If your dog suddenly starts whining and scratching at her ears or frequently shaking her head, she may have an ear infection. Ear infections are one of the most common health problems that bring dogs to the veterinarian office. They can be very painful and even lead to deafness. And in the summer months, dogs are even more susceptible to getting them.
Canine ear infections come in two forms: Otitis Media and Otitis Interna. Otitis media is an inflammation of the dog’s middle ear. Otitis Interna is an inflammation of the dog’s inner ear. Both these are commonly caused by a bacterial infection. Other causes include yeasts, fungi and ear mites, along with trauma from an accident, tumors or polyps in the ear, and even a foreign body in the ear.
Ear infections often begin in the external ear canal, which is the inside of the ear that can be seen from the outside. The lining of the ear produces sebum, which is oil, and wax. The buildup of sebum, wax, moisture, hair and debris produce a fertile breeding ground for bacteria and yeast. This often leads to an ear infection.
Dogs that suffer from allergies also tend to develop ear infections. When the ears become itchy, and your dog scratches them, it can disrupt the ear’s defenses against bacterial infection. Allergies can also lead to an increased growth of bacteria and yeast. This can lead to chronic infections if the allergies are not treated.
It’s our job as dog parents to know the signs of an ear infection and treat it sooner rather than later. The more advanced an ear infection gets, the more serious the potential consequences.
Signs of Canine Ear Infections
Watch out for these signs of an ear infection:
Whining and pawing or scratching at ears
Shaking head frequently
Odor from ears
Scaly skin around ears
Dark, smelly discharge
Red, irritated ears (sometimes painful)
Scabs and/or hair loss around ears (from scratching)
Involuntary head tilt that isn’t a response to sound or sight
Chronic, severe infections may result in deafness, facial paralysis, eye problems and signs of vestibular disease including involuntary head tilting, circling and loss of balance and coordination. The vestibular system, responsible for maintaining balance, is located centrally in the brain and peripherally in the inner and middle ear.
When an ear infection becomes chronic, you are looking at a lifetime of maintenance treatment rather than treatment meant to cure. It will be a matter of keeping the infection under control, keeping the ears clean, reducing allergens and regular veterinary checkups to monitor the infection.
Dog Breeds Prone to Ear Infections
Dog breeds with floppy ears and long ears are more prone to ear infections. This is because the shape of the ear tends to trap moisture and makes it easier for dirt and bacteria to become trapped.
Dog breeds with floppy ears prone to ear infections include the:
Cavalier King Charles
Dog breeds that love to swim and spend a lot of time in water are also more prone to ear infections. This is because water accumulates in the ear, but the shape of the ear canal makes it difficult for the water to escape. The resulting moist environment creates a fertile bacteria and yeast breeding ground.
Dog breeds that are swimmers prone to ear infections include the:
Chesapeake Bay Retriever
Irish Water Spaniel
Portuguese Water Dog
Dog breeds that have more hair growing in their ear canals are more likely to get ear infections too. When the hair functions properly, it keeps debris out of the ear. But in breeds with excess hair in the ear canal, it can trap dirt, debris and moisture.
Dog breeds with hairy ears prone to ear infections include the:
Diagnosing an Ear Infection
Obviously, the best course is to recognize that your dog has an ear infection and treat it immediately, so it can be cured. As soon as you see signs of an ear infection, take your dog to the vet.
Your vet will exam your dog’s ears, including a visual assessment and palpitating the ears to determine if your dog is in pain. Other possible tests include an examination with an otoscope, which looks into the ear to identify causes like foreign objects, impacted wax and debris, ear mites and even damage to the ear drum. Other tests may include a microscopic examination of tissue from the ear and tissue culture. For chronic or severe infections, biopsies and X-rays may be necessary.
Treating an Ear Infection
Your vet will thoroughly clean your dog’s ears first, and then put a prescription ointment or drops in the ear. At home, you will have to clean the ear with a prescription veterinary ear cleaner and administer the ointment or drops.
Depending on the kind and severity of the infection, you may also have to give your dog an oral antibiotic, steroids to reduce the inflammation and pain medication. Ear mites are treated with medication administered directly into the ear or between the shoulders. If the ear infection resulted from allergies, it’s essential to treat those allergies to prevent the infection returning and becoming chronic.
Cleaning the ears is a very important step. Use an appropriate ear solution and a cotton ball; never use a Q-tip. You’ll need to return to the veterinarian in 5 to 7 days. Simple ear infections can take from 10 days to a month to resolve. Other infections can take months.
Depending on the cause and the breed, regular cleaning with a dog ear cleaning solution may be necessary to prevent the infection recurring. Remember: The longer an infection is allowed to develop before treatment, the harder it will be to cure. So, take your dog to the veterinarian at the first sign of a problem.