Ways to prevent, detect and treat this common condition
Ear infections are a common malady in dogs — chances are that many dogs will have one at some point. Unlike cats, whose ear infections come mainly from ear mites and are highly contagious, ear infections in dogs most often develop when some outside factor has caused the normal flora (bacteria and yeast) that live in the ear to overgrow. Generally, the outer part of the ear is affected, called “otitis externa.” Inner or middle ear infections, or “otitis media,” are less common but do happen, particularly if an infection goes untreated or the eardrum has been previously damaged.
A variety of things can make the environment of your dog’s ear an incubator for infection. Water remaining in the ear after swimming or baths can allow microorganisms to proliferate. The normal balance of ear flora can quickly get out of balance in this warm, dark, moist environment. Inflammation caused by this overgrowth then contributes to further fuel the infection.
Certain breeds are more prone to allergies, which make the skin — including the skin in the ears — inflamed and irritated, which also promotes overgrowth. Excess ear wax can be another culprit. Long-eared dogs, dogs with a lot of hair around the ears and dogs with a susceptibility because of the anatomy of the ear tend to get infections more often.
How can you tell if your dog has an ear infection? One of the most obvious signs is an unpleasant odor; dogs’ ears should normally not have a smell at all. Other signs include a discharge from the ear, or behavior from your dog that makes it clear he or she is having unusual sensations or discomfort in the area.
The sooner you treat the problem, the better. If allowed to fester and grow, the inflammation and irritation of a red, painful ear will only get worse with time. If you suspect an ear infection, it’s best to take your pet to the veterinarian as soon as you can to avoid this progression. Waiting too long can lead to more severe consequences like inner ear infections and even ruptured eardrums and hearing loss.
Because there are many potential causes of infection, your veterinarian may swab the ear and look at the discharge under a microscope or send a sample out for testing to help determine the source. Treatment depends on the underlying cause and aims to not only cure the source of infection, but to also help relieve inflammation and pain.
The most common treatment is drops in the ear. Standard drops have antibiotic or antifungal medication along with an anti-inflammatory to reduce discomfort while the infection heals. In some cases, oral antibiotics and/or an oral anti-inflammatory may be added. It is important that your dog takes only medicines intended specifically for them — human medications can be dangerous or unpredictable when given to an animal. A follow-up appointment with the veterinarian may be needed after treatment to ensure the infection has fully resolved. Some ear infections require a longer course of treatment and this can be determined during the recheck visit.
Ear infections can often be prevented by keeping your dog’s ears clean and dry and checking them regularly for early signs of a problem. It is helpful to begin doing this when your pet is a puppy so they are used to you touching their ears. Be sure to dry ears thoroughly after swimming and baths, and consider preventive cleanings anywhere from once a week to once a month (any more often might cause irritation). Cleaning solutions made specifically for this purpose are available over the counter at pet stores and online — never use home remedies like water, vinegar or alcohol. After cleaning, pat dry with gauze or paper towels, but don’t insert cotton swabs or anything else into the ear canal.
Other precautions you can take to help your dog avoid ear infections include trimming excess fur around the ears of long-haired dogs and, if your dog has particularly hairy ear canals, grooming by a professional. Stay on top of allergies to keep them treated effectively, and consider increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids your dog consumes.
Common breeds that often get ear infections
- Basset Hounds
- Lhasa Apsos
- Cocker Spaniels
- Labrador Retrievers
- Golden Retrievers
- Irish and English Setters
Lori Bierbrier received her Bachelor of Science at McGill University and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College. She is currently the Medical Director of the ASPCA Community Medicine department, which provides spay/neuter and primary pet care services to underserved communities of New York City. She also enjoys volunteering with international spay/neuter programs and at her local animal shelter.