You’ve seen the signs – your dog starts scratching excessively at their ears and shaking their head. You check the ears, and yep, there’s an odor. Could your little one have a dog ear infection?
Unfortunately, a dog ear infection is one of the most common health issues dogs face. Veterinarians recommend that pet parents learn about the signs, causes, treatments, and prevention methods to protect their pup from ear infections and other ear problems.
What is a Dog Ear Infection?
The technical name for a dog ear infection is otitis. Otitis is actually an umbrella term for any infection or inflammation of the ear. It causes discomfort and itchiness for your pup, and the inside of the ear will often look red or swollen.
Otitis can be broken down a bit further depending on what part of the ear is infected. Just like humans, dogs have an external ear canal, middle ear, and internal ear canal. The most common dog ear infection is of the external ear, called otitis externa.
Otitis media, or a middle ear infection, is less common and slightly more serious. The middle ear is right behind your dog’s eardrum and contains the Eustachian tube, so otitis media can affect your dog’s hearing. A severe middle ear infection can even lead to a punctured ear drum.
Otitis interna is the most severe infection. The inner ear connects to the brain, so an infection in the inner ear can lead to neurological problems.
Many cases of otitis media and interna start as otitis externa, but worsen due to improper care. If you suspect your dog has an ear infection, it is important to take action right away. Many people choose to take their dog to the vet, but if you choose a home remedy, it is vital to monitor your pup closely. A dog ear infection that lasts too long can worsen and cause severe damage to the ear.
Dog Ear Infection: How Does it Happen?
Dogs can get ear infections in many ways, depending on the exact kind of ear infection. Understanding all of the causes is important so you can take the right steps for prevention or treatment.
In general, however, dogs have ear problems because they are prime spots for moisture to get trapped, creating a haven for bacteria and yeast to grow. This is true for dogs and humans. But unlike humans, dogs have some additional factors that make them even more susceptible to a dog ear infection.
First, dogs’ ear canals are vertical, whereas humans are horizontal. Gravity is working against your dog’s ears, making it more likely that debris and moisture will get trapped inside the canal. Also, dogs often have a lot of hair inside their ears, which can trap moisture and debris. And if your dog has floppy ears, they are even more likely to get infections because the ear blocks air flow.
Let’s look at the specific causes of a dog ear infection:
Bacterial infections are the most common. There are multiple strains of bacteria that cause infections, including staphylococcus, pseudomonas, and proteus mirabilis. These bacteria are all fairly common, but dogs with weaker immune systems or genetic features such as floppy ears are sometimes unable to fight off the bacteria, and an infection ensues.
Some strains of staph have become resistant to antibiotics, in which case they are known as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA infections can be difficult to cure because of their resistance to traditional antibiotics.
Dog Ear Yeast Infection
Yeast is the second most common cause of ear infections. Like bacteria, dogs encounter yeast frequently. It is only when it gets trapped with moisture inside the ear canal that it becomes an infection.
Yeast and bacterial infections can also occur at the same time, or in conjunction with any of the other causes listed below. Any time your pup’s ears get inflamed, it’s more likely that bacteria and yeast will grow and cause a dog ear infection.
Ear mites can also infect your dogs’ ears. They spread very quickly between animals, so if your pup has come into contact with ear mites on another dog, it’s very likely that your pup will catch it. They feed on the wax and oil in their ear canals.
Individually, these tiny mites are barely perceptible. But with an infestation, it will look like your dog has a bunch of black dirt or coffee grounds in his or her ear.
Some dogs are hypersensitive to flea bites or have a poor immune system. If a dog gets a flea bite inside the ear, it could cause significant swelling and inflammation. If not treated quickly, the inflammation could lead to a bacterial or yeast infection.
Dogs with allergies, such as mold, dust, pollen, are often susceptible to a dog ear infection. When exposed to the allergen, the ears or ear canals may swell and become inflamed. A food allergy can also cause this reaction.
In rare cases, your dog may be suffering for hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is an under-active thyroid, which can lead to chronic bacterial infections and inflammation.
While not considered an actual ear infection, tumors, polyps, or foreign objects in the ear canal as well as trauma to the head should also be mentioned. Because these can all cause discomfort and swelling in the ear, the symptoms often look the same as those of an ear infection. Your veterinarian will be able to see inside the ear to check if your dog is suffering from an actual infection or from a blockage instead.
Dog Ear Infection Symptoms
Knowing the dog ear infection symptoms can help owners recognize one early. While certain types or causes of ear infections have slightly different symptoms, it is best to take your dog to a vet whenever you suspect an infection. Your vet can then properly diagnose and recommend treatment based on the specific cause and situation.
The most common symptoms include:
- Excessive scratching at the ears
- Excessive rubbing of ears on ground or furniture
- Abnormal or unpleasant odor in ears
- Redness or swelling inside the ear
- Debris or discharge from ears (could be black, green, yellow, or brown)
- Head tilting or shaking
Other symptoms you may see are:
- Noticeable hair loss around the ear
- Scabs or crusting on the outer ear
- Pain or reluctance to open mouth or chew
- Hearing loss or deafness
- Loss of balance
- Walking in circles
- Unusual eye movements
- Nausea or vomiting
- Unequally sized pupils
- A grey, bulging eardrum
Rarely, and in severe cases of an inner ear canal infection, your dog may show signs of paralysis or an inability to blink. This indicates potential nervous system damage and you need to take your dog to a veterinarian as quickly as possible.
Any symptoms that are not affecting only the ear (such as reluctance to open the mouth, nausea, loss of balance) likely indicate a middle or inner ear infection. A vet is also needed in these circumstances to treat the infection. Permanent damage and hearing loss could result if left untreated.
Only otitis externa, where the symptoms are mild, is safe to be treated at home. Still, it is recommended that you first speak with your vet for evaluation and recommendations on treatment options.
Dog Ear Infection Treatment
Your veterinarian will determine if your dog has an ear infection and its cause with an ear exam. This includes visually inspecting the outer ear as well as using a magnifying ear cone for the middle and inner ear.
If the vet sees signs of an infection, he or she will take a swab sample to test for bacteria, yeast, or ear mites. Different treatment or even surgery may be required if the vet finds tumors, polyps, or a foreign object.
If there is an infection, your vet will clean your dog’s ears as a first step. Cleaning the ear and removing any discharge or hair is important because it improves the effectiveness of any topical medications. If you try to put ear drops or an ointment in an ear that is full of debris, discharge, or excess hair, none of it will actually get to the infection!
After the cleaning, the vet will likely prescribe a topical ointment or drops to be put in the ear itself. If necessary, an oral medication (antibiotic, anti-yeast, and/or anti-inflammatory) may be prescribed as well. Often the vet will recommend a follow-up visit to ensure that the medications worked and the infection is cleared.
Prevention: How To Clean Dog Ears
Like most health issues, smart grooming and care techniques can help prevent a dog ear infection. Here are some tips to help reduce the chances that your furball gets an infection:
- Use an ear cleanser: There are many ear cleansers made specifically for dogs on the market. Ask your vet for his or her recommendation. One popular cleaning solution is Zymox Otic. You can also make your own (see Home Remedies section below).
- Keep ears dry: After swimming, bathing, or being out in the rain, make sure that your pup’s ears are dried thoroughly with a towel and/or a hairdryer.
- Trim ear hair: If ear hair is contributing to infections, trimming the ear hair may help debris and moisture from getting stuck in the ear canal. You may even consider plucking some or all of your dog’s ear hair, which we discuss more below.
- Never use Q-Tips: Q-tips may push debris farther into the canal and damage or even rupture the eardrum. Use 100% pure cotton balls instead to gently swab the outer ear canal.
Should I Pluck My Dog’s Ear Hair?
There is still great debate among veterinarians and groomers as to whether or not plucking a dog’s ear hair could help reduce ear infections, especially if a pup is struggling with recurring infections.
Some argue that pulling out some or all of the ear hair helps keep moisture, dirt, and other debris from getting stuck in the ear canal, thus reducing the risk of an ear infection. It also helps improve air flow in the ear canal, which helps dry the area.
Others argue that ear hair actually protects the ear canal and that unnecessary plucking causes more inflammation and pain. Some of the vets and groomers in this camp believe that trimming the ear hairs is a satisfactory way to improve air flow in the ear canal, without causing your pup more pain.
The value of plucking your dog’s ear hairs may depend on the breed, type, and amount of hair. Poodles, Shih Tzu, bichons, and schnauzers are more likely to need or benefit from plucking because of their coarse hair. But even if you have one of these breeds, every individual dog is different. If you are interested, you should thoroughly research your options, talk to your vet, and find a reputable groomer with plucking experience.
If you decide that you want your dog’s ears plucked, either you or a groomer can do it. There are two methods. First, you can simply use your fingers with a little ear powder to improve your grip. Second, you can use a tool called a hemostat (a combination between scissors and tweezers) to pull out individual hairs. Whichever method you choose, go slowly and carefully to avoid unnecessarily hurting your pooch.
Home Remedy For Dog Ear Infection
For those owners who prefer the natural route, there are many home remedies for otitis treatment. These are best used with an external infection. It is important to note, if you suspect your dog’s eardrum is damage, do not use any of these remedies or any other ear cleaner. You could cause further damage. If you are unsure, it is better to take your dog to the vet before proceeding with these infection treatments.
1. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is an acid that can kill both yeast and bacteria, as well as aid you in removing debris and discharge from your dog’s ears. However, do not use apple cider vinegar if your pup’s ears are red, swollen, and sore. It is very acidic and could cause further irritation.
To use the apple cider vinegar, mix with equal parts distilled water and soak a cotton ball in the solution. Gently clean the inside ear flap and external ear canal with the cotton ball.
While infected, treat both ears twice daily with the solution for about two weeks. For ongoing maintenance, you should only treat your dog’s ears once or twice a week. Cleaning too frequently could disrupt the natural bacteria and pH balance.
Apple cider vinegar can also benefit dogs with allergies and digestive issues. To learn more about its uses and benefits, check out our post to get the full scoop on this natural remedy.
2. White Vinegar
If you do not have apple cider vinegar handy, white vinegar can also be used as an effective home cleanser. It can also be a great alternative if your dog has light fur, as apple cider vinegar may stain.
White vinegar has the same antifungal and antibacterial properties as apple cider vinegar. Apple cider vinegar is simply recommended over white vinegar because it has some extra benefits, like phosphorous, calcium, and potassium, from the fermenting process.
If using white vinegar, use the same process as apple cider vinegar, including diluting with distilled water.
3. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil has antibacterial and antifungal properties, making it an effective home remedy for both yeast and bacterial ear infections in your dog. Even better, the oil may smother ear mites, so it can be effective for all of the most common causes of canine ear infections. It’s a natural product that also soothes and relieves stress.
Simply use an eyedropper to put a few drops into your dog’s ear, then massage around the ear to help spread the solution. You can use this every few days to help reduce the itch and clear the infection.
Coconut oil isn’t just great for ear infections – check out our entire guide on how to use coconut oil to improve your dog’s total health and wellbeing.
4. Blue Power Ear Formula
This is another solution that has shown to be effective at treating ear infections. It’s called Blue Power because of the color of the mixture. Mix the following:
- 8 ounces isopropyl alcohol
- 2 tablespoons boric acid powder
- 8 drops 1% Gentian violet solution
The alcohol cleans the ear, the gentian violet is antifungal and antibacterial, and the boric acid powder soothes. It’s a powerful combination that battles all aspects of an ear infection.
You can mix these together in a bottle and save for the future, but always shake the bottle before each use.
To apply to your dog’s ears, use a dropper to put a generous amount of the solution in each ear. Fold down your dog’s ears and massage gently for approximately one minute so that some of the solution absorbs. Then allow your dog to shake out any excess liquid. Lastly, wipe clean the visible portion of the ear with cotton balls.
Use this solution twice daily for one to two weeks. After ear infection has cleared, use once a month for maintenance.
Tip: Gentian violet can stain clothes, carpet, and furniture, so it’s best to do the treatment outdoors. It may also stain your pets’ ears, but the stain will eventually fade.
5. Herbal Remedies
There are many herbal remedies that may also be effective at treating or preventing ear infections. Examples of these are:
- St. John’s wort
- Witch hazel
Of these, mullein is the most popular choice because it seems to be the most effective at healing an infection.
To use an herbal remedy, you will need to make an at-home solution or buy an herb-infused oil. To make at home, simply pack the herb in a glass jar and cover with olive oil. Garlic cloves, known for their antibiotic properties, can also be added to any of these herbs in this step. Let the mixture sit for two to three weeks. Strain the oil to remove herb particles. You will be left with an herb-infused oil. Warm the oil before using a dropper or cotton ball to place in the ear canal.
With any of these home remedies, if an infection does not improve after a few days, worsens at any point, or your dog shows signs of neurological damage, you should see a vet immediately.
Chronic Ear Infections
Some dogs suffer from chronic, recurring ear infections. Sometimes an ear infection is just bad luck, but if its due to allergies, genetics, or hyperthyroidism, your dog may get stuck in a cycle of ear infections.
When this happens, the cycle of inflammation can eventually lead to collapse of the ear canal, increased scar tissue in the ear canal, and/or a ruptured ear drum.
These all prevent topical medications from reaching the infection and hamper the natural sloughing of skin cells, ear wax, and hair. This causes even further buildup within the ear, leading to more infections and inflammation. The cycle can be hard to break.
Medications may heal an individual infection, but they do not address the underlying cause. If you and your pup are suffering from chronic ear infections and want to find another solution, you typically have two options: surgery or a holistic approach.
There are various surgeries that work by opening up the ear canal or removing the ear canal altogether. While removing the ear canal may seem drastic to many owners, it can dramatically improve a dog’s quality of life.
If removing the ear canal has been deemed an appropriate option by your vet, your dog is likely already experiencing significantly reduced hearing because of the blockage. Not only that, but your dog is in almost constant pain or discomfort. Removing the ear canal can eliminate this source of problems, leading to a happier life for you and your dog.
Some people prefer to try a holistic approach to ridding their pup of chronic ear infections. A holistic approach involves several facets:
- Maintenance ear cleanings: Using one of the home solutions mentioned previously, use biweekly or monthly cleanings to try and improve ear health.
- Switch to a raw diet: While not proven, many advocates of a raw diet claim that it helps your dog avoid allergen triggers, improves the immune system, and improve their digestive system, all of which will help reduce infections. Read more about raw diets here.
- Reduce stress and boredom: Stressed, anxious, or bored dogs have weaker immune systems. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety or other behavioral problems, fixing these may also improve the ear infections.
Above All, Talk to Your Veterinarian
If you have questions about a specific remedy or approach, talk to your vet first. They will be able to make recommendations and diagnoses based on your specific dog, his or her symptoms, and his or her overall health. We all want our dogs to be healthy and happy, and a pooch with an ear infection is neither.