Dog Ear Infection: Signs, Causes, Treatments & Prevention

Ear infections in dogs are as common as they are uncomfortable. Learn about dog ear infections, their signs, causes, treatments & how to prevent them.

Vanessa Armstrong

Updated December 30, 2022 • Published April 23, 2021

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Dog Ear Infection: Signs, Causes, Treatments & Prevention

Ear infections (officially known as otitis externa) are one of the most common ailments for dogs, especially in pups with long, floppy (and adorable) ears like Cocker Spaniels and Old English Sheepdogs. Your dog’s ears are prone to infection and inflammation for a lot of reasons, and while they may be difficult to prevent entirely, there are things you can do to keep your pup’s ears happy and healthy.

Read on to learn signs and symptoms of dog ear infections, what causes them, when to see a vet, potential treatments, and ultimately how to prevent them.

Signs your dog has an ear infection

While some dogs might not show any symptoms when they have an ear infection, many dogs will let you know they have an ear infection with the following symptoms:

  • Head shaking

  • Scratching around the irritated ear

  • Yellow or black discharge

  • Bad smell coming from the ear

  • Redness around the ear canal

  • Scaly skin, crusting, or scabs in the ears

  • Bleeding from the ears

  • Loss of balance

dog ear infection - scaly skin

What causes dog ear infections

Bacteria or yeast infection

Ear infections in dogs are usually caused by a buildup of bacteria or yeast in the ear canal.

Excess moisture/allergies

While an infection can show up in any dog — particularly pups with floppy ears as mentioned above — other factors, like excess moisture and allergies can also trigger an infection.

Wax buildup or injury to the ear canal

Other things that can cause ear infections in dogs are wax buildup or injury to the ear canal (whether by a foreign object being stuck there or not).

Autoimmune/endocrine disorders

Dogs with certain autoimmune or endocrine disorders like thyroid disease are also more prone to infections. 

Ear mites

Ear mites can also cause ear infection symptoms, specifically black discharge, scratching, and head shaking. Mites, however, usually occur in puppies, and a definitive diagnosis can only be made by your vet.  

When to talk to a vet

Because there are so many potential causes for ear infection symptoms and so many different types of fungi and bacteria that cause problems, you need a veterinarian to determine the specific cause. A veterinarian can also make sure your pup’s eardrum remains intact, as administrating medication to a dog with a ruptured eardrum can result in hearing loss. 

Seeing a vet is also important to make sure there isn’t an underlying chronic condition like low thyroid. If there is an underlying condition, your pup may require multiple treatments to get back to happy, healthy ears. Your veterinarian is also able to check to see if there are multiple factors causing the ailment. If you don’t identify all causes of the infection, the infection will likely return.  

How to treat dog ear infections

In order to treat your dog's ear infection, your veterinarian may clip the fur around the ear and will examine your dog’s ear with an otoscope to make sure the eardrum is intact and there are no foreign bodies.

The vet will also take a sample from the ear to determine what type of bacteria or fungi is causing the infection. Often, more than one bacterium or fungus is present, which will require multiple medications to treat.

How to apply antibiotics to your dog's ear canal 

Most ear infection medications are often topical and include antibiotics, antifungal drugs, and glucocorticoids. In administering the medication, it’s important to make sure it gets into the horizontal part of the ear canal. To do this, lift up your dog's ear and hold it back while your other hand squeezes the medication into the canal. Hold the ear up long enough for the medicine to make it down the canal, and then massage the ear. Veterinarians do NOT recommend using a Q-Tip when administering the medication, as they can make the infection worse. 

Some newer medications, however, can just be given in the vet’s office. "There are great treatments for ears now that are convenient 'once and done' medications," explains Dr. Deirdre Frey, founder of the house call veterinary practice Vet At Your Door. "Your veterinarian will examine the ear first, then may take a swab of the ear to view under a microscope. If appropriate, they will then apply the special ear treatment and ask to recheck your dog in two weeks.

How to treat chronic ear infections in dogs

Certain ear infections in dogs may take months to resolve, and for some pups, you’ll have to continue medication indefinitely. If your dog has chronic ear inflammation, your doctor may also prescribe medication that is taken orally or via injection. 

How to treat wax buildup in dogs' ears

If there is a buildup of wax (or foreign body), the vet will remove it, thoroughly clean out your dog’s affected ear, and prescribe the required mediation. This might require sedation depending on the object and the temperament of the dog. In some cases, a dog’s ear might be swollen shut, making administering medication difficult. In these instances, your vet may also prescribe some anti-inflammatory medications or your pup will require surgery.

How To Prevent Ear Infections In Dogs

The best way to address ear infections in your pup, however, is through prevention. Cleaning your dog’s ears regularly (your veterinarian can show you the proper way) can go a long way, and should be done one to two times weekly as a preventative measure. A dog’s ears should also be kept dry and well ventilated, so be sure to dry your pup’s ears if they take a swim in a lake or pond.

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