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Dog Ear Infections

Dog ear infections are common in spaniel breeds.Got Dog Ear Infections?

Red, stinky, dirt ears usually mean a dog ear infection is brewing and with it comes sensitivity, pain, and irritability.  If your small dog has been shaking his head, rubbing his ears against objects or scratching, then he might have an ear problem.

Dog ear infections are one of the most common reasons that dog owners visit their veterinarians each year.  After all, who wants to see their poor dog suffer and when they have ear problems, their discomfort is very noticeable.

Symptoms of Dog Ear Infections

If your dog has an infection, you might notice one or more of these symptoms.  Not all of these will be present.

  • Odor coming from the ear
  • Crusty scabs inside the ear
  • Scratching around the head and ears
  • Rubbing the head against the floor or another object
  • Shaking the head or tilting the head
  • Hair loss in the ear
  • Redness or swelling inside the ear canal
  • Dark brown, or bloody discharge coming from the ear
  • Pain when touched
  • Behavioral changes such as irritability or lack of energy
  • Hearing loss, loss of balance, walking in circles all indicate that the infection moved deep into the ear.
  • In severe cases, the dog shakes and scratches so hard that they damage their ear flap or pinna.  Blood builds up under the skin causing a hematoma to form and giving the ear flap a swollen appearance.  Dogs who end up with hematomas may be prone to them because of an auto-immune disease that weaken the blood vessels of the ear flap.

Causes of Dog Ear Infections

Infections occur for a number of reasons:

  • Environmental Allergies
  • Water in the ear
  • Parasites such as ear mites
  • Foreign body (seeds, grass, ticks)
  • Excessive hair and wax build up
  • Trauma to the ear
  • Hormonal imbalances such as hypothyroidism
  • The ear anatomy itself in some breeds
  • Tumors
  • Hereditary


If a dog has a problem with allergies, they may end up with an ear infection. 

Dogs can be allergic to many different things such as something they come in contact with, something they ingest or something they inhale.  Food, grasses, pollens, molds, cleaners and other chemicals are common allergens that affect people and dog. 

Dogs respond to allergies, though, differently than people.  
Dogs with two infected ears may be allergic to something in their environment.  
Sometimes the veterinarian can diagnosis the allergy by treating the ear.  To be thorough, the vet will need to treat the allergy and the ear.


Parasites:  The main parasite that enjoys the environment inside the dog’s ear is ear mite, Otodectes cynotis. 

If you have cats, you are probably aware that they are more frequent in our feline friends, but dogs can be affected too. 

If a dog becomes hypersensitive to these mites, their scratching, rubbing and shaking can be so intense that they cause trauma to the ear flap. 

Water & Other Lifestyle Issues

Water and other lifestyle issues:  Dogs that regularly swim can be prone to infections.  Chlorine in pools can be an irritation. 

Dogs that swim in lakes, rivers, and oceans come in contact with germs that can live comfortably in the warm dark environment of the ear canal.  Even excess bath water can get into the dog’s ear creating a warm moist environment for germs to grow. 

Foreign Objects

If your dog loves to run in the woods or roll in the grass, he may pick up something that sticks to the ear causing irritation. 

They scratch and rub and shake and before you know you have trauma, redness, and swelling.   Plant awns are a big culprit and will stick to your clothes and their ear flaps. 

Ticks can also get into the ear and cause problems.  A good grooming after a day in the forest is advisable to prevent this type of problem from turning into a full blown infection.

Ear Anatomy

The Dog’s Anatomy can play a part in whether or not they will suffer from ear infections.  The bacteria and yeast that cause ear infections need a warm, dark, moist environment in which to thrive, grown and reproduce.  

Those breeds that have thick floppy ears are the most likely to have problems with ear infections.  Any long haired dog whose ears hang low are candidates for ear infections. 

That is not to say that small erect ears never have problems, but rather these types of ears do not have the ideal environment for the germs to fester. 

Spaniels are well know as one breed that often has recurrent and chronic ear infections.

Breeds that tend to have hair that continually grows inside the ear canal can suffer from ear infections too,  if the hair and wax build up is not removed periodically.  Poodles, Shih Tzu, Lhasa Apso, Maltese and other long hair dogs have this issue.

Picture of a dog's ear canalDog's Ear

The ear canal is L shaped in  dogs where it starts in a vertical position and then bends slightly as it nears the ear drum.  Humans, on the other hand, have a horizontal ear canal. 

The shape of the dog’s ear canal is such that it is difficult to puncture the ear drum, but does make it easy for infections to become established.

Bacteria and Yeast

There are numerous types of bacteria and yeast present in ear infections.  Normal healthy ears can live with hundreds of bacteria and not be affected unless something changes. 

Allergies, hormonal abnormalities (deficiencies or excesses of hormones), moisture, foreign objects—anything can change these microorganisms allowing them to grow and multiply rapidly. 

Sometimes the dog’s natural body defenses are just overwhelmed and cannot compensate.  Ear infections are the result.  

Genetic Problems

These are usually breed specific.  For example, Shetland Sheepdogs can be affected by dermatomyositis and West Highland White Terriers have problems with primary seborrhea.


The extent of veterinary diagnoses often depends on the facilities where you take your dog and what the initial physical exam shows. 

If you suspect a dog ear infection, it is time to call the vet.  They will begin by viewing the ear canal with their otoscope.  They can determine the extent of the inflammation,  if the ear drum has been affected, and if there are any foreign objects, tumors, or parasites (ear mites) present.

They may also swab the inside of the ear to view under the microscope. A simple smear observed under the microscope will reveal mites and pus.

If the veterinarian then fixes and stains this smear, they can determine whether there is yeast or bacteria present.  They can identify the type of bacteria so that the correct antibiotic can be prescribed. 

Sometimes a culture and sensitivity is ordered.  This is more costly and time consuming and the results may not be back for several days.  This procedure is usually reserved for dogs that have chronic problems where antibiotics have not be effective.

They will also ask questions to determine if allergies might be the problem or if this is a recurring problem (Chronic ear infections).  If this is a chronic problem, the veterinarian  will look for underlying causes such as allergies or hormonal problems. 

These will be taken into consideration when making the treatment plan.


Ear Cleaning

Cleaning alone is critical but will not treat an infection if yeast or bacteria are present. 

Treatment usually consists of a good professional cleaning at the veterinarian’s office followed by home treatments.  These procedures may include additional cleanings, antibiotics if bacteria are present, antifungals if yeast is suspected; steroids to reduce swelling and other treatments to address underlying problems. 

  1. If allergies are the cause, the allergies must be addressed.  If it is a hormonal problem, replacement therapy might be advised.

  2. Antibiotics may be injected directly into the dog or sent home in the form of pills for you to give.   Antibiotic cream or drops may also be applied directly to the ear.

  3. Steroids are administered either through an injection or orally if indicated.  Sometimes they are applied topically.  The veterinarian may recommend an antihistamine instead of a steroid.  

  4. If ear mites are the problem, a special medication is given to kill the ear mites.
  5. If the food is suspected to be the problem, a slow change of diet may be required.  If an environmental allergy is the problem, eliminating the source can help.  If a super sensitivity to fleas is causing the ear problems, every flea will need to be removed.

  6. Ears need to be cleaned regularly.  Usually your veterinarian will recommend a good cleaning solution, but if he does not, I have had good luck with this product, Zymox.  (See below)

Veterinarians treat most  ear infections with oral medications or injections, ear cleanings, and topical medications.  In severe chronic cases, surgery might be necessary, but it is relatively rare. 

The most successfully treated dogs are those that are also treated for any underlying causes and then a strict grooming and environmental protocol at home.

Zymox Ear Solution with 0.5-Percent Hydrocortisone, 1.25-Ounce

Next  Preventing Dog Ear Infections

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