Ear infections are common in dogs, and these painful conditions can lead to serious complications if not treated properly. Our Westerville Veterinary Clinic team wants your dog to receive the best possible care, and we provide important information about canine ear infections’ causes and treatment strategies, and how you can reduce your dog’s risk.

Canine ear infection classifications

Ear infections are classified based on the part of the ear that is affected. Classifications include:

  • Otitis externa — Otitis externa refers to external ear canal infection.
  • Otitis media — The middle ear is within the skull, extending from the eardrum to the inner ear. Otitis media refers to infection in this area.
  • Otitis interna — The cochlea, vestibule, and semicircular canals compose the inner ear. Otitis interna refers to infection in these structures.

Canine ear infection causes

A dog’s ear anatomy predisposes them to infections because their ear canal has horizontal and vertical sections that create an L-shape, which allows wax, skin oil, and other debris to accumulate. Bacteria and fungi feed on this material and proliferate, resulting in infection. Other issues that increase a dog’s ear infection risk include:

  • Allergies — Dogs who have food and environmental allergies often have chronic or recurrent ear infections, because the skin barrier inside the ear canal is abnormal, causing a wax production increase.
  • Parasites — Parasites, including ear mites, fleas, and ticks, can instigate an ear infection.
  • Foreign bodies — Foreign bodies, such as grass awns and foxtails, can become embedded in the ear, causing an infection.
  • Excessive moisture — Water-loving dogs have a high ear infection risk, especially if their ears aren’t dried completely after a swim.
  • Hypothyroidism — Hypothyroid dogs are at an increased ear infection risk, because their skin is susceptible to inflammation and infection.
  • Long, floppy ears — Breeds, such as cocker and springer spaniels, who have long, floppy ears are at an increased ear infection risk because they have several ear sweat glands that produce excess ear wax.
  • Small ear canals — Breeds, such as Shar-peis, who have small, narrow ear canals are susceptible to ear infections, because the narrow structure traps debris.
  • Excess ear hair — Breeds, such as schnauzers and poodles, who have excess hair deep in their ear canal are at an increased ear infection risk because the hair can irritate the canal, causing increased wax production.

Canine ear infection signs

Ear infections typically cause dogs to feel extreme pain. If an infection spreads to the middle or inner ear, signs can also include neurologic issues such as a head tilt, facial nerve paralysis, and ataxia. However, common canine ear infection signs often include:

  • Redness
  • Ear odor
  • Scratching or rubbing the affected ear
  • Ear discharge
  • Head shaking
  • Vocalizing or exhibiting aggression when the affected ear is touched

Canine ear infection complications

In addition to causing your dog extreme discomfort, an untreated ear infection can become severe, leading to serious conditions. Potential canine ear infection complications include:

  • Hearing loss — A canine ear infection can cause temporary and in some cases, permanent hearing loss.
  • Proliferative tissue — Chronic ear infections can lead to tissue proliferation and scarring within the ear canal, making the condition’s treatment complex and resolution difficult. 
  • Aural hematoma — An affected dog’s head shaking and ear scratching can cause an earflap blood vessel to rupture, leading to an aural hematoma. Surgery is often required to remove the blood clot and unclog the ear canal. 

Canine ear infection diagnosis

Although our Westerville Veterinary Clinic team can diagnose your dog’s ear infection, we often have to perform specific diagnostic testing to determine the specific pathogen or whether they have an underlying medical condition. If we suspect your dog has an ear infection, we may perform one or more of the following diagnostic tests:

  • Otoscopic examination — Our veterinary team will examine your dog’s ears using an otoscope to evaluate their ear canal and eardrum health. If your dog’s ear is extremely painful, we may administer a mild sedative to facilitate the exam.
  • Blood work — We may recommend blood work, such as a complete blood count (CBC), biochemistry profile, and thyroid testing, to evaluate your dog’s overall health and rule out conditions, such as hypothyroidism, that may be contributing to the ear problem.
  • Ear swab — Swabbing your dog’s ear helps us identify the pathogen causing the infection, so we can prescribe antimicrobials to treat the infection effectively.
  • Imaging — If your dog has a severe or chronic ear infection, our team may recommend X-rays or advanced imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computed tomography (CT) scan.

Canine ear infection treatment

Initial ear infection treatment typically involves a thorough ear cleaning, usually performed while the affected dog is under sedation. Other ear infection treatments may include:

  • Topical ear medicine — In many cases, we prescribe a topical medicated ear cleanser for you to administer to your dog at home.
  • Pain medication — We may prescribe medication, such as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), to help alleviate your dog’s pain and inflammation. 
  • Oral antimicrobials — In severe cases, we may prescribe oral antibiotics or antifungals to treat your dog’s ear infection.
  • Surgery — If your dog’s ear infection is severe and they have chronic disease, we will recommend surgery to open the canal and remove diseased tissue. 

Canine ear infection prevention

Some canine ear infections are unavoidable. However, you can reduce your dog’s risk by following these recommendations:

  • Scheduling regular wellness visits — Annual or biannual wellness visits help our team detect and manage conditions, such as allergies and hypothyroidism, that can increase your dog’s ear infection risk.
  • Cleaning your dog’s ears — Clean your dog’s ears regularly using a veterinary-recommended product to help keep their ears clean and healthy. Our team will advise you on how frequently you should clean your dog’s ears, because overcleaning can also lead to infection.
  • Drying your dog’s ears — To help prevent your dog from accumulating ear canal moisture, thoroughly dry their ears after swimming and bathing.

If you have concerns or questions about your dog’s ear health, schedule an appointment with our Westerville Veterinary Clinic team.