Ear infections – aka Otitis Externa - are one of the most common issues I see in dogs that come in to see me at our animal hospital. Some breeds, especially those with large, floppy, hairy ears, such as Cocker Spaniels, Shih Tzus, Miniature Poodles, Bulldogs, and Labrador Retrievers, are especially prone, but ear infections can occur in any breed. In all dogs, ear infections are smelly, irritating, and can be really unpleasant for our little friends. They can also be dangerous if left untreated. Untreated ear infections can cause itching, swelling, inflammation, and eventually hearing loss over time.
Why do dogs get ear infections?
There are multiple factors that come into play when it comes to ear infections, and these issues are why I see ear infections so often in the animal hospital.
- Ear size, shape, and hairiness. Long, floppy ears that cover the ear canal, or excessive ear hair, can trap moisture and make the ear a very tempting home for bacteria and yeast.
- Allergies. Food and Environmental allergies can increase the risk of ear infections for your pet due to itch and irritation around the face. To learn more about allergies, read our blog here.
- Foreign material or ear masses. Something stuck in your dog’s ears, like grass or seeds, or a tumor or mass can increase trauma and humidity within the ear canal and lead to an ear infection.
What are signs of an ear infection?
Ear Infections can be pretty painful, and dogs will try to shake their head and scratch their ears to try and relieve some of the discomfort. The ears become red, inflamed, smelly, and often exude a black, brown, or yellow discharge. In some chronic ear infection cases, the inflammation can be so severe for so long, that the ears become crusty and the ear canals become narrowed and closed up from chronic inflammation. If you suspect your pet is dealing with an ear infection, look for the following signs:
- Head shaking
- Constant ear scratching
- Foul ear odor
- Black or yellow ear discharge
- Greasy brown or gray discharge
- Ear pain
- Rubbing ears against floors or furniture
- Ear crusts and scabs
- Hair loss around the ears from constant scratching
- Thickened, swollen or narrowed ear canal
How to treat an ear infection?
While it may be tempting to search online for home remedies for a cure for your pet’s uncomfortable and painful ear infections to give immediate relief, ear infections should absolutely be treated with a veterinarian. Here are a few ‘home remedies’ that may come up in online searches that you should absolutely avoid, as they can irritate the ear canal and cause further infection:
- Vinegar. Sure, the acid in vinegar might kill yeast, but vinegar is mostly water. And that water will leave your dog’s ear canal moist, creating the perfect environment for an ear
- Hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is also mostly water. Once the initial bubbling stops (and we’re
pretty sure your pet will hate that anyway), what’s left in the ear is… water.
- Rubbing alcohol. Rubbing alcohol will cause nearly unbearable irritation in your dog’s ears, which will be awful to watch and make it even harder for you or your vet to get anywhere near your pet’s ears for treatment.
Instead, please take your pet to veterinarian, where we will examine your pets ears, and sample the infection. Microscopic examination will tell us what kind of infection your pet is dealing with, (ie. Yeast vs Bacteria vs Mites) and point us in the direction of an effective treatment. Before starting any treatment at home, a thorough ear flushing and cleaning will be performed to clean out all the waxy debris and exudate that may be covering the ear canal. That way medications we send home after can be effective in helping rid the area of infection and allowing the ear canal to heal. The medications sent home are usually ointments that carry anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and antifungal properties. If your pet has underlying diseases (ie, allergies, metabolic diseases, foreign body etc..) that may be the root cause of your pet’s ear infections, those will have to be treated as well in order to prevent ear infections from recurring in the future.
What is the prognosis?
Nearly all ear infections that are properly diagnosed and treated can be successfully managed. However, if an underlying cause remains unidentified and untreated, the outcome will be less favorable. Examples include: Dogs with ear infections are uncomfortable. Their ears are a source of constant pain and they frequently scratch them and shake their head. This can cause a condition called an aural hematoma; in which blood vessels in the ear flap break, causing a painful swelling that requires surgical treatment. Deep ear infections can damage or rupture the eardrum, causing an internal ear infection and even permanent hearing loss. After initial treatment of ear infections, several recheck examinations may be needed to determine if the outcome is successful.
Lastly, How can you help prevent ear infections?
You can definitely help lower your dog’s risk of ear infection with a little TLC.
- Ask your vet how to properly clean your dog’s ears, and how often to do it
- Wipe your dog’s ears dry with a cotton ball or two after they go for a swim or have a bath. See tips on grooming your pet (link to pet grooming blog here)
- If your dog has major ear hair, ask your vet how to deal with it, or ask your groomer to do as part of their regular routine
- Properly manage any underlying conditions, like allergies, to help prevent future ear infections
We hope this information is helpful for you and your pup, and helps you better understand how to prevent, manage, and best help your pup with ear infections. If you start seeing signs of excessive head shaking, ear scratching, or smelly discharge from your pet’s ears, make an appointment with your local veterinarian. Lastly, feel free to reach out to our team on Facebook, Instagram, email, or in the comments section below if you found this article helpful or have any questions!
About the Author:
Dr. Zonram Liao D.V.M. is a Southern California native, and earned his undergraduate degree from University of California, San Diego before obtaining his veterinary degree from Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine. He is not only a firm believer in the use of supportive care supplements to improve the health and happiness of his patients, but also is a strong advocate of the benefits of preventive care medicine for his patients as well. During his free time, Dr. Liao enjoys spending his time outdoors fishing and hiking, playing basketball, watching movies, cooking, traveling, and trying new foods.