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Dog Ear Infection: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment
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An ear infection can cause inflammation, irritation, and pain in your dog. There are multiple types of ear infections in dogs, which vary according to the areas they impact. The type of ear infection your pup has contracted depends on where in the ear structure the infection has taken root.
There are three primary types of ear infections in dogs. Otitis externa affects the external ear canal, otitis media affects the middle ear structures, and otitis interna affects the internal ear structures. All of these conditions carry a certain amount of risk for your dog and should be addressed as soon as you notice dog ear infection symptoms.
In this article, we explain how to spot dog ear infection symptoms, the potential causes, and available treatment options. To learn more about how to recognize and treat dog ear infection signs and symptoms, read from beginning to end. Alternatively, you can skip to any section in this article using the links below.
You must be able to identify dog ear infection symptoms in order to recognize that there’s a problem with your dog. Keeping track of the dog ear infection symptoms your pup displays can help you and your vet better understand the condition and come up with an effective treatment plan.
Between the three primary types of dog ear infections, there are a number of overlapping symptoms. However, there are subtle differences between the symptoms of a dog’s inner ear infection when compared to an external infection, for example. Recognizing these differences will allow you to gain insight into your dog’s condition and get him or her the help they need.
With that being said, let’s take a look at the symptoms of dog ear infections across the three primary types. We’ll start with otitis externa, or the inflammation of the external ear canal. Signs of otitis externa include1:
- Shaking of head
- Unpleasant odor
- Redness of the skin
- Excessive ear scratching
- Unusual discharge from the ear
- Scaly skin
Signs of otitis media, or the inflammation of the middle ear structures, include2:
- Shaking of head
- Excessive ear scratching
- Inflammation of the outer ear
- Unusual discharge from the ear
- Rotating head in direction of the affected side
- Facial nerve paralysis
- Pupil constriction
- Drooping eyelid
- Sunken eyeball
- Protrusion of third eyelid
Lastly, a dog affected by otitis interna, or the inflammation of the internal ear structures, will often display signs similar to the ones above, in addition to symptoms such as2:
- Extreme head tilt toward the affected side
- Lack of coordination
- Difficulty rising or walking
- Involuntary side-to-side movement of eyes (nystagmus)
- Neurologic abnormalities
A number of factors can spark ear infections in dogs. Understanding why your dog has an ear infection can help you and your vet create a treatment plan that addresses the root of the problem. For otitis externa, possible causes include1:
- Allergic reaction
- Parasite infestation
- Invasive foreign object in ear
- Genetic predisposition
While the above factors can cause external ear infections, other factors can worsen the condition. For instance, the presence of harmful bacteria, yeasts, or the development of otitis media can intensify symptoms. As for otitis media and interna, these can be caused by:
- Extension of external ear infection
- Foreign object penetrating eardrum
- Spread of infection via bloodstream
Keep in mind that once the middle ear structures have been infected, your dog has a higher chance of contracting an inner ear infection, which can lead to serious health problems such as impaired coordination, deafness, and neurological abnormalities.2 This is why it’s crucial to seek treatment as soon as you notice symptoms, especially dog inner ear infection symptoms.
Your vet will begin the diagnostic process by reviewing your dog’s medical history, assessing symptoms, and conducting a physical examination. Your vet will examine your dog’s ears and surrounding areas for signs of self-trauma, inflammation, redness, and any other abnormalities. An examination of the skin and other physical areas will allow your vet to estimate how long your dog has been experiencing an ear infection. Further diagnostic testing, such as an ear cytology or culture and sensitivity, may be conducted to help determine the underlying cause of the ear infection.
Mild signs of infection can lead to a diagnosis of otitis externa, which is the most common form of ear infection in dogs. However, if your vet finds that your dog’s eardrum has ruptured, this may call for a diagnosis of otitis media. A diagnosis of otitis media may also suggest the longevity of the condition, as more than half of dogs who have experienced long-term inflammation of the external ear experience otitis media.1
Otitis interna tends to carry with it the most severe dog infection symptoms compared to the other two forms of infections. A diagnosis of otitis interna may be reached if your vet finds that your dog struggles to maintain balance or exhibits unusual neurological symptoms. To reach a diagnosis of either otitis media or interna, vets will often use tools such as otoscopes, x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs.2
Regardless of the type of ear infection your dog is suffering from, treatment will focus on addressing the underlying cause of the condition and managing pain and discomfort for your dog. Effective treatment methods that directly confront the symptoms of dog ear infections will leave your dog feeling much more comfortable and minimize the chance that further health problems develop.
In cases of otitis externa, treatment will seek to eliminate the underlying cause of the infection, whether it’s an allergy or a parasite that’s causing the problem. Your vet may trim the hair around the affected ear and, in some cases, inside the ear canal itself. This allows for easier access and cleaning.
Before applying topical medications—which often consist of antibiotics, antifungal medicine, or glucocorticoids—a vet will generally clean and dry the ears of the dog, using anesthesia if pain is evident in the dog. They can then apply any necessary topical medication around the dog’s ear, and may prescribe an at-home treatment schedule involving topical medicine. Medicine that’s administered orally or via injection may also be incorporated into the treatment plan.1
In cases of otitis media or interna, on the other hand, treatment may be more intensive. To fight the symptoms of severe dog ear infections, your vet may recommend a long-term course of antibiotics that can be administered by mouth or injection. This course of treatment will typically last for about six to eight weeks. Additionally, anti-inflammatory medication may be prescribed to minimize pain and discomfort in your dog.
While antibiotic treatment is usually effective when it comes to otitis media and interna, long-term cases can produce permanent neurological problems.2 Quickly recognizing the signs and seeking out treatment can provide your dog with a more promising prognosis.
Canine Ear Infections: Frequently Asked Questions
Can dog ear infections go away on their own?
Leaving your dog’s ear infection untreated is unlikely to solve the problem—rather, it can lead to more serious health complications. If you notice symptoms of an ear infection in your dog, seek out professional help immediately to get proper treatment.
What happens if a dog ear infection goes untreated?
A dog ear infection left untreated can lead to a number of health problems that range in their levels of severity. Otitis externa can lead to hearing loss, while otitis interna can lead to difficulties with coordination and neurological abnormalities.3 Catching the infection early and preventing it from spreading can help to mitigate the worst of these issues.
How can I prevent canine ear infections?
Perhaps the best way to prevent ear infections in your dog is through prevention. Examine your dog's ears on a regular basis, checking for inflammation, redness, discoloration, or unusual discharge. To clean your dog’s ears, follow these steps1:
- Gather real cotton balls and a vet-approved ear cleaning solution
- Fill your dog’s ear canal with cleaner and gently massage around the base of the ear
- Allow your dog to vigorously shake their head and remove all of the solution from their ears
- Use the cotton balls to wipe out the waxy debris from the ears.
- Repeat steps 2, 3, and 4 several times until no further waxy debris is found on the cotton balls.
While a dog’s ear infection can typically be easily treated, long-term infections can lead to complications. Hearing loss, impaired coordination, and neurological damage are just a few of the major risks associated with untreated ear infections in dogs. That’s why it’s important to quickly seek out treatment as soon as you notice dog ear infection symptoms.
- Moriello, Karen A. “Ear Infections and Otitis Externa in Dogs.” MSD Veterinary Manual, MSD Veterinary Manual, June 2018, https://www.msdvetmanual.com/dog-owners/ear-disorders-of-dogs/ear-infections-and-otitis-externa-in-dogs?query=otitis+externa+dog.
- Moriello, Karen A. “Otitis Media and Interna in Dogs.” MSD Veterinary Manual, MSD Veterinary Manual, June 2018, https://www.msdvetmanual.com/dog-owners/ear-disorders-of-dogs/otitis-media-and-interna-in-dogs.
- Bajwa, Jangi. “Canine Otitis Externa - Treatment and Complications.” The Canadian Veterinary Journal, Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, Jan. 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6294027/.