. When water or moisture accumulates in the ear it can lead to an overgrowth of yeast and bacteria, both of which can lead to infection.
    Environmental Debris
    Humans wash and shower after being outside to avoid germs and organic debris; the same logic applies to your outdoor-loving dog! A dog’s ears come into contact with a variety of environmental debris including dirt, plants, and dander or saliva from other pets.
    Allergies

    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.

    Floppy Ears
    While floppy ears aren’t exactly a cause of dog ear infections, they can make certain breeds more susceptible to one. A good example is bathtime: If your floppy-eared dog doesn’t have their ears dried completely after bathtime, it’s possible that water could get trapped inside the ear. Floppy ears that cover the ear canal can prevent airflow, making it even more difficult for water to completely drain from the ear.

    Which Dog Breeds Are Most At Risk for Ear Infections?

    Shih-Tzu Ear Issues

    Shih-Tzus are known to be plagued by ear infections due to the floppy, furry anatomy of their ears. They’re also a breed that’s familiar with allergies–another common risk factor for ear infections.

    Bloodhounds

    Bloodhounds–with their lovably squishy faces and puppy-dog eyes–are prime candidates for ear infections. This is thanks to their long, floppy ears, which tend to trap moisture inside the ear canal.

    Basset Hounds

    Just like Bloodhounds, these lovably droopy-faced dogs have long, floppy ears that prevent proper drying when moisture gets inside the ear.

    Coonhounds

    Coonhounds are a breed with a long history of swimming and outdoor play–meaning they’re no stranger to ear infections. They also have floppy ears, which make cleaning their ears after outdoor adventures a necessity for pet parents.

    Irish Setter

    Irish Setters have floppy, furry ears and a tendency toward atopy–a combination that breeds perfect conditions for an ear infection. Keeping Irish Setter ears clean and dry after water play or outdoor play will be especially important in supporting otic health.

    Dachshund

    Both long and short-haired Dachshunds can be at a higher risk for ear infections thanks to their folded ears. Keep an eye out for wax buildup and do regular ear cleanings with your Dachshund at least once a month.

    Signs & Symptoms of Ear Infection in Dogs

    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

    Healthy dog ear

    dog with ear infection

    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:

    My dog is scratching his ear

    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.

    My dog’s ear is red

    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.

    My dog’s ear smells

    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.

    My dog’s ear has 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. 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:

    dog ear infection with yeast
    Dog ear infected with yeast

    My dog is rubbing their ear on things

    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!

    My dog is holding one ear lower than the other

    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.

    Dog Ear Infection Complications and Diagnoses

    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.

    Common Ear Infection Treatments & Relief

    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:

    Dog Ear Infection Drops

    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 Wash, Flush, or Rinse

    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.

    Antibiotics

    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.

    At-Home Tips for Preventing Dog Ear Issues

    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:

    Regular Ear Cleanings

    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.

    Calming Supplements

    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!

    Dog Ear Wipes

    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.

    Dog Ear Rinse or Flush

    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:

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

    Ear Care Products

    Contacting Your Vet if Ear Infections Persist

    If you’ve tried every dog ear infection home remedy and are still watching your dog struggle with otic discomfort, it’s time to call your veterinarian. But what can you expect–and prepare your dog for–when visiting the vet for an ear infection?

    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!

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