Dog Ear Infections Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

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Dog head tilt question
Dog Head Tilt Question

Veterinarians estimate as much as 20 percent of all dogs suffer from ear infections at some point in their lives. Canine ears come in all shapes and sizes, from upright ears to floppy or fuzzy ears with hair inside. Despite the outside look, the ear structure and how dogs hear is quite similar in all breeds.

What Is a Canine Ear Infection?

Ear infections or other ear problems usually involve inflammation of the ear canal. It causes extreme discomfort and in some cases can damage your pet’s hearing. Dog ear canals are shaped like an L and easily trap moisture or foreign material like grass seeds in the canal. That creates the perfect place for bacteria, fungi, and ear mites to settle and cause problems. Interestingly enough, often times allergies are responsible for many ear infections.

Signs of Ear Infections in Dogs

No matter what causes the issue, ear problems in dogs have very similar signs of distress. These may occur by themselves or in combination so anytime you see symptoms it’s best to get your canine to the veterinarian for an exam. Dogs may:

  • Shake their heads very frequently or at odd times
  • Scratch the affected ear
  • “Tilt” the head toward the sore side
  • Act dizzy and fall over
  • Walk in circles
short-coated brown dog lying on bed
short-coated brown dog lying on bed

Constant head shaking can bruise the earflap and create a hematoma. When that happens it can swell up like a giant blood blister, ballooning the skin with blood and serum. Sometimes this takes surgery to correct.

Causes of Ear Infections

There are a few different types of infections that can all happen in the dog's ear. Dog ear infections can be caused by parasites (like ear mites), allergies to food or the environment, conformation of the dog's ears, hyperkeratinization, endocrine diseases like hypothyroid disease, immune mediated diseases and more. The most common type of ear infections include:

  • Yeast infections turn the dog's ear hot, red, and “goopy.” This type of infection often smells rancid. A thick, dark, or waxy discharge characterized by a distinctive musty odor is a sign of yeast or fungal infection.
  • Bacterial infections cause a nasty light brown, yellow, green, or bloody discharge. Such infections are pretty common in dogs. An acute bacterial infection is often due to the staphylococci organism and the discharge will be light brown. Chronic bacterial infections may be caused by the proteus organism and will typically result in a yellow discharge. Finally, they may be caused by Pseudomonas organism which is a serious bacterium that has shown resistance to many antibiotics.
  • Ear mites can coat the inside of the ear with a black to brown, sticky or crumbly discharge. The tiny bugs live inside and bite the flesh of the ear canal. The mites can drive pets to distraction with the resulting itch. Ear mites easily spread from cat to dog (and back again). If one of your pets has a case of the bugs, you’ll need to treat the rest of the furry crew as well.

Types of Dogs at Greatest Risk

Dog's that are prone to allergies (food or environmental) or have heavy floppy ears like cocker spaniels are prone to ear infections. Some pets that go for frequent swims can be prone to them as well.

black and white short coated small dog on brown couch
black and white short coated small dog on brown couch


The best bet if you suspect an ear infection is to bring your dog to the vet's office for an exam. Putting the wrong medicine in your pet’s ears could make the problem worse or even damage a dog's hearing. Because of this, we do not recommend buying an over the counter ear medication to treat your pet's ear infections. These are often ineffective and just delay your pet's painful ear infection from being treated properly. Severe infections with painful ears may require dogs to be sedated so a thorough cleaning can be done. Most veterinary ear medications go directly in the ear but in severe cases where an inner ear infection may be suspected, they may also prescribe oral antibiotics for several weeks to go along with it.

Some pet's may be prone to ear infections throughout their life and these require owners to be very proactive in getting a pet to the veterinarian at the first sign of an ear infection. Pet's with severe ear infections or those prone to chronic ear infections may have internal ear damage occur which requires advanced diagnostics and treatments to include a visit to the specialist, CT scans and/or inner ear scopings.

Dogs with fur growing inside their ears (such as poodles, shih tzus, cocker spaniels, and Lhasa apsos) can have the fur periodically plucked out to increase air circulation which may help prevent infections. Ask your groomer or veterinarian to demonstrate so that you or a professional can maintain good ear grooming care.

How to Prevent Ear Infections

Discuss with your veterinarian ways to help prevent your pet's ear infections. For some pet's, periodic cleanings with an ear cleaner from your veterinarian may be helpful or if your pet is prone to ear hair, consider having your dog's ears plucked when they are groomed.

short-coated black and tan dog photograph
short-coated black and tan dog photograph
beige chihuahua
beige chihuahua

If your pet's ear infections are chronic or seemingly related to allergies, your veterinarian may recommend a prescription food allergy diet trial or a visit to a veterinary dermatology specialist.

The most important thing to remember about ear infections in pet's is to bring them in to your vet at the first notice of a problem and to be diligent about coming back for rechecks and giving medications as directed. If your pet is prone to chronic ear infections, realize that a more long term management plan may be in order to include food allergy diet trial or allergy testing or more advanced diagnostics.