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Ear infections can be incredibly painful for your pup and at times difficult to diagnose given they cannot tell you what is wrong. Thankfully, however, dog ear infections are easy to treat and usually quite quick to resolve.
If you suspect your dog has an ear infection or is prone to repeated infections, it is a good idea to brush up on the possible causes and symptoms so you can ensure the comfort of your beloved pooch.
In this guide, we’ll look at possible causes, what to look out for in your pet and the best treatment options.
What Causes Dog Ear Infections?
Dog's ears are shaped much like an elongated ‘L’ and provide them with exceptional hearing, however, they are also more inclined to collect debris and moisture.
This is particularly true for those with long, floppy ears such as Basset Hounds and Labradoodles where moisture, dirt and bacteria are more easily trapped. Overbreeding has also been linked to a higher prevalence of inner ear infections in some breeds. This is not to say other breeds with short pointed ears never get infections - they can occur in any breed.
The followings factors can increase your dog’s chance of developing an ear infection:
- Moisture in the ear
- Wax build-up
- Ear trauma
- Foreign bodies (such as grass seeds)
- Ear mites
- Exposure to excessive heat
- Frequent dog ear care (too much cleaning)
- Auto-immune diseases
- Certain types of cancer
- Endocrine issues and more.
Dogs can present with infection in one ear or both ears simultaneously. The onset of infection can be rapid and acute or recurrent and chronic. Interestingly, while it is entirely normal for small levels of bacteria and yeast to live in the outer ear canal, it is the overgrowth of these that is the most common cause of infection. Dogs can even have both yeast and bacteria-related infections at the same time.
Types Of Ear Infections
A healthy dog ear is light pink in colour, will look quite clean and should have an inoffensive smell. Depending on the type of infection present, this healthy appearance can quickly change. Just as with humans, dogs can have infections in different parts of the ear.
Relatively common, an outer ear infection affects the visible part of the ear canal. Called otitis externa, this happens when the cells that line the external ear canal become inflamed.
This type of infection is easier to diagnose or recognise as you can easily see the redness and swelling at the ear opening.
Significantly more painful for your dog, a middle ear infection can also involve a ruptured eardrum.
Often a middle ear infection, also known as otitis media, occurs when an outer ear infection is left untreated and the bacteria responsible for it is able to progress further into the ear canal.
Last but not least, otitis interna is an infection deep within the ear canal, it can also cause a ruptured eardrum and it is usually caused by bacteria or fungal infection.
What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of An Ear Infection?
Dog ear infections can be easy to miss in your pet but are often very uncomfortable and distressing for your furry friend, so it’s important to stay alert for the following signs. Depending on the type of infection your dog has, the signs and symptoms could be different.
Outer Ear Infection Signs And Symptoms
- Head shaking or hitting/rubbing the head against surfaces
- Redness or change in colour
- Lack of balance
- Green or brown discharge
- Whining or crying
Middle And Inner Infection Signs And Symptoms
In addition to the above, for more severe infections you may also see the following:
- Vomiting or nausea
- Drooling from the side of the mouth closest to the affected ear
- Difficulty eating or reduced appetite
- Unusual blinking
- Loss of hearing
- Eye discharge
- Walking in circles
- Leaning toward the affected side
Looking at these symptoms it is easy to see how deeply affected your dog can be by an ear infection and why it is so important to have it treated as quickly as possible.
Will Dog Ear Infections Resolve On Their Own?
No, the resolution of an ear infection without intervention is uncommon. Importantly, the longer it is left untreated, the further it can progress and the more discomfort your dog will be in.
Severe ear infections can lead to a loss of hearing if not treated with appropriate medical care, so we recommend seeking out the help of your vet as soon as you can.
Please also note that at-home remedies are strongly discouraged.You should never put anything on or in your dog’s ears without the guidance and instruction of your vet as this could lead to further problems or exacerbate an existing problem.
In cases where the eardrum has burst, pouring any type of liquid into the ear could have potentially fatal consequences.
How Are Ear Infections Diagnosed?
Aside from assessing for physical symptoms or obvious visible signs of infection, your vet may opt to do one of the following to make a proper diagnosis:
Cytology. Using special dyes, your vet will stain a swab of debris from your dog's ear. This colours the microscopic bacterial cells or fungus so they are more easily viewed under a microscope. Taking this step can help identify the specific cause and inform the best course of treatment.
Culture/sensitivity testing. In this method, your vet will use a special medium/broth to grow (cultivate) the specific bacteria responsible for causing the infection. This not only identifies the bacteria but gives insights into which antibiotics will be most effective in treating the infection.
Blood testing. If an underlying cause is suspected, your vet may take some blood samples for testing. They will check for things such as endocrine disease, auto-immune disease or cancer.
Imaging such as an x-ray, CT scan, or MRI may be performed in cases where the extent of severe or inner ear disease needs to be better understood. This is usually only seen in extreme cases of infection where recovery is slow or symptoms persist.
What Is The Best Treatment For Dog Ear Infections?
Canine ear infection treatment is usually quite straightforward and involves the use of antibiotics or antifungal medication. Where mites are involved, the ears may also need to be properly cleaned and an oral treatment given to kill the infestation that led to the infection.
Both antibiotics and antifungal medications are usually administered in the form of specialty dog ear infection drops. For infections deep within the ear canal, oral antibiotics may be required.
In some cases, the infection must be surgically cleaned out under sedation and the ear canal opened and diseased tissue removed.
How Quickly Will My Dog Recover?
For uncomplicated infections, you can expect to see an improvement in symptoms quite quickly with a total resolution within one to two weeks.During this time you may need to reduce exercise and alter your dog’s diet. The best dog food for ear infections is soft foods that do not require much chewing.
Significant infection that has led to inner ear infections with severe symptoms may require longer treatment times and can take some time to properly resolve.
Should the infection have been caused by an underlying health condition rather than a once-off bacterial or fungal issue, it may take months to resolve and could have long-term effects on your dog such as hearing loss or balance issues.
Can You Prevent Ear Infections?
Dr. Kate strongly advocates in this health video that preventing ear infections is far better than treating them. Here are her tips for keeping your dog’s ears healthy:
- Keep your dog’s ears dry - especially after swimming
- Keep your dog well-groomed, but be careful not to over-clean the ears, a quick wipe over the visible part of the ear is all that is needed
- Remove any hair plugs from their ears caused by loose hair sticking to ear wax
- Smell your dog’s ears and take notice when they smell abnormal. You’ll smell an ear infection before you see one!
- Are Dog Ear Infections Contagious?
If you have more than one dog, you may be worried that the presence of infection in one will lead to the same in their companion. Unlike in humans where ear infections are often caused by viruses as well as bacteria and therefore easier to transmit, dog ear infections are not contagious to humans or other pets.
The only exception to this rule is if the infection has been brought on by the presence of ear mites. Ear mites are a parasite that can very quickly spread from one pet to another including between dogs and any cats you may have. If you discover mites in one of your dogs, we recommend treating all your pets with Bravecto or similar before they spread.
Regardless of whether or not dog ear infections are contagious, proper hygiene should be employed at all times when administering treatment. This means proper hand washing, keeping their bedding fresh and stopping other pets from licking the infected ear.