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Shaking, whining, and more: Symptoms of a dog ear infection

Dog shaking his head

Anyone who has had an ear infection understands how painful this is. But ear infections in dogs are common, with one in every five dogs suffering from this problem. This means that when an owner knows what to look for and seeks help quickly, it’s music to a dog’s ears.

What are ear infections?

Mention 'infection' and most people's first thought is bacteria. Of course, while bacteria are a common cause of ear infections, they are not the whole story. Spare a thought for yeast infections, which are also common because all skin plays house to yeasts that make up its normal flora and fauna. Then if things get out of balance, this allows the yeast to set up camp as an ear infection. 

Other causes of infection are bugs—literally—such as ear mites. These little fellows are easily passed between pets and like to be shared around. And then there are problems such as a foxtail worming its way down the ear canal, causing irritation and setting up infection. So please hear the message that it's important to visit the vet at the first sign of dog ear infection symptoms. They can work out what's driving the problem. 

Three types of canine ear infections

Did you know that they are named by which part of the ear is infected? 

Although there are many different bacteria, yeasts, and mites that cause the actual infection, the infection is put into a category according to location (e.g., otitis externa, otitis media, or otitis interna). But don't be fooled by the fancy language, because this is simply a way of nothing where the infection is. 

For starters, let's demystify 'otitis.’ This simply means ‘inflammation of the ear.’ Externa simply means ‘external,’ media the ‘middle,’ and interna means ‘internal.’ So the three types of ear infections in dogs are: 

  1. Otitis externa: An infection of the external ear, which is the ear canal itself (the dark hole the vet peers down with an otoscope). 
  2. Otitis media: This is an infection of the chamber that sits beneath the ear drum. This is where the little bones of the hearing mechanism live, and infection here causes a doozy of a headache.
  3. Otitis interna: Deep to the middle chamber is a clever labyrinth that houses the balance organ. Infection here results in poor balance and motion sickness, among other things.

But don’t get too bogged down in the technicalities, because otitis externa is way more common than the other types of ear infection and what we're concerned with here. 

Risk factors for ear infections

Anyone who wonders why their furry friend seems plagued by dog ear infections should read on. 

Droopy ear flaps

There's a common expression about letting air get to a wound. These wise words reflect the fact that many bacteria hate exposure to air and do the bug equivalent of shrivelling up and dying. 

Those four leggers with prick ears, such as Frenchies or Boston Terriers, have wonderfully air-conditioned ears that discourage bacterial growth. But the opposite is true of dogs with floppy ears, such as Poodles, Cocker Spaniels, or Labradors. Those gorgeous velvet ear flaps cover the entrance to the ear canal, making it warm and airless—which is exactly what most bacteria need to thrive. Thus, drop-eared dogs tend to get more infections than other breeds. 


A big risk factor for some dogs is allergic skin disease. Don't forget the ear canal is lined by skin, so if this becomes inflamed because of an allergy, it is then less good at fighting off infection. 


Getting water into the ear canal is a double whammy. Firstly, the water weakens the skin's natural defences, and secondly it makes for  a more bug-friendly environment. Ta-dah! Instant ear infection.

Poor ear cleaning techniques

Following on from swimming, just as bad is cleaning ears with water or a product not designed for use in dogs. These damage the skin and do more harm than good. 

Foreign bodies

Grass awns or foxtails can find their way into an ear canal, cause irritation, inflammation, and infection. 

Hairy ear canals

Last but not least, the hot potato of hairy ear canals. There is much debate if hair in the ear canals contributes to infection. Long story short, plucking can do more harm than good… so unless the vet advises ear plucking, leave those hairy ears alone. 

7 common ear infection symptoms

How does an owner know if their dog has earache? What are the dog ear infection symptoms? 

  1. A bad smell: Don't be bashful—lift those ear flaps and sniff. Smells bad? This is one of the most common dog ear infection symptoms. 
  2. A discharge: Is there a sticky discharge or lots of wax coming from the ear canal? Again, lift the earflap and have a look. Ear infections and a discharge go together like bread and butter. 
  3. Ear scratching or head shaking: In the early stages of an infection the dog may scratch their ear more than usual or shake their head. As the infection gets worse, this may stop as it becomes too painful. 
  4. Holding the head to one side: Does the dog look lopsided? Spending a lot of time with one side of the head lower than the other is a one of the dog ear infection symptoms not to be ignored. (And for anyone wondering, it's the sore ear that's lower.) 
  5. Short temper or screaming: Ear infections are painful. This may show up as the dog that snaps when an owner tries to touch their ear or else the dog yelps. 
  6. Not eating: Some signs of an ear infection are general, such as being off their food or not wanting to go for walks. These symptoms aren't specific to ear infections but do signal that a vet visit is needed. 
  7. Poor balance: Hopefully the ear infection is found before the dog starts to stagger and stumble. But some infections in the outer ear can cause middle and inner ear infections if left untreated… so don't take this risk and seek professional help early. 

A top tip for anyone that isn't sure if their dog has an ear infection is to compare one ear with the other. This is because an infected ear often looks redder and more swollen than the normal one and confirm any suspicions. And of course, any owner that spots signs of dog ear infection symptoms should visit the vet as soon as possible.

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

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