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Dog ear infection treatments: 10 things to consider

Vet technicians examining a dog's ears

Ear infections in dogs are common. Recognize the infection early and it's easier to treat. This means less pain for the dog and less expense for their owner. When it comes to dog ear infection treatment, there's no such thing as one size fits all. The difference between success and failure is knowing the cause and then using the right treatment for long enough. 

Types and causes of ear infections

Ever wondered why some dogs are martyrs to ear infections whilst others are rarely troubled by them? 

The reason is ear infections need a 'perfect storm' of conditions to flourish. There are many factors that decide whether an infection takes hold or not‚ÄĒbut add several at once and trouble's brewing!¬† While one factor alone (say pendulous ear flaps) may not be enough to cause infection, add in swimming and ear mites caught from a playmate and the perfect storm looms.¬†

Common causes of ear infections include:

  • Bacteria
  • Yeast
  • Parasites, such as ear mites
  • Allergic skin disease
  • A warm, humid environment (such as the dog with heavy, drop ears)
  • Water in the ear canal

There are also different types of ear infections. The most common type involves the ear canal itself and is called 'otitis externa.' Left untreated (and for other reasons), deeper infections can set in to the middle ear chamber or inner ear. These can cause problems with balance and hearing and are beyond the scope of this article. 

Common symptoms of ear infections in dogs

Signs of infection to be alert for include: 

  • A bad smell from the ear
  • Redness¬†
  • Pain when the ear is touched
  • Holding the head on one side
  • A discharge from the ear
  • Going off food
  • Grumpiness

Some of these are general signs which are clues the dog has a problem of some sort. If in any doubt it's best to get the dog checked by a vet. They will scope out the problem by using an otoscope to look deep into the ear canal. 

10 treatments for dog ear infections

Dog ear infection treatment varies, depending on the cause. Here are 10 ways to get to grips with this painful condition.

1. Remove any foreign bodies

No amount of antibiotic will clear an ear infection if there's something lodged deep in the ear canal. In the summer, grass awns do just this and removing them is a highly effective dog ear infection treatment.

2. Clean away the ear discharge

Some ear infections cause a heavy discharge from the ear canal. Cleaning away this discharge is an important part of dog ear infection treatment. Not to do so is like trying to polish a pair of dirty shoes‚ÄĒit just makes the mud shiny. Only by removing the gunk can the medicated treatment get where its action is needed. For severe infections where the ear is painful, this cleaning may need to be done under sedation.¬†

3. Ear drops

Ear drops are often prescribed to treat dog ear infections. Like directing an army into the heart of enemy territory, the medication is dropped into the center of the battle. It's important the antibiotic is the right one to kill the bugs causing that infection. Many ear drops are 'broad spectrum' and kill most of the common bacteria. But there are times when treatment fails because the infection is due to an unusual bacteria or one that is resistant to that antibiotics. 

4. Swab the ear

Some dogs get infection after infection. One reason may be the bugs present are resistant to a standard antibiotic and the original infection never 100% clears up. These guys need their ears swabbed for culture. This involves the vet inserting a special type of cotton tip into the ear, then  sending the swab off to a lab to grow the bugs and test which antibiotic kills them. This allows targeted dog ear infection treatment that will work. 

5. Depot treatments

Ear infections are painful, which can make it difficult to put drops in twice a day. Vets now have depot ear treatments that work for up to two weeks at a time. These are a gel applied to the ear canal by the vet and left to work for one to two weeks. This means the sore ear is soothed 24/7 without the need to touch it.

6. Get more air into the ear

Many of the bacteria guilty of causing ear infections hate air. They thrive in the muggy, low-oxygen environment of the ear canal, which is one reason spaniels and other breeds with heavy, drop ears are prone to ear infections. It's not elegant, but try holding those long ears up out of the way with a soft scrunchie. Failing that, when the dog is sleeping simply flip the ear flap up to expose the entrance ear canal and let in that healing air. 

7. Remove risk factors  

Water in the ear canal softens the skin and makes it easier for bugs to set up infection. Thus, swimming is a risk factor for ear infections. Some owners mistakenly use water to clean their dogs ears, which can do more harm than good. A wise owner only uses an ear cleaner designed for use in pets. 

Another risk factor for ear infections is contact with other pets that have ear mites. These pesky critters love to be shared around, so wash pet bedding and use an anti-parasite treatment on all their close buddies. 

8. Control allergies

Regular ear infections can be a symptom of allergic skin disease (not so weird given that the ear canal is lined with skin). Get to grips with the allergy and ta-dah... the ear infection settles down. 

Food allergy is one possibility, so talk to a vet about switching to a hypoallergenic diet. There are also many great therapies for controlling allergies, which could be the right dog ear infection treatment for the four-legger with allergic skin disease. 

9. Examine under sedation

Some ear infections are difficult to get to grips with, and these may need an examination under sedation. Not only does this allow pain-free swabbing and cleaning, but it allows for a deeper, in-depth exam, sometimes with an endoscope. This can gather vital information that unlocks the mystery of why that infection won't go away. 

10. Surgery

As a last resort for dogs plagued by painful ear infections, surgery may be the answer. There are several different surgical procedures, and the vet will carefully assess which will give the best result for that patient. But be aware, sometimes even the best surgery can offer is to make dog ear infection treatment easier, rather than a guarantee the dog will never get another infection. 

Listen up! Get into the habit of lifting those doggy ear flaps and checking for infection. Remember, soonest sorted, quickest mended! Woofs to that.

The article was written by Pippa Elliot, BVMS, MRCVS on December 11, 2020.

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