Ear infections are pretty common in dogs. Make sure you know how to identify when your pooch has one so you can get them feeling better fast.

By Kristi Valentini
April 23, 2021
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If a pup lives in your home, it's a good idea to get familiar with the signs of canine ear infections. It's a common condition that affects up to one in five dogs, according to the American Kennel Club, and left untreated can lead to scarring that narrows the ear canal. In severe cases, a dog ear infection can even cause deafness. But the good news is that these infections are easily treatable and, in many cases, preventable.

What Causes Ear Infections in Dogs?

"Ear infections in dogs develop when the skin surface becomes unhealthy," says Emily Pashaian-Grant, DVM, medical director of VCA Sylvania Vet Animal Hospital. "So the best way to prevent ear infections is to find the root cause of the condition. That way you can avoid or treat whatever is triggering the problem."

Yeast & Bacteria

Like people, it's normal for dogs to have a collection of microorganisms that live on the surface of their skin (called a microbiome). Most of the time, these germs are harmless. But, Grant says, if the normal skin barrier is disrupted in some way and becomes irritated and inflamed, it gives germs the chance to grow unchecked. "Ear infections are the result of an overgrowth of yeast, bacteria, or a combination of both," she explains.

Ear Mites

Ear mites are microscopic bugs that can infest your dog's ears. They spread from animal-to-animal or your pup can pick them up from simply lying down outdoors. They don't bite, but their presence irritates the skin in your dog's ears and makes them itch like crazy. Because they inflame the skin, ear mites in dogs can lead to ear infections. 

Moist Ears

Bacteria and yeast flourish in moist, dark areas, Grant says. So dogs that have floppy ears (think: hounds and spaniels) are more likely to develop ear infections. Air can easily get into upright ears and keep them dry. But ears that flap down trap moisture, which encourages germs to overgrow. Also, puppies in a litter can get ear infections from licking and pulling on each other's ears, explains Grant.

Allergies

Allergies are usually the main culprit in recurring ear infections. If your dog has multiple ear infections, it's time to consider allergy testing, Grant says. According to the AKC, 80% of dogs with food allergies and 50% of dogs with environmental allergies develop ear infections. 

Dog Ear Infection Symptoms

Ear infections are painful for pups. So you'll likely see your dog scratching at his ears or shaking his head. Other symptoms include red, irritated skin inside the ears and brown, yellow, or green discharge. Ear infections can also be super stinky.

How to Treat a Dog Ear Infection

"Typically, when it gets to the point of infection, you need prescription medication," Grant says. It's best to see your veterinarian as soon as you notice symptoms because ear infections won't go away on their own.

Your veterinarian will take a swab of the ear discharge and look at it under a microscope to see if it's mites, yeast, or bacteria, and then prescribe the appropriate medication. Treatments include antibiotics, antifungals and anti-mite medications that are usually applied to the skin. But if the infection has advanced to the inner ear, your veterinarian may recommend oral medications.

Women puts eardrops in blond terrier mix's ear while they lay down
Credit: Capuski / Getty

Treatment usually lasts two weeks, but your pooch should have some relief from symptoms within a few days, Grant says. "If it's a one-off ear infection, we won't do anything else. But if your dog gets multiple ear infections, then we'll talk about allergy testing so we can come up with a better long-term plan for the pet. That might mean changing up foods or long-term medication to address canine allergies." 

Home Remedy to Prevent Infections

Keeping your dog's ears clean and dry is the most important thing you can do at home to prevent ear infections. Grant recommends cleaning your dog's ears at least once a month. You can purchase a dog ear wash at the store or mix half water and half hydrogen peroxide to make your own cleaning solution at home. Think it'll be impossible to get your dog to sit still? These vet-approved tips will make the ear-cleaning process easier.

But the ultimate way to prevent ear infections that reoccur, says Grant, is to discover and treat the underlying cause, which is most often allergies to proteins in food or to things like dust mites or seasonal allergens. Treating what triggers your dog's ear infections provides a long-term solution that leads to a happier, healthier life.