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The ultimate guide to dog ear infections

People examining a dog's ear

Dog ear infections are common — really common. Do you know that one in five will suffer a dog ear infection? But here's the rub. An infection caught early often settles down without drama, whereas untreated, there are serious consequences for the four legger and big vet bills for the owner. So the wise pet parent is clued up about dog ear infections and knows what to do about them. 

Types of dog ear infection

Everyone knows that ears are important for hearing, but rarely spare a thought for their other role to do with balance and keeping the pet on their paws. From the tips of those velvety ear flaps (which focus sound) to the depth of the inner ear chamber (containing the balance organ), each part of the ear has its own special role. This also means that dog ear infections are divided into groups depending on which part of the ear is affected. 

Otitis externa

When an owner talks about a dog ear infection, they usually mean otitis externa—or an infection of the outer ear canal and ear flap. These are the 'outside' parts of the ear that can be seen with the naked eye or an otoscope (the instrument a vet uses to look into the ear canal). This is this type of infection we are sounding out in this article. 

It is important to treat otitis externa in dogs promptly, not only to prevent pain and discomfort but because an untreated infection may track deeper to become otitis media (or worse, otitis interna). 

Otitis media

If a regular ear infection gets a grip, the eardrum may rupture and the nastiness may spread into the middle chamber of the ear (known as otitis media). This causes the mother of all earaches, plus the little bones vital for hearing now sit in a soup of infection. Dogs suffering from this type of infection are not happy—indeed, they are often off their food and feel really ill. These guys need antibiotics, and sometimes a surgical procedure to flush the badness out of this important chamber. 

Otitis interna

Next-door neighbour to the middle ear, and deeper still inside the skull, is a bony chamber that is home to the balance organ. If it becomes inflamed or infected, the signs can be similar to a stroke or the dog staggers as if drunk and struggles to stand. Even with treatment, permanent harm may be done, so otitis interna is best avoided.

Some words of caution for those thinking of treating a nasty ear infection at home: if the eardrum is ruptured, putting cleaner or drops into the ear canal can have unintended consequences. If fluid seeps into the deeper chambers, this creates inflammation, loss of  balance, and a head tilt. This is why it's wise to visit the vet and have them check the eardrum is intact before starting therapy. 

What causes ear infections in dogs?

Think of infection and we think of bacteria as the villains—but yeasts and ear mites can also be the culprits. 

Here's a thing. A healthy ear is good at fighting off infection because of the skin's immune system. So  for many dogs, especially those with a rumbly-grumbly problem, infection only gets hold if the skin's defences are outwitted. For example, spaniels with their heavy drop ears are martyrs to ear infections because those earflaps stop air circulating and create a warm, moist ear canal that's the ideal home for bugs. 

Other causes of dog ear infections include: 

  • A foreign body, such as a grass awn, in the ear canal
  • Swimming (water in the ear)
  • Skin allergies
  • Ear mites
  • Heavy ears that cover the ear canal
  • A weak immune system because of ill health
  • Narrow ear canals

Does my dog have an ear infection? 8 common symptoms 

In order to seek veterinary treatment, you need to recognize the signs of a dog ear infection. So what does a dog ear infection look like?

  1. Scratching: It's normal to scratch a little, but scratching a lot is not… neither is head shaking.
  2. A bad smell: If you sniff the ear does it make you gag? If it does, chances are there's an infection present.
  3. A discharge: A small amount of earwax can be normal, but large amounts or a thick black wax or sticky discharge is absolutely not normal. 
  4. Reddened or thickened skin around the ear.
  5. One ear looks different to the other: Compare both ears, if the canal looks narrower or the skin redder, then bingo, you've tracked down a problem
  6. Head tilt: Moving up a notch now, a head tilt indicates a very sore ear.
  7. Pain or grumpiness: Ear aches are miserable and can cause changes in temperament because of the pain.
  8. Loss of appetite: Another general clue that something isn't right, and it's good to rule a dog ear infection on or off the list of causes. 

The above are clues that something is wrong, but leave the actual diagnosis to the vet. If you become suspicious of an ear infection, the vet is best placed to sort the issue quickly. 

Treatment for ear infections

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? What, you cry, has this to do with dog ear infections?

Finding the cause makes all the difference to ear infection treatment. A great example is a grass awn stuck deep in the ear canal. All the ear drops in the world won't work until the foxtail is removed. 

If there's nothing stuck in the ear and this is the dog's first infection, the vet may treat it with medicated ear drops. There are lots of options out there that work against different bacteria, yeast infections, or ear mites. And for the head-shy dogs out there, the great news is there are also slow-release ear preparations the vet inserts into the ear canal that work for one or two weeks… and you don't need to do a thing. 

For the pet pal that gets repeated ear infections, a work-up may be necessary. This often means sedating the dog to get a good look into that painful ear, collect samples for culture, and flush the ear clean. 

Can you prevent future infections?

How do you reduce the risk of future flare ups?

First, a sensible thing is to check the ears daily. In the early stages of infection, a good ear cleaner designed for use in dogs may be enough to clean the ear and get rid of the nasties. However, if there's lots of discharge and you find yourself cleaning the ears several days in a row, have the vet check the ears. 

For our drop-eared dogs, try and improve the air flow into the ear. Simple things such as flipping the ear flap back when the dog is asleep may help. Also, consider clipping the underside of the ear flap to let more air in. 

Remember the perils of water in the ear canal? If your dog is a water pup and you can't stop them swimming, then pop in some doggy ear plugs before they dive in. Likewise, keep water away from the ears when bathing the dog.

And last, but not least, want to know a secret? Many dogs with recurrent ear infections have an underlying skin allergy. Identifying allergy as an issue and then treating it often makes a world of difference when it comes to prevention. 

Dealing with chronic ear infections

Some dog ear infections just refuse to settle down. If this is, there are a number of ways to help your pet pal. 

  • Discuss the pros and cons of ear hair plucking with your vet
  • Discuss the pros and cons of regular ear cleaning with your vet
  • Swab the ear for culture and sensitivity
  • Have the vet run cytology on the discharge from the ear
  • Investigate any underlying allergy
  • Consider referral to a specialist
  • And as a last resort… surgery

Most important of all, dog ear infections are common but should be treated promptly. If you suspect your pet pal has a problem, please get them checked by a vet.

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