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Dog Ear Infections: Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention

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If you’re a proud pet parent to a lovable pooch, you should be prepared to one day help your canine companion fight off an ear infection. Why? For one thing, your pal’s ear canal is mostly vertical unlike yours, which is mostly horizontal.

This vertical orientation makes it easier for dirt, debris, and moisture to get trapped inside the ear and lead to infection. There are a lot of reasons why dogs get ear infections, which are one of the most common health problems pups face.

black and tan dog with a light blue collar

Dog Ear Infections: The Basics

The medical term for an ear infection is otitis, or an inflammation of the ear. Your doggie could get one of three types, depending on what part of their ear is affected:

  • Otitis Externa develops when the outer ear canal becomes inflamed
  • Otitis Medina refers to inflammation of the middle ear
  • Otitis Interna is a serious condition affecting the inner ear that can lead to permanent damage

Otitis Externa is the most common, but it’s important that you always take your pup to the veterinarian if you suspect an ear infection, even if their symptoms are mild. Ear infections can spread deeper into the ear canal, causing nerve damage, equilibrium issues, and hearing loss.

What Causes Dog Ear Infections?

There are a lot of factors that can contribute to your pooch developing an ear infection. Some common ones include excess hair in the ear canal, earwax buildup, or too much moisture. However, these factors are only contributors.

Typically, dog ear infections are linked to an underlying cause, such as:

  • Allergies
  • Parasites (like ear mites)
  • Foreign bodies
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Tumors or polyps
  • Physical trauma (like deep scratches)

What Dogs Are at Risk?

Dog ear infections don’t discriminate. Any pooch can develop one at any time – regardless of age, breed, or medical history. However, doggies with allergies and certain medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism, are at a higher risk for ear infections.

The shape of a dog’s pinnae, or outer ear, can also be a factor. Breeds with long, floppy ears – like Cocker Spaniels, Springer Spaniels, and Labrador Retrievers – are predisposed to the condition.

boston terrier with big ears and a red harness

Dog Ear Infection Symptoms

It’s pretty adorable when your lil’ buddy tilts their head to the side and looks up at you with those puppy dog eyes. But persistent head-tilting could actually be a sign that your pup is suffering from a dog ear infection. If your dog keeps shaking their head, they might also be trying to tell you they are experiencing pain or discomfort. Other symptoms include:

  • Aggressive scratching or rubbing against hard objects
  • Excessive licking, biting, or chewing on skin
  • Redness, swelling, or odor around the ears
  • Brown, yellow, or bloody discharge
  • Hair loss, crusts, or scabs around the ears
  • Reluctance to chew
  • Unusual eye movements
  • Loss of balance

Remember, dog ear infections are typically the result of a root cause and additional factors, which all add up to a very miserable pup. Contact your veterinarian as soon as you observe symptoms in your dog, so you can put the right treatment plan in place to get your furry friend on the mend.

white and tan cocker spaniel resting on a red chair


If you suspect an ear infection, schedule a visit with your veterinarian so that they may perform a thorough physical examination to determine the root cause. They can also check your pup for any self-trauma, deformities of the outer ear, and abnormal tissue growth that could lead to ear infections.

Next, the veterinarian may examine your dog’s ears with an otoscope. This handy device gives a magnified view inside your pal’s ears and helps identify impacted debris, ear mites, or anything else causing trouble. It also lets the veterinarian know if the eardrum has been ruptured or damaged in any way. If your pooch is in a lot of pain or tends to get nervous in these situations, they may need to be sedated for this part of the examination.

From there, your veterinarian may want to take tissue cultures or examine your pup’s discharge for parasites. If allergies are the suspected culprit, your veterinarian may recommend allergy testing. If there’s a chance the middle or inner ear is affected, your dog may need an X-ray. In severe, long-term cases where just one ear is affected, a tumor may be present, and your dog could require a biopsy.

papillon with big ears and a blue collar


Since ear infections are linked to a variety of causes, treatments can vary. In the most basic terms, bacterial infections require antibiotics, fungal infections require fungicides, and parasite-related infections require insecticides.

Your veterinarian will work with you to develop a treatment plan. In many cases, your pup will receive an ear cleaning right in the veterinarian’s office because earwax and discharge can interfere with topical medications. Then your veterinarian will send your pal home with 2-4 weeks of medicated eardrops. It’s critical that you finish the entire course of medication – even if your dog’s symptoms start to improve – and schedule a follow-up visit with your veterinarian.

No matter what, do not try to treat your dog’s ear infection at home without consulting your veterinarian. Home remedies can be painful and dangerous.

Tips for Applying Ear Medication

Singing “A Spoonful of Sugar” might calm your nerves, but it’s probably not going to help your doggie’s eardrops go down their ear canal any more efficiently. Make sure you ask your veterinarian for a demonstration. You can also try these helpful hints:

  1. Administer the medication outside where your dog may feel more relaxed – and you won’t be worried about the mess!
  2. Double-team your furry friend. Having a human partner means you have one person to administer meds and one to hold and comfort your pup.
  3. Place the medication applicator just inside the opening of your dog’s ear and gently massage the surrounding area.
  4. Stay calm. It’s normal for your lil’ buddy to shake and scratch immediately afterward.
  5. Don’t forget to praise your pooch – and maybe offer a treat! – after you successfully administer the medication.

small white dog with blue and red collar

Preventing Dog Ear Infections

If your dog has recurring ear infections, speak with your veterinarian about developing a long-term plan that takes into account their history and lifestyle. For most pups, basic prevention includes checking the ears regularly for debris and wax buildup.

Always keep your pal’s ears dry and well ventilated, taking extra care after bathing or swimming. Your veterinarian can prescribe an ear-cleaning solution with a special drying agent if needed, but make sure you never apply with Q-tips – cotton-tipped applicators can damage your dog’s ears.

Grooming can also be a helpful preventative measure, taking special care to trim excess ear hair, but always ask your veterinarian for a demo first or take your pal to a professional groomer. And of course, scheduling an annual check-up is an important step in prevention.

How Pet Health Insurance Can Help

Like any pet health condition, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up expenses for dog ear infections can add up. An ASPCA Pet Health Insurance Plan can help cover the cost of care for your furry friend. Get a quote now.

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