Dog Ear Problems

Dog ear problems come in lots of different disguises.... itchy ears, inflamed ears, 'dirty' or waxy ears, lumps, injuries and more.

The majority of problems, such as dog ear infections and ear mites, are fairly simple to treat, once they're diagnosed. 

Signs of trouble can vary depending on the specific type of ear trouble your puppy or dog is having. So can the treatment options.

On this page you'll find the most common causes of ear problems in dogs.

Plus a look at symptoms, treatment options and even  tips for preventing future flare-ups.

Use the quick links below to jump to a specific topic/category or simply scroll down for full information...


Common Causes Of Dog Ear Problems

Ear issues can be 'acute' (ie sudden or one-off occurrences) or 'chronic' (ie long-term or recurring).

Here are the most common reasons for a dog to have itchy, sore or irritated ears:

Dog Ear Infections

Statistics compiled by veterinary groups and pet health insurance companies show that ear infections are one of the most common dog ear problems, and a top reason for vet visits.

Infections usually occur in the external ear canal.

Although you can usually see the redness, irritation, scabs or discharge, it's the external ear canal that is affected, not the outer 'flap' of Fidos' ear.

This condition is also called 'Otitis' or 'Otitis Externa' and can be caused by:

  • Bacterial infection
  • Yeast or fungal infection (can be primary or secondary infection)
  • Frequent swimming or bathing
  • Allergies (most likely food or seasonal allergies)

Ear infections can also be just one symptom of a more systemic disease such as Cushings' Disease or Hypothyroidism.

See below for dog ear infection symptoms & treatment 

Dog Ear Mites

Ear mites are much more common in cats than in dogs. If you think your dog may have ear mites it's important to have  your vet examine his ears because a yeast or bacterial infection is more likely and will need a different treatment approach.

There are different types of mites but the ones which cause ear problems in dogs and cats are called 'Otodectes Cynotis' mites.

This type of dog ear problem is sometimes called 'Canker Ear' and many other small pets and livestock also suffer from ear mites.

See below for the symptoms & treatment of dog ear mites

Allergies & Ear Problems in Dogs

There's a strong link between canine allergies and dog ear problems.

Irritated, itchy ears, repeated head-shaking and recurring ear infections are often a sign that your dog is having an allergic reaction to something either in his diet or his environment.

See below for symptoms & treatment of allergy-related ear issues

Breed-Specific Disposition to Ear Problems

Some dog breeds are more prone to ear problems than others. 

This can either be due to a specific breeds' predisposition to health conditions which can cause ear infections (such as skin problems or allergies) as well as to the physical shape and position of the ear (eg. breeds with long, droopy ears are more at risk).

The breeds which may be more likely to experience dog ear problems include:

  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Cocker Spaniels
  • Bloodhounds & other scent hounds

See below for tips on preventing ear problems in dogs with long, or hairy, ears.


Symptoms Of Dog Ear Problems

The outward symptoms of ear problems in dogs are generally similar regardless of the actual cause (or trigger). 

But the visible signs can vary slightly when infection is involved, but a dogs ear with a mite problem looks different from one with an infection.

Here are the types of behavior you're likely to see if Fido is suffering from ear problems of any kind:

  • Constant or repeated ear scratching
  • Frequent head-shaking
  • Head tilt
  • Unusual 'set' of the ear
  • Rubbing of ears against the carpet, furniture or doorways etc.

If not recognized and treated early enough, or if the infection is acute and severe, there are times when it travels beyond the external ear canal into the middle, or even the inner, ear canals.

This usually produces additional, more severe, symptoms which can include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Balance problems
  • Facial nerve paralysis
  • Nausea
  • Dry eyes or pupil changes


Dog ear infection symptoms

Visible symptoms inside Fido's ear:

  • Redness or inflammation
  • Swelling
  • Crusted or scabbed areas
  • Discharge
  • Excessive waxy build-up
  • Strong, or nasty, odor


Signs that your dog may have allergies

Visible symptoms inside your dog's ear:

  • Redness or inflammation
  • Excessive wax
  • Scabbed or crusted areas
  • Discharge

    * When allergies are the root cause of dog ear problems, the symptoms (as shown above )may be cyclic (regularly occur at a particular time of year) which would indicate a seasonal allergy.

    Or they can be chronic (pretty much constant) which could mean that a food allergy is the issue.

    An allergy to flea saliva can also result in itchy, inflamed ears and cause infection.

Symptoms of dog ear mites

Visible symptoms inside the ear:

  • Dark brown or black 'gunk' in the ear canal which can extend to the outer ear area
  • Redness or inflammation
  • Crusted or scabbed areas inside the ear flaps
  • Strong odor

Diagnosis & Treatment Of Dog Ear Infections

Diagnosis of Dog Ear Infections

If Fido is showing signs of an ear infection it's important to have your veterinarian examine his ears.

HELPFUL TIP....

Don't clean out your dogs' ears before you take him to your vet for an exam.

The vet needs to see what's happening in there!

The treatment options will vary depending on whether the infection is bacterial or fungal and only your veterinarian can make an accurate diagnosis.

Ear infections can be really painful (as you'll know if you, or one of your children has ever suffered from one!), so getting treatment asap is a priority.


Treating Dog Ear Infections 

If this is the first time that your dog has had ear problems then a vet visit is essential because you can't treat the ear properly until you know what's causing the problem!

There are four common types of bacteria (including Staph) which can cause canine ear infections, plus the yeast Malassesia.

Your veterinarian will be able to run tests which will identify the specific type of infection and prescribe an antibiotic (for bacterial infections) or an anti-fungal (for yeast infections).

Corticosteroids are sometimes necessary if the inflammation is severe or Fidos' ear is swollen.

Some products combine both steroid and antibiotic/anti-fungal.

Generally dog ear medicines come in topical/liquid form, either as drops (or in a pump-dispenser) or as an ointment. 

Vet administering ear drops for dog ear problems

Oral antibiotics or other oral meds can also be prescribed for severe, or more systemic, infections.

Popular dog ear medicines for treating ear infection in dogs include (but aren't limited to):

  • EasOtic (Topical Liquid)
  • Zymox (Liquid with hydrocortisone)
  • Posatex (Drops or Ointment)
  • Mometamax (Drops)
  • Tresaderm (Drops)
  • Baytril (Oral)
  • Cephalosporin Antibiotics (Oral)
  • Corticosteroids such as Prednisone Or Atopica (Cylclosporin medication)
  • Antihistamines (for allergy-related ear infections)

Once your veterinarian has taken swabs/cultures from your dogs ears and identified the problem he/she will usually clean the ears gently and then apply whatever medication is the best choice.

You'll need to continue the treatment at home, sometimes for only 5 - 10 days, other times it can take weeks for the infection to be fully eliminated.

Your vet will give you instructions and it's important to follow them closely and to FINISH all medications if told to do so. Stopping antibiotics early can lead to resistant infection.

If you have had your dog examined by your veterinarian previously for ear infections and he has a minor recurrence of the problem, there's an OTC product (non-prescription) which may help.

It's called Zymox Otic and contains natural enzymes as well as 1% hydrocortisone. Zymox has both antibacterial (but is NOT an antibiotic) and antifungal properties.

If you'd like to follow a natural route to treat your dog's ear infection you could try EcoEars.

EcoEars is an ear cleaner which contains a blend of all natural, organic ingredients with naturally disinfecting and antimicrobial properties.

It can reduce itching, pain and discharge gently and quickly. 

Also suitable to use for dogs with yeast ear problems and ear mites.

Previous veterinary beliefs were that yeast infections in dogs could be triggered by diet (too much grain or sugar), however that is no longer the case and many veterinarians no longer subscribe to this theory.

This is what Dr. Megan Teiber shared with me on this subject:

Yeast is considered an opportunistic infection meaning yeast is ubiquitous in the environment and most  dogs can eliminate yeast from the ear with no problem.

However if the skin’s normal defenses are disrupted by allergies or conformational abnormalities, the yeast takes over and infection becomes established. 

This is true of bacterial ear infections too. 

Food allergies are a big reason a dog becomes prone to infection, but grains are rarely the culprit in food allergies. 

So basically, most  healthy dogs will not experience dog ear problems which are due to the presence of yeast.

BUT, dogs who have allergies, compromised immune systems, physical abnormalities of their ears or are unwell, stressed or generally below-par in terms of health, are less able to handle any yeast and infection can take hold.

Once the initial infection has been treated by your veterinarian, feeding a grain-free diet and adding probiotics can help control the yeast and prevent future recurrences in susceptible dogs.


If Fidos' ear infection is caused by allergies then treating the initial (and secondary) infection won't make the problem go away permanently.

When allergies are involved in your dogs' ear problems, then it's vital to find the allergy trigger and eliminate it if at all possible. 

When a food ingredient is to blame, a dietary change can make all the difference.

Check out this page for the information and advice you need to deal with food-related allergies in dogs... All About Dog Food Allergies

Seasonal allergies are more difficult to deal with but oral antihistamines or even allergy shots can reduce your dogs reaction to the allergen and stop the resulting infections.

Learn more about Dog Allergy Symptoms and Dog Allergy Treatment

Surgery For Ear Infections?

If your dog has recurring, severe ear infections that don't respond to medication, your veterinarian may recommend sedating your dog and 'flushing' his ear canals, or even ear-canal ablation surgery. 


Diagnosis & Treatment Of Ear Mites

Diagnosis

Along with intense itching and often sore, red ears, a dog with ear mites usually has visible evidence of these little parasites.... black/brown crusty discharge or debris. 

It can almost look as though there are coffee-grounds deep in the ear canal.

Because these nasty little critters burrow into your dogs' tender skin to lay their eggs, and the surrounding tissue/ear flaps are likely to be red or irritated.

A visual inspection by your vet is usually enough to tell him that mites are your dog's ear problems, but he will follow up by removing some of the debris and examining it under a microscope to be certain.

Dog ear exam by veterinarian

There are different types of mites, and some fairly common ones such as Demodex  or Sarcoptic mites (which cause Mange) can cause ear problems but actually affect your dogs' whole body -and so a more systemic treatment is needed.

It's sometimes possible to do an 'at-home' ear mite test on your own pet if you have a fairly strong magnifying glass (or obviously a microscope would be better if you have one!).

You can gently swab your dogs ear to remove some of the crusty debris, and put it onto a clean piece of paper, then examine it closely through the magnification.

Ear mites will show up against the dark debris as tiny, moving white dots. BUT just because you don't see any, doesn't mean that your pet is mite-free.

Your vet has better equipment and more experience and is the best person to make the diagnosis!


Treating Dog Ear Mites

The most effective treatment for dog ear problems caused by mites are Ivermectin-based products.

Ivermectin Warning!

There are certain breeds who should never be given Ivermectin due to a particular over-sensitivity. These include herding dogs of all kinds, herding dog mixes & white German Shepherds. Older or elderly dogs can also be at risk.

Your vet will first clean out Fidos' ears gently and carefully, most likely using a mineral-oil based solution, and then apply the topical treatment.

Some medications only need to applied once, others will need follow up treatments either at home, or at the veterinary clinic.

Depending on how severe the problem is, your vet may prescribe antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, corticosteroids and/or topical ivermectin products (such as Advantage Multi or Revolution products usually used for flea/tick control) as these are also somewhat effective against mites.

Posatex, Zymox, Otomite Plus, Milbemite, Eradimite and other products are all commonly used.

Once your dog has been diagnosed with ear mites and been treated by your vet, you will be in a better position to recognize any future problems.

The following products can be bought without a prescription and can be effective in treating, and preventing, further earmite infestations...


Preventing Breed-Specific Dog Ear Problems

If you own a dog with long, floppy ears such as a Bloodhound, Basset Hound, Spaniel etc., he/she has an above-average chance of developing ear problems.

This is due to both the shape of the ear, whose weight and position forms a warm, moist and enclosed area for infection/mites to inhabit. 

Some dogs also have a tendency to grow hair deep inside their ears, and these also produce a warm, moist (and protected) environment where bacteria, yeast or mites can flourish.

Dogs who spend a lot of time in the water (hunting/retrieving dogs or just those who love to swim!) are also at higher risk of developing ear infections due to the inside of their ears being moist for long periods.

So, what can you do to prevent ear infections in dogs like these? 

Here are a few tips:


Keep those ears dry inside

If Fido has been swimming, be sure to dry his ears gently every time he comes inside.

Don't poke or prod and use soft cotton balls or pads, or a soft (and thin) hand towel or kitchen towel.

As long as you know your dogs ears are otherwise healthy (no punctured ear-drums for example) you can use the doggie-version of SwimEar such as Vedco Swimmer's Ear after his ears are dry.

Also, clean his ears gently at least every two or three weeks whenever he's swimming regularly.

Use a gentle cleaner such as  Nutri Vet Ear Cleanse or gentle ear wipes such as Earthbath All Natural Dog Ear Wipes.

When you bathe your puppy or dog, put some wadded cotton wool gently into the outer part of her ear - don't push it in there.

This will help keep shampoo and water out of he delicate ear canal. Don't forget to remove them when bath-time is over!

Find out how to bathe a puppy (or a dog, the process is the same) here... Bathing A Puppy.


Keep Fidos' ears clear of hair, moisture and debris

Dogs with long, floppy ears find it very easy to get stuff stuck on, and in, them.

Two Basset Hounds

After your dog has been outdoors always check his outer ear for burrs, seeds, sticks and so on, check the inside too. It's amazing how stuff just creeps in there.

Clean heavy, long, floppy or hairy dog ears bi-weekly with the same type of gentle cleaners mentioned above.

This helps to prevent any infections taking hold. Always dry the ears properly, and carefully, after cleaning.

Keep the hair on long, floppy ears short, and trimmed neatly around the edges.

If Fido has hairs growing inside the ear canal which are collecting wax or debris, ask your groomer to pluck them carefully. 

It's not necessary to do this for a few hairs, and can cause more problems than it solves in those cases, but if the hair is thick or is trapping moisture, wax and other stuff, then they need to go.


Physical Dog Ear Problems

Finally, there's an 'open-category' for injuries and conditions that affect your dogs' ears.This isn't a big group!

Dogs with ear infections or mites can cut or injure the skin in and around the ear and cause bleeding.

Obviously treating the underlying infection is the #1 task, but it's also important to keep any scratches/cuts clean and watch for signs of infection (including swelling, redness, heat or pus).

Itchy ears are intensely irritating for Fido, and frequent head shaking is common. 

Occasionally your dog will shake his head so violently that he actually breaks a blood-vessel (or two) in his ear flap/s.

This often causes a dog ear hematoma when part of the ear flap can fills up with blood and ends up looking quite swollen and strange. 

If this happens take your dog to your veterinarian as the blood may need to be drained. In severe cases of ear hematomas in dogs surgery is needed to correct the problem.

Although the collection of blood may be reabsorbed into the ear if over time if left alone, it's a very painful condition for your dog to endure.

When a hematoma isn't treated properly Fido is likely to end up with 'Cauliflower ear', yes the same thing boxers have happen to their ears! This is unsightly and uncomfortable.

Bug bites or stings, can cause swelling (sometimes pretty severe swelling) at the site of the trauma.

An allergic reaction can cause swelling of the head, face, muzzle and sometimes the ears as well.

The head shaking and ear scratching of a dog with allergies affecting his ears can also cause a hematoma to develop.

This type of reaction can be serious and you need to have your pup/dog seen by your vet if it happens.


Dog Ear Problems - A Veterinarians' View

Ear problems are among the most common reasons dogs need to see the vet.

While ear infections are often considered “routine”, they are painful for dogs and extremely frustrating for their owners! 

It is important to identify the underlying cause of recurrent ear issues.  Otherwise, ear disease can become increasingly difficult to manage. I highly recommend scheduling a veterinary exam when you notice any symptoms of ear disease.

The vast majority of ear problems are due to otitis externa, which is infection in the outer ear canal. 

Your vet will confirm this diagnosis based on an otoscope exam and cytology.  Cytology is an essential step to determine what type of infection is present.  A swab is taken of the ear and examined under the microscope for yeast, bacteria, mites, or inflammatory cells.  This is done in just a few minutes, and based on the results, your vet will recommend a topical ear drop or ointment. 

Most medications contain a combination of antibiotic, antifungal, and steroid ingredients that are applied directly into the ear canal once or twice daily for 1-2 weeks.  Some products can be instilled into the ear at the veterinary clinic and stay in place for a couple weeks, which is a great option for dogs that are painful or not tolerant of their ears being handled at home.

Oral antibiotics are not very effective at treating outer ear infections. They are typically used for middle or inner ear infections, which are much less common.  This is an important difference between pets and children, who usually develop middle ear infections and require oral antibiotics.  

Not all ear medications are created equal and they are not interchangeable.  Your vet will  select the best product based on your dog’s exam, history, and cytology results.  If an infection is recurrent and severe, they may even recommend a culture and sensitivity test, which will reveal the exact bacteria present and what antibiotic will be the most effective.  

In addition to topical medications, ear cleansers are usually recommended to clear the debris from the ear and break up the bacterial biofilm before instituting treatment. Cleansers are also useful after an infection has resolved to maintain a healthy ear canal.  Just like ear medications, not all cleansers are the same.  Your vet will recommend a specific cleanser based on the type of infection present.

If your dog’s ears are very inflamed and painful, your vet may prescribe a steroid or other anti-inflammatory medication for a few days. This alleviates discomfort faster than topical ear drops and can help you apply daily medications and cleansers with less difficulty. 

After completing the treatment course for otitis, it is imperative that you schedule a recheck exam with your vet, even if you feel the ears have improved.  If an infection isn’t completely cleared it will come back quickly and could become resistant to routine antibiotics, making it increasingly difficult to resolve. 

The longer an infection is present, it can alter the environment of the ear canal.  The canal may become scarred and thickened, making it very uncomfortable and inefficient at clearing infection and discharge.  These ear canals are very narrow so medication can’t penetrate down the entire canal. It becomes a vicious cycle in which each infection is worse than the one before it.

For this reason, I also strongly discourage reusing previous ear medications without a veterinary exam and cytology.  Ear infections may appear similar based on the outward appearance and symptoms, but can be comprised of entirely different bacterial or yeast organisms.  Inappropriate treatments will predispose your dog to increasingly severe ear problems. 

Most ear infections, with the exception of mites, are not contagious between dogs. 

They are usually opportunistic infections due to underlying allergies or other medical conditions.  Dogs can have environmental allergies, food allergies, or both.  If your dog suffers from frequent ear problems, I highly recommend strict prescription diet trials and other allergy tests to get to the root of the problem. 

Bloodwork is important to look for underlying thyroid or adrenal gland disease, which can predispose to otitis as well.

While special tests and prescription diets seem expensive at first, it will save money in the long run by preventing chronic ear infections. 

Author: Dr. Megan Teiber, DVM


All the information and advice on this page has been approved by
Veterinarian, Dr. Megan Teiber, DVM



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