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What You Need to Know About Canine Ear Infections

Dogs are especially at risk for ear infections. Here’s how to prevent them.

by Jennifer Gauntt
March 10, 2020
Basset hound dog in hands of owner sitting outdoor playing with his large ears holding spread in hand
Miljan Živković / Adobe Stock

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Ear infections are pesky conditions that affect many species, but dogs are especially at risk for ear infections because of the shape of their ear canals. While diagnosis and treatment should always be handled by a veterinarian, pet parents should learn about ear infections to keep their pup in tip-top shape.

What causes ear infections in dogs?

“There are multiple causes of ear infections (otitis externa), including allergies (most common), ear mites, a foreign body (this can include polyps or neoplasia), excess hair in the ear canal, anatomic changes in the ear canal, excess moisture in the ear canal, injury, immune-mediated diseases, endocrine disease, and excessive cleaning,” says Dr. Lori Teller, a clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “Any of these causes allow for bacteria and/or yeast to overgrow in the ear, leading to the infection.”

What are the symptoms of ear infections?

Signs of ear infections in dogs include head shaking, scratching at or rubbing the affected ear, discharge, bad odor, redness inside the ear, swelling of the ear canal, pain, itchiness, and crusts or scabs inside the ear or along the ear margin. Pet parents who suspect that their dog may be suffering from an ear infection should seek veterinary help immediately, as these infections can become more severe if left untreated.

Ask a Vet

Sudden scratching? Finicky food eater? Loose poop? Whatever pet health question is on your mind, our veterinary pros are here to help.

How are ear infections diagnosed?

To diagnose your pet, a veterinarian might sample ear discharge or look through the ear canal to observe the state of the eardrum. Depending on the situation, your dog may need to be sedated for this procedure.

Once diagnosed, your dog’s treatment plan will depend on what caused the ear infection in the first place. Dr. Teller says that topical ointments may be used to treat bacteria and yeast present in the canal. Dogs with severe infections or those involving the middle or inner ear canal may be treated with oral antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs. Medicated ear cleansers to clear away discharge and debris from the infected canal may also be prescribed.

Prevent your dog from getting an infection

“Dogs that develop ear infections frequently will need to have the underlying cause addressed,” says Dr. Teller. “Some may require therapies to control allergies. If a food allergy is a cause of the problem, then switching to a hypoallergenic or limited-ingredient diet may prevent future problems. It is very important to work with your veterinarian before switching your dog’s diet.”

Dogs that swim frequently are also more prone to ear infections, and pet parents should take special care to appropriately clean and dry their pet’s ears after being in the water. Cotton swabs should never be used in the inner canal of a dog’s ear. Teller also advised that pet parents should not allow other dogs to lick their pet’s ears.

If you suspect your dog is suffering from an ear infection, make an appointment with your vet right away, as early detection can prevent permanent damage from occurring. Proper care will have your pup back to their super-hearing self in no time.

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Jennifer Gauntt

Jennifer Gauntt, MA, is the communications director at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, where she covers scientific advancements in pet heath and behavior. This story was originally published by Pet Talk, a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Original stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. May be edited for style and length.