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What’s wrong with my dog’s ears?

Young veterinarian holding weimaraner dog while colleague examining ear with otoscope

Everything pet parents need to know about canine ear infections

Canine ear infections are one of the most common health conditions in dogs. In fact, veterinary experts from the American Kennel Club (AKC) estimate that roughly 20 percent of dogs have some form of ear disease at some point during their life. 

For the most part, ear infections tend to be mild and resolve in a matter of weeks with proper treatment. They can, however, become very serious and lead to long-term or even permanent health consequences if left undiagnosed or untreated. It’s important for pup parents to understand the causes of ear infections, be able to recognize symptoms, and learn how to prevent them so you can keep your canine companion happy and healthy. 

Table of Contents 

Types of ear infections

There are three different types of ear infections in dogs, according to AKC. The most common type of canine ear infection is otitis externa. 

  • Otitis externa develops when the cells lining the external portion of the ear canal become inflamed.  
  • Referred to as inflammation of the middle ear canal, otitis media can cause disruptions in hearing.  
  • Otitis interna is more serious and affects the inner ear. This type of infection can lead to permanent damage. 

Causes

Breed 

Ear infections can occur in all dogs. Some breeds, however, are more prone to these infections due to the shape and structure of their ears. Experts at VCA Animal Hospitals warn that Sheepdogs, Basset Hounds, Cocker Spaniels, and Labrador Retrievers, are predisposed to ear infections. This is due to their large, floppy, or hairy ears.

Ear structure 

Unlike human ears, the canine ear canal has a more vertical orientation, forming an L-shape leading to the eardrum. This vertical portion of the ear canal makes it easier for dirt, debris, and moisture to trap inside the ear. This leads to infection. 

Bacteria 

The most common type of canine ear infections, otitis externa, are typically caused by bacteria or yeast. VCA Animal Hospitals notes that moisture can create an ideal environment inside a dog’s ear for these infections. This makes the condition worse.  

These infections, if left undiagnosed and or untreated, can then spread deeper into the ear canal, resulting in more serious otitis media and internal infections. 

Parasites 

While adult dogs may occasionally contract an ear mite infestation, these parasites are more commonly found in the ears of young puppies. In addition to causing irritation and inflammation, ear mites create a prime environment within the ear canal for secondary bacterial and yeast infections. 

Other causes 

Additional potential causes of ear infections in dogs include: 

  • Allergies are common in dogs and can lead to ear infections in about 50 percent of dogs with allergic skin disease and 80 percent of dogs with food sensitivities, according to APSA.   
  • Foreign bodies, such as dirt—or small toys, if there are children in the house.   
  • Endocrine disorders, such as hypothyroidism, are characterized by hormone imbalances.  
  • Autoimmune disorders that cause a dog’s immune system to mistakenly attack healthy cells.  
  • Tumors, polyps, earwax buildup, and excessive hair inside and around the ears can prevent moisture and debris from being properly cleaned out of the ear canal.  
  • Physical trauma or injury to the ear canal, like deep scratches. Open wounds in and around the ear canal can easily become infected and inflamed.  
  • Excessive cleaning, which has the potential to leave behind moisture and create physical irritation.  

Symptoms of canine ear infections 

Physical signs of canine ear infections can vary widely depending on the pup and severity of infection. Some dogs may show no clinical symptoms apart from earwax buildup, while others may suffer severe discomfort and exhibit very serious signs. Signs of an ear infection include: 

  • Whining 
  • Scratching, which can lead to aural hematomas, in which blood vessels in the ear flap break and cause swelling that can sometimes be painful 
  • Head shaking, which can also lead to aural hematomas 
  • Equilibrium, or balance, issues 
  • Hearing loss 
  • Odor  
  • Skin redness 
  • Swelling of the ear canal 
  • Dark yellow or black discharge 
  • Crusting, scaling, and or scabbing of the skin 
  • Pain 

In serious and or chronic cases of canine ear infections, the affected ears may appear crusty or thickened. According to VCA, the ear canals often become narrowed, a condition referred to as hyperplasia or stenosis, due to chronic inflammation. The closing of the ear canal can make it difficult for medications to penetrate into the lower, horizontal portion of the canal. 

Advanced cases of ear infections may also cause a pup to show some reluctance to chew and or lose some of their sense of balance as the inner ears become affected. Deep ear infections can damage or rupture the eardrum, which can lead to internal infection and even hearing loss. 

Diagnosing your pup’s ear infection 

It’s important to consult your veterinarian as soon as you suspect your canine companion may have an ear infection. With so many different causes and potential underlying issues, a professional evaluation and diagnosis will help determine the most appropriate course of treatment. Experts from AKC emphasize that quick treatment of ear infections is crucial not only for your pup’s own comfort, but also for prevention of any spreading of the infection. 

When diagnosing a canine ear infection, veterinarians will likely take into account the following information: 

  • Duration of any symptoms 
  • Allergies or other underlying medical conditions 
  • Medications 
  • Diet and nutrition 
  • Ear cleaning frequency and products 
  • Recent activities, such as baths, grooming, or swimming 
  • Ear infection history 

Treating canine ear infections 

If your pup has experienced an uncomfortable or even painful ear infection, you know how important it is to reduce the length and severity of these episodes. Once an ear infection is properly diagnosed, your veterinarian may simply clean your pup’s ears using a medicated ear cleanser, or send you home with a prescription cleanser and or topical medication. If there is a foreign object that’s causing the issues, your vet will remove it from the ear canal. The good news, VCA points out, is that most uncomplicated ear infections resolve within one to two weeks with appropriate treatment. 

According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, veterinarians may prescribe oral antibiotics and or anti-inflammatory medications for severe infections. In the case of severe bacterial infections of the external ear canal, antibacterial drugs in combination with corticosteroids may be used to reduce discharges, pain, and swelling. Marck recommends that inflammation and infection due to ear mites should be treated with topical products that contain antibacterial and antiparasitic drugs. It’s important to emphasize that it is necessary to finish the full course of ear infection medication, even if your dog appears to be feeling better. 

In cases of severe chronic disease where other treatments have failed, your veterinarian may recommend surgery, a Total Ear Canal Ablation (TECA). A TECA surgery removes the ear canal, thus removing the diseased tissue and preventing the recurrence of infection. Typically, severe infections or those due to underlying conditions may take months to resolve. 

How to prevent future ear infections 

Preventing ear infections is one important way pet parents can make sure their canine companions stay happy and healthy. VCA Animals Hospitals recommends that dog owners regularly inspect their pup’s ears and take note of any changes in temperature, skin color or condition, and increases in moisture. Cleaning your pup’s ears at home can also go a long way in preventing ear infections. 

Excess or chronic moisture is a common cause of ear infections in dogs, so pet parents should be sure to thoroughly dry their pup’s ears after swimming or bathing. As a general rule, ear canals should be kept dry and well ventilated. Pup parents may consider using a high-quality, over-the-counter canine ear cleaner—your vet will be able to recommend a cleaning product.  

It may be tempting to try to coax moisture, earwax, or any other foreign body out of your dog’s ear with a Q-tip, but don’t! Cotton balls, gauze pads, or towels work best and are safest for cleaning and drying your dog’s ears. In some cases, clipping or plucking hair from the inside of the pinna and around the ear canal improves ventilation and decreases humidity in the ears. 

If your dog is prone to chronic or recurrent ear infections, identifying and managing any underlying causes such as allergies can help prevent new infections from occurring. Always be sure to consult your veterinarian if you suspect your dog is suffering from an ear infection. 

Any health or medical information in ElleVet blogs is from a variety of public and reputable sources. This information is intended as an education resource only and is not a substitute for expert professional care.    

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