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How to identify a dog ear infection - A vet’s guide | BetterVet

Ear infections are a very common problem in dogs. Ear infections can be seen in dogs of any age, breed, and sex. That said, dogs with lovely long ears such as the Beagle and dogs with very hairy ear canals, such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, are predisposed to ear infections. 

Dogs can have multiple infections over their lifetime and the infection can be in one or both ears. Ear infections in dogs can be linked to skin disease so you may also notice signs of skin infection in your dog at the same times as the ear infection. The signs of an ear infection in your dog can be very subtle to start with, so knowing the signs of an ear infection is a key skill for pet parents. 


What Causes Ear Infections in Dogs?

Ear infections are caused by a build-up of bacteria, yeast, or both of these microorganisms. In a normal ear, there is usually a small population of microbes such as bacteria and yeast that live on the skin and ears and cause no problems. However, when the right conditions of heat and humidity arise, along with damaged skin or a poor immune system, these microbes multiply rapidly and cause an infection. These infections are often painful and itchy.

So, how do you spot an ear infection in your dog? 

The signs of an ear infection in dogs are:

  • Redness or swelling of the ear 
  • Discharge from one or both ears: gray, brown, yellow, green, or red 
  • Scabs, scratch marks, or bleeding on the outside skin of the ear 
  • A bad smell from the ears 
  • Scratching at the ears 
  • Shaking their head 
  • Holding their head at a downwards angle 
  • Vocalizing or crying in pain when the ear or head is touched


What Do I Do if I See These Signs in My Dog?

Your next step if you see any of these signs is to book an appointment with a veterinarian. 

The veterinarian will have a close look at the skin and ears including the inside of the ear with an instrument called an otoscope. This allows the vet to see the tympanic membrane (eardrum) and look at the surfaces of the ear canal. A sample is taken of any discharge from the ear to check for signs of mites, bacteria, or yeast. 


How are ear infections in dogs treated? 

Ear infections are usually treated with ear cleaning and a course of medicated ear drops given at home. Get the veterinarian to show you how to give the medication so that you can feel confident doing this at home if you have never treated an ear infection before. 

Severe ear infections may need oral antibiotics, antifungals, or pain relief medications in addition to ear drops to heal the ear infection.


Are ear infections a curable condition? 

Usually, a simple ear infection will heal well with topical ear ointments in around one to two weeks. Your veterinarian will ask you to revisit for a check-up after the course of ear drops has finished, to make sure all of the infection has cleared. If you don’t check the infection is completely healed, you risk it coming back within a few weeks. This means you will have to start the process all over again. 

Ear infections linked to skin disease will not resolve without treating the skin disease, so further appointments and referral to a veterinary dermatologist may be needed to treat allergic skin disease. 

Very rarely, non-healing ear infections need surgery to remove the ear canal to prevent constant pain and suffering in your pet. This treatment is called a TECA (total ear canal ablation) and is the last resort in the treatment of ear disease. 


What can I do at home to help my dog? 

Following the recommended treatment program from your doctor will be the best thing to do to help your dog. If you are struggling to get the medications into the ear try using distraction techniques such as wet food or peanut butter smeared onto a lickimat or bowl. If your dog is wriggly, asking a friend or family member to help hold them while you give the ear drops can reduce stress for you and your dog. 

Ear infections in dogs are very itchy so you may find an Elizabethan collar, or a soft collar helpful to stop scratching at the ear. You can take the cone off at mealtimes or when you are with your dog to give them a break from the cone, but otherwise, leave it on at all times. This prevents damage to the skin on the outside of the ear, which can be painful and lead to further skin infections. 

Keeping your dog’s nails trimmed short will also help. Short nails do less damage when scratching at the skin. 


Is There Anything I Can Do to Prevent Ear Infections? 

Two to three times a week, check the inside of your dog’s ears for any signs of an ear infection. Cleaning any brown wax build-up from your dog’s ears once weekly with a dog ear cleaner prescribed or recommended by your veterinarian can help reduce the accumulation of wax in the ear canal. If you clean the ear more than once a week you can cause ear issues so try not to be over-enthusiastic in your maintenance regime unless otherwise recommended by your vet.

If your dog loves a dip in the water to keep cool, remember to dry their ear canal with some cotton balls to remove any water trapped in the ear canal. This helps reduce the moisture content of the ear, which is favorable for bacterial and yeast growth. 

Lastly, if you are concerned your dog has signs of an ear infection, it’s always best to get on top of the problem sooner rather than later. A mild ear infection is much easier and quicker to resolve than a severe ear infection. Just to be safe, you can also book an appointment to get a veterinary consultation.