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Ear infections in dogs aren’t only uncomfortable. As with any infection, if left untreated an ear infection can spread, causing serious damage. Deafness, facial paralysis, and balance issues are all possible, permanent side effects.
While not super common, ear infections do affect about 20% of dogs. Knowing what causes ear infections in dogs, how to spot if your dog has one, and what to do about it can help mitigate the risks all dog owners face.
There are three types of ear infections in dogs. The most common is otitis externa. But there’s also otitis media and otitis interna. In plain English, your dog can have an ear infection of the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear canal.
It’s that last one you need to watch out for. Severe inner ear infections can cause all kinds of permanent damage. The good news is most inner ear infections start as external infections. If you catch it early enough, you can prevent it from spreading.
In the vast majority of cases, an ear infection in dogs is bacterial in nature and usually caused by an excess of moisture in the ear. That’s why ensuring your dog’s ears are completely dry after a swim or bath is so important.
Other causes of ear infections in dogs include things like yeast, fungus, tumors and polyps, and ear mites. In some cases, ear infections in dogs are a side effect of allergies, autoimmune-related skin diseases, or thyroid disease. Or, they can be a reaction to a foreign body stuck in the ear or an injury to the ear.
Dogs with droopy ears or hair in their ear canals are also more prone to getting an ear infection.
Anecdotally, dog owners and vets have known for many years that several breeds of dog are more prone to ear infections than others. But a 2021 study by the Royal Veterinary College in London made it official. After following more than 22,000 dogs for a year, they concluded the dog breeds most prone to ear infections are:
One thing these breeds have in common is droopy ears, which has long been associated with an increased risk of ear infection. (The RVC study found that compared with breeds that have erect ears, dogs with droopy ears had 1.76 times the risk of developing an ear infection.)
On the flip side of the coin, the study found that Chihuahuas, Border Collies, Yorkshire Terriers, and Jack Russel Terriers are at the lowest risk for dog ear infections.
There are many symptoms of ear infections in dogs, but the most common signs are whining, head shaking, and scratching at the ear. Your dog might also rub the side of his head against the corner of a wall or furniture.
Other common signs your dog has an ear infection are:
Over time, the symptoms can worsen. If you spot any of the following signs in your dog, call the vet immediately:
If you suspect your dog has an ear infection, call your vet. You should not try to treat your dog’s ear infection with a home remedy.
Because there are many possible causes for ear infections in dogs, it’s important to determine what the exact problem is before you can treat it. For instance, a medication that works on bacteria may not work on a fungal infection. And it certainly won’t help if the problem is a polyp or an injury to the ear.
Most of the time a medicated cleanser and antibiotic are all that’s needed. Your vet might also prescribe an anti-inflammatory if there’s significant swelling inside the ear. The vast majority of ear infections in dogs go away in a week or so with the appropriate treatment and leave no lasting damage.
In rarer cases, ear infections can become chronic. Chronic ear infections in dogs are usually a sign that something else is wrong. For instance, allergies or hypothyroidism can both cause chronic dog ear infections. In these cases, the underlying cause must be treated in order to prevent further ear infections.
Not properly treating an original infection can also lead to subsequent – and more severe – infections.
In the worst cases, your vet may suggest surgery to remove the ear canal.
The easiest way to stop your dog from getting an ear infection is to keep his ears clean and dry. That means getting in there with a towel after a bath and checking regularly for wax buildup or debris.
Use an ear-cleaning solution, but never apply with a Q-tip, which will just push any buildup, debris or foreign substance farther into the ear canal.