Chronic ear infections can be distressing for dogs and their owners, and often can be difficult to treat, because they are caused by an underlying issue. Our Carriage Crossing Animal Hospital team wants to help by answering frequently asked questions about dog ear infections.

Question: What causes ear infections in dogs?

Answer: Bacteria and yeast normally inhabit your dog’s ears, but they can cause an ear infection when conditions allow them to over grow. The most common microorganisms cultured from dogs affected by ear infections include Staphylococcus pseudintermedius and Malassezia pachydermatis. Conditions that can contribute to microorganism overgrowth include:

  • Excessive moisture — Water trapped in the ear canal can create a favorable environment for bacteria and yeast growth.
  • Allergies — Hypersensitivity reactions in response to food and environmental allergies can weaken the skin barrier and cause excess ear wax production, allowing microorganisms to over grow.
  • Hypothyroidism — Hypothyroidism is a common endocrine disease in middle-aged dogs that results in decreased thyroid hormone production, and affects numerous body systems. Many affected dogs experience chronic skin and ear infections. Other signs include unexplained weight gain, decreased activity, and hair loss.
  • Hyperadrenocorticism — Also known as Cushing’s disease, this endocrine disorder causes increased cortisol levels in the body, decreasing the affected dog’s ability to fight infection.
  • Foreign bodies — Foreign bodies, such as splinters or plant material, can be trapped in the ear and cause infection.

Q: Why are ear infections in dogs common?

A: The dog’s ear canal is L-shaped, and this vertical structure facilitates fluid and wax accumulation, making the dog more prone to ear infections. In addition, ear traits in certain breeds predispose them to ear infections. These include:

  • Narrowed ear canals — Shar peis have narrowed ear canals that predispose them to ear infections.
  • Floppy ears — In floppy eared breeds, such as cocker spaniels and basset hounds, the ears don’t allow the ear canal to dry properly, leading to ear infections.
  • Hairy ears — Dogs such as German shepherds and cocker spaniels that have hairy ears are predisposed to ear infections, because the excess hair promotes wax accumulation.

Q: What are ear infection signs in dogs?

A: Ear infections can affect the outer, middle, or inner ear, and signs depend on what part of the ear is affected. Signs include:

  • Otitis externa — Otitis externa, which is the most common presentation, is an infection of the external ear canal. Signs include head shaking, scratching at the affected ear, odor around the ear, discharge from the ear, and pain when the ear is handled.
  • Otitis media — Otitis media occurs when the air-filled space behind the eardrum is infected, and most often results in dogs when infection spreads from the external ear. Certain cranial nerves pass through the middle ear, and inflammation in this area can cause neurological signs, including head tilt, incoordination, abnormal eye movement, and facial paralysis.
  • Otitis interna — Otitis interna occurs when the inner ear, located inside the temporal bone of the skull, becomes infected, and can result in hearing loss, and meningitis in severe cases. These dogs may experience neck pain, paresis, and seizures.

Q: How are ear infections diagnosed in dogs?

A: Your dog’s ear will be thoroughly examined using an otoscope, and then swabbed for microscopic examination and culture. In severe cases, imaging techniques, such as X-rays, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), are needed to assess the damage. If your pet’s ear infection is difficult to clear or recurs frequently, other testing, such as blood work, allergy testing, or a food elimination trial, may be recommended.

Q: How are ear infections treated in dogs?

A: Treatment depends on the severity of your dog’s condition. Potential treatment approaches include:

  • Deep ear flushing — This procedure is performed under general anesthesia, so we can thoroughly clean your dog’s ear canal, and examine their ear canal and tympanic membrane. 
  • Topical therapy — We will prescribe an appropriate antimicrobial medication based on your dog’s culture results. Most uncomplicated ear infections resolve in one to two weeks, once appropriate treatment is initiated.
  • Systemic therapy — Systemic antimicrobials may be necessary in some cases, and pain medications may also be prescribed if your dog is experiencing severe ear pain.
  • Treating underlying conditions — Any underlying conditions, such as allergies, which are contributing to the problem, must be addressed appropriately.
  • Surgical management — In severe cases that are unresponsive to treatment, a total ear canal ablation and bulla osteotomy (TECABO) can be performed to completely remove the ear canal and the diseased tissue to prevent infection recurrence.

Q: Can I prevent ear infections in my dog?

A: Ear infections can’t always be prevented, but you can take steps to help reduce your dog’s risk. These include:

  • Keep your dog’s ears dry — Dry your dog’s ears thoroughly after a swim or a bath.
  • Keep your dog’s ears clean — Use a veterinary-approved ear cleaning solution to clean your dog’s ears every 5 to 10 days. 
  • Don’t pluck your dog’s ear hair — Plucking your dog’s ear hair can cause more problems, so let our veterinary professionals remove your dog’s ear hair, if necessary.

Chronic ear infections can be frustrating for dog owners and painful for their four-legged friends, but these conditions can be treated successfully. If you are having difficulty managing your dog’s ear infection, be their hero and contact our Fear Free team at Carriage Crossing Animal Hospital, so we can determine an appropriate treatment strategy.