How to Tell When Your Dog Has an Ear Infection (And What to Do)

by K Marie Alto September 07, 2022 10 min read

How to Tell When Your Dog Has an Ear Infection (And What to Do)

Dog ear infections are no laughing matter. They can be very uncomfortable and sometimes even painful. Fortunately, in most cases, they are relatively easy to treat. Of course, as long as you catch them before they cause any real damage.

So, today we’re going to talk all about how to tell when your dog has an ear infection.  From types of ear infections to their causes to common symptoms to how to prevent dog ear infections. Happy reading and sharing 😊

Three Types of Dog Ear Infections

Ear infections are medically known as otitis. Fun fact: the suffix "-itis" just means "inflammation," so any disease you hear about with the ending of -itis just means that something is swollen and inflamed. In the case of the ear, the Greek prefix "otos" just means ear. Thus, ear swelling/ear inflammation, caused by an infection.

A Dog Ear Infection Image by Toe Beans

In dogs (and in people), there are three kinds of ear infections.  

  • Inner ear infections, or otitis interna.
  • Middle ear infections, or otitis media.
  • Outer ear infections, or otitis externa.

The most common kind of ear infection is external because that's the part of the ear most likely to be exposed to water, dirt, debris, and bacteria.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association Otitis externa is mostly prevalent in particular breeds with hanging ears or abundant hair in the ear canal. These ear features tend to increase humidity thus promoting the development of infections. Such breeds include Cocker Spaniels, Poodles, and German Shepherds.

Middle ear and inner ear infections are sort of like a disease progression; if an outer ear infection is left ignored for too long, it progresses inward.

As you might expect, the deeper into the ear the infection spreads, the harder it is to treat and the more dangerous it is. Luckily, ear infections are pretty easy to spot well before they reach a point of danger.

Why Dogs Get Ear Infections

So why do our fur babies get ear infections in the first place?

Basically, ear infections happen when something gets trapped in the ear and is left to fester. This is also why, as we discussed above, ear infections tend to be more common in dogs with large, floppy ears; they're harder to keep clean and more easily trap debris in the ear. Your floppy-eared fur babies need more ear care than dogs with smaller, perkier ears.

Note, too, that water-loving dogs tend to get ear infections more often just because diving in the water and not drying out the ears can allow bacteria to grow.

Vet Examining Dog's Ears Image by Toe Beans

There are a bunch of causes of ear infections in dogs, from parasites to foreign bodies to complicated cases of allergies. In this post we’ll touch on some of the most common.

  • Allergies. Just like us, dogs can have allergies to things like pollen, grass, food, and believe it or not even dander. Allergies can manifest in a bunch of different ways, but ear infections are one of the more common ways they show up.
  • Yeast and Bacteria. Everyone, dogs and humans, have yeast and bacteria growing all over the place. 99% of the time, these are harmless, but sometimes the environment is just right to let them overgrow – excess moisture or trapped water in the ear is a prime example. When this happens, an infection triggers the body to fight it off, and that causes illness and inflammation. If your pup loves to swim in lakes and rivers, or simply play in your local park water feature, make sure to clean and dry the ears after the swim. Especially if your dog has drop ears.
  • Ear Mites. These pesky little bugs feed on skin debris and in doing so cause inflammation. If ear mites are the cause of the infection, it’s important to kill both the living bugs and their eggs. According to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, "If you look in your dog’s ears and see dark brown debris that resembles coffee grounds, then your dog most likely has ear mites."

Some other less common causes are endocrine issues and polyps. The ear canal shape can also play a role, so it’s important for your vet to determine the cause. Often, though, there's no singular cause of an ear infection.

Now that you know what kinds of things cause ear infections, how can you recognize those infections in your fur baby?

Recognizing the Symptoms of Dog Ear Infections

In people, an ear infection is pretty easy to diagnose. Your ear clogs up, it looks red and swollen, and you can't hear very well from it. Depending on the kind of infection, it can also be itchy and painful. Well, all of the same is true of dogs, but your fur baby can't use their words to tell you what's wrong.

Dog Ear Infection Symptoms Image by Toe Beans

Instead, when a dog has an ear infection, you must look for behavioral changes.

  • Head shaking. Dogs shake their heads when something is bugging them, whether it's something caught in their fur, an itch, or an ear problem. The occasional shake is fine, but if you notice them shaking their head more frequently, it might be time to take a look at those ears.
  • Scratching/pawing at their ear area frequently. Again, dogs scratch all the time whenever anything itches, and ear infections can be not only painful, but also itchy. But an ear infection is an irritation that they can't resolve with just a quick scratch, so they'll scratch and rub at their ear area a lot. This doesn't have to be just scratching their ears, either; scratching at their head and neck can also be a sign.
  • Rubbing their ears on various surfaces, like the floor or the furniture. In addition, or in lieu of scratching their ears directly, your fur baby may try other things, like rubbing their head against other surfaces, a common one being the floor or their bed.
  • A bad smell coming from their ears. Dogs are a frequent source of weird smells, and most are pretty benign, but if you think the source of a new stinky smell is coming from an ear, it could be from an ear infection.
  • Gross drainage from their ears. Bacteria, yeasts, infections, pus; all kinds of gross stuff can build up in the infected ear and ooze out. It can be nearly any color, from black to brown to green to yellow to white, but you know, anything oozing out of an orifice is usually a bad thing.
  • Redness and swelling. The most obvious sign of an ear infection is, well, just looking at their ears and noticing that they're red and swollen. Your fur baby might also shy away, whine, or yelp when their ears are touched, indicating something painful going on.
  • Head Tilt. The inner ear is important for balance, so if you notice a head tilt or your pup is walking funny, that could also be a sign.

If you notice any of these symptoms, it's pretty easy to check and see if an external ear infection seems likely. Deeper middle or internal ear infections are harder to notice visually, but they aren't usually isolated. That is, the outer ear will still be inflamed when the inner ear is infected too.

Diagnosing a Dog Ear Infection

If you suspect your dog has an ear infection, you should call your vet. They will probably ask that you bring your pup in for an exam and to perform a test. The usual test is called an "ear cytology" and consists of a swab taken from the ear that is then tested to see what's in it. This can allow the vet to see if there are bacteria, yeast, mites, or some combination of all of them causing the problem.

Vet Diagnosing Dog Ear Infection Image by Toe Beans

Be sure to mention to your vet if you notice a pattern of the infections. That can help pinpoint the root cause of the infections to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Once an infection is confirmed your vet will be able to determine the right kind of treatment.

Treating a Dog Ear Infection

Treating ear infections depends on what is causing the infection in the first place.

Sometimes it's simple, other times not so much. If the ear is clogged up with bacteria, you may need to use a tool to flush out the gunk so that medication can penetrate and get to work. An ear flush is usually performed using a saline solution. From there you’ll administer a medication. The medication you use will depend on the type of ear infection.

Sometimes an unnoticed otitis externa may turn into more serious cases. For example, your dog’s ear canal can be closed due to a chronic infection. This is known as hyperplasia or stenosis. In such cases if the ear canal is swollen, it can oftentimes be almost impossible for medications to penetrate the horizontal canal. Surgery is eventually required in most cases of hyperplasia.

Don't panic though, more often than not, your vet will use some kind of antibacterial and antimicrobial or antifungal medications to kill off the bacteria and yeasts that have built up. It will often include a steroid as well, which suppresses the inflammation and allows the ear to drain and heal more quickly.

Unfortunately, because ear infections can be painful, you're going to have to wrangle your poor furry child and get them to sit still for treatment. Treatment can last one to two weeks, so in the beginning it's going to be unpleasant for you and your pup. Try to make treatment time positive with a reward once it’s done. There are potentially some newer medications that your vet can apply, so you don't have to, and which last for weeks, but you'll need to ask your vet if they offer them and if they would work well for your pup.

Treating a Dog Ear Infection Image by Toe Beans

Be sure to use and finish all medication as prescribed.  Your pup will likely start to feel better well before the medication is finished, but the infection is likely not fully resolved. Your vet may want to see your pup for a follow-up to make sure the medication resolved the issue, and an additional medication isn’t needed.

One word of caution here: try not to assume you can treat an ear infection alone. While you can clean your fur baby's ears at home, and there's a chance they'll be able to fight it off on their own, you run the risk of letting the infection get too deep in the ear, which can be more painful and more difficult to treat.

This is bad because particularly deep inner-ear infections can lead to loss of hearing and even facial paralysis. You need those antibiotics and antifungals, and without knowing what the microbe is, you can't do that on your own.

What if your dog's ear infection doesn't respond to treatment?

There are a few cases where an ear infection doesn't respond to treatment.

  • It's severe and deeper than the vet thought, and simple drops aren't enough.
  • It's not caused by a microbe but rather an allergy.
  • It's caused by an underlying disease, like cancer.

In the first case, stronger medications, potentially even IV medications, can help. In the second case, an antihistamine might work, and you'll benefit from identifying what is causing the allergy and removing it from the home. This might involve air filters, vacuuming, a change in food, etc.

Dog Being Examined Image by Toe Beans

In the third case, a deeper analysis of the problem and potentially surgery may be necessary. Luckily, this is fairly rare and generally only happens in older dogs.  

Preventing Dog Ear Infections

To put ear infections in perspective in the context of incidence, according to Tipp City Veterinary Hospital, eye and ear infections are the #1 reason why pets end up at the veterinarian.

Further, in terms of complications, we’ve learned how they can turn into more serious cases if they spread to the inner canal. One serious ear infection complication is called ear hematoma.

“A hematoma is caused when your dog’s vigorous ear scratching and head shaking bursts a blood vessel. Without medical attention, the ear will crinkle into a “cauliflower ear” as the hematoma regresses.  If your dog has a soft swelling of their ear flap, contact your veterinarian. This swelling can be painful, and your dog may hold their ear slightly out from their head due to the discomfort.” - Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

So, a hematoma isn’t directly caused by an ear infection, but can be a byproduct of your pup scratching at the infected ear. Check out this short video on ear hematoma surgery on a dog by Krista Magnifico DVM:

That said, they say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that's definitely true with our fur babies. Now that we know what causes ear infections, we can talk about  a few steps you can take to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

The first thing to do is make sure that, your dog’s ears regularly stay dry. As discussed above, if your pup likes to play in the water, you should take steps to dry out their ear canals.

You can use some commercial products, take advantage of home remedies, or both. Keeping their ears dry will help prevent runaway bacteria and yeast from turning into problems.

Second, if you notice that ear infections tend to happen around the same time every year, chances are there's an allergy in play. Seasonal allergies can be difficult to track down, but you can do a lot to minimize contact with whatever is causing the problem.

A Dog Being Examined Image by Toe Beans

For example, you might:

  • Take walks in midday when pollen counts are low, or stick to indoor exercise areas, and steer clear of fields of wildflowers or irritants.
  • Try out a household air filter and clean your home to keep up with the dust and build-up of allergens.
  • Try a few dietary supplements, like fish oil, to help boost their immune systems.
  • Wash bedding and blankets regularly so allergens don't build up.

If there isn’t a seasonal pattern, talk to your vet about doing ear cleanings at home. Some dogs don't need this, but dogs with floppy ears might benefit from a regular ear cleaning. Especially if your dog has ear infections regularly, you'll probably want to keep an eye on their ears and make sure they stay cleared out.

Ear infections are quite common, so don’t feel like a bad pet parent if your pup gets one – or several.

“An estimated 20 percent of dogs have some form of ear disease, which may affect one or both ears.” – American Kennel Club.

It's a routine problem that when caught and treated early has no lasting impact on your pup's overall health.

As with most kinds of illness or ailment your fur baby might suffer from, it's best to do what you can to identify the cause and try to prevent it from happening again. This might mean regular ear cleaning, using ear-drying tools or products, or tracking down an allergen to minimize or get rid of it. It can be a lot of work, but we'll do anything to keep our fur babies comfortable and happy, won't we?

Have you ever had to handle an ear infection in your canine companion? If so, how'd you go about it? Was it a challenging process, or was it relatively simple? Be sure to leave all your thoughts and stories down below! I'd love to hear about your experiences.

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 30K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).


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