HEALTH & CARE

Ear Infection in Dogs: Learn About It Before Things Get Worse

Checking dog ears
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

Deciding to get a pet dog can be one of the most rewarding decisions you will ever make in life. Unfortunately, everything is not always about warm affectionate hugs or fun plays. Your four-legged best friend might get sick at times. Most likely, there will be days when you will have to deal with one of the most common illnesses canines suffer from: ear infection in dogs.

It will be painful seeing your pet hurting and surely you would want to help him as much as you can, which is why this guide was put together. Understanding the causes and symptoms of this illness as well as the treatments involved will go a long way to helping your dog.

Dog ear

More important, you will be able to prevent this from happening again or at all.

Ear infection in dogs: causes

There are various reasons why dogs get infected ears and it is important to be aware of these in order to facilitate the right treatment procedure. Here is a rundown of the commonly diagnosed causes:

Bacteria and yeast

Normally, dogs’ ears have natural defenses for harmful microorganisms. A slight change or imbalance within the ear environment however will lead to the exponential growth of numerous bacteria, which cause infections. The yeast Malassezia Pachydermatis is also a common pathogen causing otitis externa (inflammation of the ear canal and outer ear) and canine seborrhoeic dermatitis (scaly lesions in and around the ears). The imbalance can be brought on by several factors including increased moisture in the ears from grooming or bathing.

Ear mites

There are various parasites that can breed inside your dog’s ears, otodectes cynotis being the most common. Barely detectable by the naked eye, these are eight-legged parasites that find the earwax and oils in dogs’ ears very appetizing. Often, they are passed from parents to their puppies, while adult dogs may get them when they come in contact with other dogs in your neighborhood that have them.

Usually these mites only cause a mild infection that can be treated easily. The complication arises when dogs have a hypersensitivity to ear mites, meaning they find the parasitic bites unbearably itchy. This then leads to excessive scratching of the ears, which can result to wounds, rupturing of blood vessels, and damage to the ear canal and ear drums. If you fear that your dog is infested with ear mites, learn how to take care of them in this article about ear mites in dogs.

Environmental and food allergies

Veterinarians have found that ear infections are often the first signs of allergies in dogs. What causes the allergies widely vary – from the food they eat to things in the air absorbed through inhalation or skin contact. Whatever the case, when a dog suffers from an allergic reaction, this changes the environment in their ears.

Ear problems

As discussed above, imbalance in that part of their bodies can lead to bacteria and yeast infection. In this case, not only should the infection be treated but the allergy as well to avoid recurrence.

Foreign body or trauma

It can be problematic when a foreign object enters your dog’s ears because of how canines’ ear canals are structured – from the ear opening it goes downward then horizontally. Any debris that accidentally gets caught won’t come out easily. The discomfort will lead to excessive scratching and trauma if not remedied right away. And speaking of trauma, watch out for rough plays with your dog because any hard bumps can lead to serious problems.

Walking your dog in the woods, playing with them at the park or taking them for a swim can also expose them to harmful foreign bodies entering their ears. Be extra careful with plant awns and tiny seeds that stick to fur. Be sure to remove them when grooming your pet so they don’t lead to ear infections.

Hereditary illness

Many dog breeds are predisposed to certain diseases. West Highland white terriers and Shar Peis for example have an increased risk of primary seborrhea (formation of clumpy and waxy substance in the ears) due to a genetic abnormality.

Shetland Sheepdogs and Collies are prone to contracting dermatomyositis (inflammation of skin, muscles and blood vessels). Dogs with non-erect ears or those that have excessive hair growth in their ears are also at risk. It is important that you know the health history of your pets and their parents to be prepared for any hereditary ear diseases.

Hypothyroidism

This is a condition wherein a dog’s thyroid gland is incapable of producing enough thyroxine hormone, which negatively affects your pet’s metabolism and will lead to a host of symptoms including ear infection. Although this illness affects all breeds, studies have found that it is more common in golden retrievers, cocker spaniels, Irish setters, Doberman pinchers, boxers and dachshunds with ages ranging from 4 to 10 years. Serious complications include the formation of tumors.

Tumors

According to a paper published by the Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, ceruminous gland adenocarcinomas or malignant tumors can start in a dog’s external ear canal and will aggressively invade surrounding parts including the bones of the skull. Canines with a history of chronic otitis as well as middle-aged and older dogs are especially susceptible to developing these tumors.

Immune system disorders

An auto-immune disease can weaken blood vessels on a canine’s pinna. Slight scratching can lead to rupturing of the blood vessels, which then leads to swelling, irritation and eventually infection. It is also important to be aware that sometimes, immune system imbalance occurs as a reaction to getting vaccines.

Symptoms of dog ear infections

Detecting early that your dog is ill is key to providing timely treatment and preventing more serious complications.

Here are commonly observed dog ear infection symptoms to watch out for:

  • Excessive scratching
  • Rubbing the ears on walls or furniture, might be accompanied by painful whining noises
  • Too much shaking of the head
  • Unpleasant odor coming out of the ears
  • Bumps in the ear canal
  • Buildup of ear wax and other greasy or liquid substance
  • Ear discharge (often brown, white, yellow or even bloody)
  • Loss of hair in and around the ears
  • Loss of hearing
  • Balancing problems
  • Walking in circles
  • Inflammation or redness
  • Your dog exhibits a reaction of pain whenever you touch his ears
  • Behavioral signs such as depression and irritability
  • Formation of crusts and scab
  • Strange eye movements

A yeast infection is particularly apparent when you get a whiff of moldy bread or perhaps the smell of cheese popcorn from your dog. Not only will the smell strongly come out of the ears, your pet’s paws will exhibit the bad odor as well because he has probably been scratching non-stop.

How to clean dogs ears

To learn more about the process, its best that you read our article on how to clean dog’s ears.

In the case of hypothyroidism, you will also notice hair loss on other parts of the body such as on the rear legs. The fur will become dull looking and thin; black patches may also appear. And since hypothyroidism affects the metabolism, weight issues will arise along with muscle loss, sluggishness and a reduced heart rate.

To rule out ear canal tumors, check for the appearance of firm nodules or plaques. These can either be white, pink or purple in color and can be ulcerated, which means there will be bleeding and ear discharge. If the tumor has invaded nearby structures, your dog might exhibit difficulty blinking or suddenly falling to his side.

Diagnosis on ear problems

To make sure that your pet gets the right treatment, it is important to seek professional assistance right away. It is advisable not to resort to self diagnosis because the exhibited symptoms can mean anything. Itchiness and ear discharge, for example, can mean a yeast infection or an ear mites problem. For accurate assistance, scheduling a consultation with a trusted veterinarian is the right course of action.

Most ear infections are non-life threatening and can be successfully treated or managed. The success of the treatment is of course highly dependent on the early detection of the infection. It is also important that any underlying causes be determined and addressed. Otherwise, ear infections will keep cropping up and as mentioned above, chronic otitis can lead to malignant tumors.

Vet checking dog ear

It is understandable for pet owners to worry if a visit to the animal doctor is required. To lessen your anxiety, know what to expect. Anticipate that your vet will procure a sample from the infected ear and several examination procedures might follow. To determine if the problem is bacteria, yeast or other microorganisms, the sample will be examined under a microscope. Also expect a complete physical examination to be done because often, an ear infection is a complication from an underlying illness.

Urinalysis and even an electrolyte panel may be required to come up with a thorough diagnosis. Your dog’s blood need to be checked as well and in line with this, procedures for determining the complete blood count and chemical blood profile will be called for.

If allergies seem to be causing the infection, expect that food trials will be suggested. Your dog might also have to undergo trials with flea medication to make sure fleas are not the root cause. Skin tests such as skin scraping and allergy-related blood tests will most likely be needed as well. The vet might even ask for fungal cultures to check for ringworms and other fungal infections.

If your vet suspects a tumor, diagnosis will require a biopsy. This can be done through deep otoscopic examination or surgery. In any case, your dog will have to undergo sedation. There are times when veterinarians would suggest further tests including CT or MRI imaging to determine the total extent of any spotted tumor. If indeed a malignant tumor is confirmed, further x-rays or the lymph node aspirate procedure will be performed to check if the cancer has metastasized.

Treatments & prevention

Treatment can be done in a two-pronged approach – couple veterinary procedures and medications with the use of home remedies. But once again, it needs to be stressed that it is best to administer treatment only after a thorough consultation with a reliable vet. And, of course, the kind of treatment will depend entirely on what’s causing the infection. You can even take care of it at home, depending on the issue, by referring to our article on homemade dog ear cleaners.

Cleaning dog ears

Bacteria and yeast infection – the dog’s ears need to be cleaned and dried regularly to inhibit the growth of harmful microorganisms. For infections located on the outer ear canal, apply any topical cream or antifungal ointment (usually ketoconazole and miconazole) prescribed by the vet. If the problem is in the middle ear, tablets and injections may be required.

Ear mites – the right parasiticides will be prescribed by your vet and you will be given the instruction to use these continuously in 7-10 days to fully get rid of the mites and their eggs. Antibiotic and anti-inflammatory drugs may also be needed. If there is already buildup of debris or ear discharge, careful cleaning is in order. Just like when cleaning a yeast-infected ear, cleansers and dryers can be of help. If your dog is particularly averse to you poking down his ear, sedating him for the process is a viable option.

Since mites are contagious, it is important to also treat any other pets in the house even if they are not showing any signs of infection yet. It is also advisable to conduct a general house cleaning as soon as possible to further eliminate the recurrence of ear mites-related problems. For further protection, apply flea treatments all over your dog’s body.

Allergies – whether your pet is allergic to certain types of food like chicken or beef, or if he is allergic to environmental factors such as pollen and certain types of plants – the allergy has to be addressed before any improvement to the ear infection can be expected. Diet adjustments and anti-allergy medications often prove effective.

Foreign body or trauma – look down into your dog’s ears and if you can see the offending object easily, quickly remove using tweezers. If it is an insect and still alive, prevent it from thrashing around and causing further pain by pouring a few drops of baby oil or vegetable oil into the ears before removing the insect. If the object is lodged deeply or you see that the ear trauma is worse than you thought, for example bleeding is evident, then call your vet because special removal procedures and tools will be required. Afterwards, antibiotic eardrops may be prescribed.

Hereditary ear infections and immune system disorders – discuss the lineage and health history of your dog with your veterinarian and come up with a tailored therapy and prevention plan.

Hypothyroidism – oral drugs are usually prescribed to dogs suffering from this condition. Treatment is considered fairly easy and low cost as well. The only rub is that your pet has to take the medication, which is a manmade version of the hormone L-thyroxine, for the rest of his life.

Ear canal tumors – this is quite a serious health problem and would require a more aggressive treatment approach in the form of surgical excision. The complete removal of the ear canal may be needed depending on the extent of the tumor. Some vets would recommend radiation therapy in order to slow down the growth of the malignant cells and so as not to cause too much pain in your pet. If the biopsy shows evidence of metastasis or if the tumor is deemed aggressive, chemotherapy is highly recommended.

Studies have shown that most canines can live for over 2 years after successful aggressive surgery, but if conservative surgery is performed, the prognosis is significantly reduced. The prognosis is worse if the cancer has spread to the inner ear, lymph nodes or lungs.

Home remedies

Other remedies that can be used to treat ear infections in any dog are essential oils with antibacterial, antiseptic and antifungal properties. Examples of these include a blend of clove and rosemary essential oils. Lavender, tea tree and oregano essential oils can also be used to repel ear mites. Some holistic doctors like Stacey Hershman of Nyack, New York recommends the use of brewed green tea for cleaning dogs’ ears because of the drink’s acidifying and antibacterial properties. Of course, use green tea when it has already cooled down to room temperature. If you’re interested in these more natural treatment options, consider taking a look at our article on homemade dog ear cleaners.

As you can see, there are various treatments for different types of ear infections. That is why it matters to consult a veterinarian first in order to take full advantage of the right therapeutic procedure or medication.

When it comes to prevention, one of the best ways to avert dog ear infections and other illnesses is regular cleaning and grooming. Your veterinarian can provide you special ear-drying sprays and cleansers for this. Alternatively, create a home-made solution of equal parts water and vinegar.

For dogs who love to go swimming, a solution containing 1 tablespoon rubbing alcohol, 1 cup water and 2 cups vinegar can be used. Put either of these solutions in a spray bottle and squirt into your dog’s outer ear canal. Use cotton balls to remove any dirt you see, but take care not to use cotton swabs for deep cleaning the ears as this will just push debris further in and may exacerbate the infection.

Another good way to prevent ear infections in your canine best friend is to make sure he doesn’t suffer from allergies as much as possible. So watch what he eats, including the ingredients used in the dog food you regularly buy. Be careful not to take him to places where he might be allergic to certain plants. Frequently clean your house to get rid of allergens in the air.

Most important of all, take full advantage of annual checkups and laboratory tests. If you have pet insurance, this should be covered. By making sure you pay a visit to your vet on a regular basis, you will be able to track your pet’s health history. Not only that, any signs of illnesses can be detected sooner and treatment can be administered before things get worse.

Ear infections, whether in puppies or adult dogs, are a pain to deal with for both the pet owner and the pet. But by understanding the causes and the symptoms along with what treatments work and what can be done to prevent major damage – you are one step ahead in keeping your dogs healthy.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.

  • Amber Hart

    Or those willing to go all the way in treating the ear infection of their dogs, some vets can get a sample from the dog’s ears, and sending it to a lab. This would enable the vet to identify the bacteria, etc that is in the pooch and then respond with the best antibiotics that are specially targeted for the specific culture in the dog’s ears.It’s very helpful in chronic infections, we’ve experienced it firsthand.

  • Grace Hill

    My vet is pretty chatty and the horror stories he tell me with the dog owners who mess with their pooch’s ears led me to avoid putting any foreign object in there if I can prevent it. Please, if your vet wasn’t able to show you how to navigate your pet’s ears with a q-tip or a cotton ball, don’t do it. Don’t. Just don’t. You’ll do more harm than good, poking around that sensitive area. Bring your pooch to the vet if you find undesirable smells, etc. And please don’t try to do anything without consulting your vet, without guidance from your vet. That’s all.

    • This is actually true, Grace. Some pet parents tend to “troubleshoot” the problems of their fur babies and they end up making it worse. Whenever in doubt (or just don’t try it on your own), always consult your vet.

  • GraceTerrence

    Our 4 year old Newfoundland has chronic ear infections. The vet doesn’t think it’s allergies, it must probably be the way his ears are structured. Most moisture can be trapped in the long canal. This being so, how can I reduce the amount of ear infections he has? Any natural remedy?

    • You can start with the root cause – diet. Start your dog with grain-free dog food and treats as this lowers the sugar availability in the blood for the yeast and other external microorganisms to fuel their reproduction. Hygiene is also important which can be done through regular and thorough cleaning, but remember not to overdo it.

  • This is the most definitive intervention that can be done to avoid all the guesswork and go straight to the specific bacteria that is the source of the infection. Saves you from the trouble as a pet parent whenever your dog has an infection.

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