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Ear Infections in Dogs

Dog Ear Infection: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Dog ear infection is a painful inflammation of a dog’s ear structures. Dog ear infections are acute or chronic, based on duration. Ear infections occur in three types: otitis externa (outer ear), otitis media (middle ear), and otitis interna (inner ear), depending on the affected ear structure. 

Common causes of ear infections in dogs include anatomical abnormalities, genetics, allergies, poor hygiene, moisture, bacterial and yeast overgrowth, ear mites, foreign objects, trauma, polyps or tumors, and hormonal imbalances. Chronic or recurrent ear infections are signs of dog allergies. Ear mites trigger secondary ear infections in dogs. 

Dog ear infection symptoms include head shaking, ear scratching, odor, redness and swelling, ear discharge, ear sensitivity, head tilting, loss of balance, hair loss, sores, and behavioral changes. A telltale ear infection indicator is when a dog's ear is swollen or ear discharge in the dogs ear. 

Ear infection in dogs are treated with ear cleaning, topical ear drops, and oral medications. CBD oil relieves symptoms and supports treatment, although CBD does not cure dog ear infections. The prognosis is good for otitis externa in dogs. Dogs with otitis media and interna require more aggressive treatment. Surgical correction of the ear is necessary in severe cases. 

What is a Dog Ear Infection?

A dog ear infection is inflammation of the ear structures. The medical term for ear infection in dogs is otitis. Ear infections manifest with inflammation, irritation, and pain. 

Dogs have three ear infection types based on the affected ear structure, including otitis externa, otitis media, and otitis interna. 

Otitis externa is inflammation of the outer ear canal; otitis media is inflammation of the middle ear; and otitis interna is inflammation of the internal ear structures. 

Dog ear infections rarely occur as a primary condition. Most ear infection cases are secondary, meaning they are a symptom of another underlying problem. 

Ear infection dogs are widespread and affect one in five canines, according to the article “Dog Ear Infections: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and Prevention” by the American Kennel Club in 2024. 

What is Otitis Externa in Dog Ears?

Otitis externa in dog ears is inflammation of the outer ear, affecting the layer of cells covering the external part of the canal and ear flap. 

Otitis externa is an inflammatory disease of the external ear canal, including the ear pinna. Otitis externa may be acute or chronic (persistent or recurrent otitis lasting for 3 months or longer),” according to a study “Canine Otitis Externa — Treatment and Complications” published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal in 2019. 

External otitis is the most common cause of red ears in dogs. Red ears are a telltale sign of ear infection. 

See a veterinarian when a dogs ear is red inside to treat the inflammation and prevent spreading. Otitis externa progresses and evolves into otitis media or otitis interna when untreated. 

What are the Causes of Ear Infections in Dogs?

The causes of ear infections in dogs are listed below. 

  • Anatomical Factors: Congenital anatomical defects of the ear flap, ear canal, or inner ear structures increase the likelihood of ear infections in dogs. Anatomical abnormalities of the ear are rare in dogs. 
  • Genetics: Long and floppy-eared dog breeds are predisposed to ear infections because the ear canal is unable to be dried by air. Basset Hounds and Beagles are dog breeds with a predisposition to ear infections.   
  • Allergies: Allergies cause itchy ears in dogs. Dogs scratch the itchy ears for relief, encouraging bacterial and fungal overgrowth. Ear infections are a common side effect of environmental and food allergies in dogs. 
  • Poor Ear Hygiene: Poor ear hygiene is a primary cause of ear infections in dogs. Debris accumulates in uncleaned ears, allowing favorable conditions for germ multiplication. 
  • Moisture: Trapped moisture in the ears contributes to ear infections, creating a breeding ground for harmful bacteria and yeasts. Moisture buildup is typical for dogs with floppy ears, hairy ear canals, and dogs that swim frequently.
  • Bacterial Overgrowth: Bateria in a dog’s ear is normal. Dog ear infections develop when the population of harmful bacteria exceeds the good bacteria population, causing an imbalance. Staphylococcus spp. is the number one otitis-causing bacteria.   
  • Yeast (Fungal) Infections: Yeasts are a normal part of the dog’s ear microbiome, and in healthy dogs, the good yeasts balance with the harmful yeasts. Damage to the skin barrier allows the harmful yeasts to multiply without control, resulting in infections. The most common culprit is Malassezia dermatitis
  • Ear Mites Infestation: Ear mites irritate the inner lining of the ear canal and cause itchiness. The scratching and rubbing disrupt the healthy skin barrier in the canal and trigger ear infections in dogs. 
  • Foreign Objects: Foreign objects stuck in the dog’s ear canal cause ear infections. The predominant foreign objects retrieved from dog ears are grass awns, such as foxtails and cheatgrass. 
  • Trauma: Traumatic injuries affecting the ear canal or other ear structures cause local inflammation that sometimes progresses into infections. 
  • Polyps or Tumors: Polyps are non-tumorous and fleshy growths inside the dog's ear canal. Polyps and tumors increase the risk of ear infection in dogs because they physically block the canal and prevent air from drying the ears. 
  • Hormonal Imbalances: Hormonal problems are another answer to the “How do dogs get ear infections” question. Hypothyroidism, or low thyroid hormone level, is the number one endocrine condition increasing the risk of ear infections in dogs. 

How do Allergies Contribute to the Development of Ear Infections in Dogs?

Allergies contribute to the development of ear infections in dogs through itchy ears. Itchy skin and ears are standard for dogs with environmental and food allergies. 

The itchiness causes the dog to scratch its ears. Scratching disrupts the protective barrier and increases the risk of secondary infections. Chronic or recurrent ear infections are telltale signs of dog allergies

How do Ear Mites Cause Ear Infections in Dogs?

Ear mites cause ear infections in dogs by triggering irritation and itchiness. Ear mites are tiny and highly contagious bugs that live in the ear canals and feed on wax and oils. 

Ear mites do not bite, but their presence in the ear canal causes irritation and itching. Constant scratching and rubbing of the ears leads to secondary ear infections. 

Check the dog’s ears regularly, maintain optimal hygiene, and avoid contact with infected dogs to prevent ear mites in dogs

What Type of Breeds are Prone to Dog Ear Infection?

The type of breeds prone to ear infections are dogs with large and floppy ears. Dirt and moisture build up in long and floppy-eared dogs. The dirt and moisture create the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. 

Basset Hounds, Chinese Shar Peis, Labradoodles, Beagles, and Golden Retrievers are the top five breeds most susceptible to ear infections, reports a study, “Frequency and Predisposing Factors for Canine Otitis Externa in the UK – A Primary Veterinary Care Epidemiological View,” published in Canine Medicine and Genetics in 2021.  

Jack Russel Terriers, Yorkshire Terriers, Border Collies, and Chihuahuas are the least likely to develop ear infections because of their upright ears.  

What are the Signs of Ear Infection in Dogs?

The signs of ear infections in dogs are listed below. 

  • Head Shaking: Head shaking is the dog’s attempt to remove the accumulated wax and debris inside the ear canal. 
  • Ear Scratching: Ear infections are itchy and make the dog obsessed with scratching its ears. 
  • Ear Odor: The accumulated debris and moisture in the ear canal caused by the infection is foul-smelling and repulsive. 
  • Redness and Swelling: The two main signs of inflammation, redness, and swelling, are typical for dogs with infected ears. 
  • Ear Discharge: Infections produce secretions that mix with the dog’s ear wax, debris, and skin cells, creating ear discharge of various colors. 
  • Ear Sensitivity: Ear infections in dogs are painful and make the dog reluctant to have its ears touched. 
  • Tilting of the Head: The dog tilts its head to the side of the ear infection in response to the pain.
  • Loss of Balance: Ear infections in dogs spread to the inner ear structures and cause loss of balance accompanied by dizziness when untreated. 
  • Hair Loss and Sores: The dog ear infection spreads to the skin around the ear base, resulting in hair loss and skin sores, such as scabs and crusts. 
  • Behavioral Changes: Ear infections affect the dog’s behavior because they are painful. Behavior changes such as mood swings, loss of appetite, lethargy, and fever are indicators of ear infections in dogs.  

1. Head Shaking

Head shaking in dogs is voluntary head bobbing associated with discomfort. Head shaking is the dog’s attempt to remove the discharge, which makes it uncomfortable. 

Maintain optimal ear health to prevent head shaking. The head shaking gradually resolves as the infection is treated. See the vet immediately if the dog’s head shakes.  

2. Ear Scratching

Ear scratching is a nervous habit indicating itchy ears. Dogs respond to the itchy ears by rubbing or scratching them relentlessly, which is painful and results in self-inflicted injuries. 

Prevent ear scratching by using an Elizabethan collar. Treating ear infections helps resolve the ear scratching permanently. Schedule a prompt veterinary visit if the dog is scratching its ears excessively. 

3. Ear Odor

Ear odor is the unpleasant smell that radiates from infected ears. The ear odor does not directly affect the dog, but it is uncomfortable for the owner. 

Maintains ear hygiene to prevent odors. Ear odor does not require treatment and resolves once infections clear up and the discharge normalizes. Consult the veterinarian for dogs with smelly ears. 

4. Redness and Swelling

Redness and swelling are two of the five main signs of inflammation. Inflamed ears are very painful to dogs and affect their quality of life. 

Check the dog’s ear regularly to prevent redness and swelling. The treatment for inflamed ears is antibiotics or antiinflammatories. Contact the vet immediately if the dog develops red and swollen ears. 

5. Ear Discharge

Ear discharge is a mixture of debris in the canal that comes out of the ear. The amount and type of discharge reveal information about the infection. Otorrhea makes the dog uncomfortable.  

Prevent ear discharge by maintaining ear health and reducing the risk of infections. Clean the ear discharge in dogs regularly because it is a breeding ground for germs. Ottorhea in dogs requires a veterinary visit, especially if the discharge is smelly, dark, or green. 

6. Ear Sensitivity

Ear sensitivity is the abnormal, painful reaction when touching the dog’s ears. Infected ears are painful, and dogs get irritable or even snappy when touching their ears. 

Control ear infections early on to prevent ear sensitivity. The sensation is limited and resolves when the infection is treated. Schedule a veterinary visit if a dog develops sensitive ears. 

7. Tilting of the Head

Tilting of the head is the position where the dog keeps one side of the head lower. Dogs with ear infections tilt their heads to the side of the affected ear. Head tilt indicates pain. 

Prevent tilting of the head by not allowing the infection to spread. Treatment with local and oral antibiotics manages the ear infections and stops head tilts. Visit the vet immediately because a dog tilting its head is a worrisome sign. 

8. Loss of Balance

Loss of balance is the inability to stand still in a position. The condition occurs when infections spread and affect the vestibular system in the dog’s inner ear. The vestibular apparatus regulates position and movement.

Minimize the risk of loss of balance by treating infections promptly. Loss of balance does not require treatment but dictates supportive care. Dogs must be hand-fed because keeping the head down provokes nausea, and the dog must be inactive to avoid injuries. Loss of balance in dogs is an emergency and requires immediate veterinary attention. 

9. Hair Loss or Sores

Hair loss and sores develop around the ear base on the dog’s head. The infection from the ears, in dogs with otitis externa, spreads to the outside, causing patchy hair loss and itchy skin sores. 

Prevent ear infections from spreading to avoid hair loss or sores. Constant itching exacerbates hair loss and skin lesions, but they do not require special treatment and heal once the infection resolves. Call the vet immediately if a dog starts losing hair and forming sores around the ears. 

10. Behavioral Changes

Behavioral changes in dogs with ear infections include mood swings, loss of appetite, lethargy, and fever. These changes stem from pain and discomfort. 

Support and care for the dog and give it space to prevent exacerbating behavioral problems. The issues are resolved as soon as the ear infection is treated. Behavioral changes in dogs require prompt veterinary care.  

What Does an Ear Infection Look Like in a Dog?

An ear infection in a dog looks like a red and inflamed ear canal. The ear emits an offensive odor when the ear flap is lifted. The ear base has sporadic hair loss and skin lesions like scabs and crusts. The base is covered with dried ear discharge that is brownish to black. The dog tilts its head to the side of the ear infection. 

What is the Most Effective Dog Ear Infections Treatment?

The most effective dog ear infection treatment is cleaning the ears and using medications. The ear cleaning is done at the vet’s office or home, depending on the situation. The veterinarian recommends an ear treatment specifically for the infection. 

Medications for ear infections are topical or oral. Topical medications come in ear drops, including antibiotics, antifungals, or anti-inflammatories. Advanced and severe forms of ear infections require topical antimicrobials or steroids. 

Surgery is the answer for pet owners who ask, “ How to treat dog ear infection that does not respond to regular therapy?” 

Surgery is recommended when there is permanent tissue damage. Partial tissue removal is called lateral ear resection, and complete canal removal is known as total ear canal ablation or TECA. 

What to do to Reduce the Risk of Dog Ear Infection?

To reduce the risk of dog ear infection ensure the dog has rigorous ear hygiene. Ear maintenance includes regular grooming and ear cleaning. 

Regular grooming refers to plucking the hairs in the canal that trap dirt and prevent moisture from evaporating. Ear cleaning entails using commercially available pet ear flushing solutions. The ear solutions have a dog-friendly pH and contain drying agents. 

Ear cleaning is important for dogs, particularly long-eared dogs, and dogs that swim regularly. 

Healthy nutrition starting at puppyhood reduces the risk of ear infections in later life. Eating a non-processed meat-based diet (NPMD, raw) significantly decreased the risk of otitis, while eating an ultra-processed carbohydrate-based diet (UPCD, dry) significantly increased the risk, according to a study, “Early Life Programming by Diet Can Play a Role in Risk Reduction of Otitis in Dogs,” published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science in 2023. 

Is Dog Ear Infection Contagious to Other Pets or Humans?

No, dog ear infection is not contagious to other pets or humans. Ear infections do not transmit from one dog to another. 

Certain causes of ear infections are transmissible. Ear mites are highly contagious and spread through direct contact, for example. Dogs with ear mites transmit mites to other dogs and cats. 

What Happens if a Dog Ear Infection is Left Untreated?

If a dog ear infection is left untreated the dog develops hearing problems. The hearing loss is conductive, sensorineural, or mixed. 

Conductive hearing loss is caused by debris accumulation, narrowing of the ear canal, or swelling of the ear glands. Sensorineural hearing loss caused by an untreated dog ear infection is due to nerve damage. 

Hearing issues in dogs with ear infections are reversible or irreversible, based on the stage and treatment. Early diagnoses and treatment minimize the risk of hearing problems in dogs. 

Can Ear Infection Make a Dog Deaf?

Yes, an ear infection can make a dog deaf. Ear infections are associated with hearing loss. Hearing loss is sometimes reversible if the infection is caught early and treated properly. 

Ear infections lead to deafness in dogs in unmanaged and advanced cases. Dog ear infections spread and affect the middle and inner ear, causing inflammation and permanent damage, culminating in deafness. Deaf dogs learn to rely on the rest of the senses and compensate for their hearing deficits. 

Can CBD Oil Helps Dog Ear Problems?

Yes, CBD oil helps dog ear problems. CBD is not a cure for ear infections, but it helps relieve the symptoms and supports the treatment. 

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a hemp extract with health-boosting properties. CBD helps dogs with ear infections because it has anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. Cannabidiol supports ear health in dogs by reducing inflammation and relieving pain. 

Talk to a veterinarian about CBD oil vs. traditional medications for dogs. CBD is natural and safe to use with mainstream ear infection treatments.