Dog Ear Infections: Causes, Signs, and Treatments

Dog ear infections, particularly otitis externa, are prevalent and often linked to allergies, causing discomfort and potential chronic issues. Delves into causes, symptoms, and treatments below.

Feb 07, 2024·11 min read
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Dog Ear Infections: Causes, Signs, and Treatments

Ear infections are extremely common in dogs. These infections can cause pain and discomfort in our furry family members and are often the result of an underlying allergy. This in-depth guide aims to shed light on the complex nature of ear infections in dogs, from common clinical signs to treatment recommendations.

Key facts:

  • Outer ear infections (otitis externa) are extremely common in dogs: approximately 7-16% of dogs who see the veterinarian are there for an ear-related issue. 
  • Ear infections can be caused by yeast, bacteria, or both. 
  • Allergies, anatomy of the ear canal, and excess moisture in the ear are common underlying causes, which can lead to chronic or recurrent ear infections in dogs. 
  • Clinical signs of ear infections include head shaking, ear scratching, odor, discharge, debris, and redness of the ear canal. 
  • Diagnosis involves an otoscopic exam and ear cytology performed by your veterinarian. 
  • Ear infections are typically treated with ear cleaning and prescription topical medications that are applied directly into the ear canal.

What are Ear Infections in Dogs? 

Infection of the ear canal (outer ear) is called otitis externa and is one of the most common types of infections seen in dogs. 7-16% of dogs who visit the veterinarian are there for an ear-related issue. While this article will only focus on otitis externa, there are two other types of ear infections seen in dogs:

  • Otitis Media: infection of the dog’s middle ear 
  • Otitis Interna: infection of the inner ear

Ear infections cause itching and pain in the ear canal, which is associated with an inflammatory reaction to yeast or bacterial overgrowth. They are frequently associated with underlying conditions such as allergies and can occur in one or both ears. 

If left untreated, ear infections can become a chronic problem and might lead to more serious complications affecting the middle or inner ear. Therefore, dog owners need to be aware of the signs of ear infections to ensure timely and appropriate veterinary treatment.

A veterinarian's hands gently hold the ear of a Boston Terrier as the dog looks away, appearing relaxed during the ear examination.

Causes of Dog Ear Infections  

The culprits behind canine ear infections are microorganisms like yeast and bacteria. However, there are several underlying issues that can contribute to the overgrowth of these organisms.

Underlying health conditions

Medical conditions such as allergies or hypothyroidism can affect the skin and ears, leading to recurrent infections. Allergies are involved in 43% of dog ear infections. 

Ear mites

These tiny, contagious parasites cause intense itching and secondary infections in the ears. While they are generally uncommon in adult dogs, they may be seen in puppies and dogs in shelter settings. 

An object in the ear

Foreign objects such as foxtails or other plant material can become lodged in the ear, causing irritation and infection. Tumors or polyps may also grow in the ear canal. 

Breed-specific anatomy

Dogs with long, floppy ears, such as Cocker Spaniels, are at higher risk of developing ear infections due to decreased airflow in the ear canal. 


Lifestyle considerations such as frequent swimming, excessive grooming, or unnecessary plucking of ear hair can further exacerbate the risk of ear infection.

Signs of Dog Ear Infections

The most common signs of ear infections are listed below. They include both behavioral changes, such as scratching at the ears, and changes to the appearance of the ear itself. For comparison, a healthy dog’s ear is clear of debris, pink in color, and dry.

  • Scratching at the affected ear(s)
  • Head shaking
  • Odor: A strong, often foul-smelling odor 
  • Discharge: Excessive waxy debris or yellow, black, or brown discharge inside the ear canal may be present. In some cases, bloody discharge may also be noticed. 
  • Crusts or Scabs: Crusts or scabs present in the ear canal or ear flap, especially if a dog has been scratching excessively.
  • Redness: Inflammation and redness inside the ear canal or around the ear flap
  • Swelling: Puffiness and stenosis (narrowing) of the ear canal may be seen in severe cases. 
  • Pain: Sensitivity or pain when the ear is touched, for example, yelping or pulling away.
  • Head tilt: A dog may tilt their head to one side due to discomfort.
  • Balance issues: Walking in circles, stumbling, or showing signs of dizziness could be signs of a middle or inner ear infection. 
  • Behavioral changes: Irritability, depression, or a decreased appetite due to discomfort.
  • Ear hematoma: A swelling of the ear flap may be seen in some cases due to ruptured blood vessels as a result of excessive scratching or head shaking.

If you notice any of these signs in your dog, it’s essential to consult a veterinarian.

How are Ear Infections Diagnosed?

When you bring your dog to the veterinarian for a potential ear infection, they will begin by obtaining a thorough medical history and performing a physical exam. They will use an otoscope to examine the inside of the ear canal and look for signs of infection, inflammation, and the presence of any foreign material or masses. 

It is also important for your veterinarian to visualize the tympanic membrane, better known as the ear drum. This thin membrane separates the external and middle ear. Some ear infections can lead to a ruptured ear drum, which will affect the type of medication that your veterinarian can safely prescribe to treat the infection. 

Your veterinarian may then collect a sample of discharge from the ear for evaluation under the microscope. This test is known as an ear cytology and will help them determine if bacteria, yeast, or both are responsible for the ear infection. 

Lastly, if a dog has a history of chronic or recurrent ear infections, additional testing to identify an underlying cause, such as allergies or hypothyroidism, may be needed. This may be accomplished through bloodwork and skin testing. Referral to a veterinary dermatologist is always an option for complex cases.

A veterinarian's hands gently hold the ear of a Boston Terrier as the dog looks away, appearing relaxed during the ear examination.

How to Treat Ear Infections 

Ear infections require veterinary care. While not life-threatening, they can be painful and bothersome. Always start by seeing a veterinarian, who can help guide you through the following steps to treat and manage ear infections.

Clean your dog’s ears: Ear cleaner is used to cleanse the ear canal and remove debris, wax, and discharge. This will also ensure that medication can get deep into the ear canal and effectively treat the infection. There are various types of over-the-counter and prescription ear cleaners available. Some are designed to dry the ear canal (especially beneficial for dogs that swim), while others might have antifungal or antibacterial properties. Your veterinary team can demonstrate how to safely clean your dog’s ears at home. Ear cleaning is usually done on a daily basis for one week, then as needed. In some cases, a dog may need to be sedated or anesthetized for a thorough ear flushing. 

Use topical medications as directed by your veterinarian: The main treatment for ear infections involves medication applied directly into the ear canal to treat the infection. These medications may contain antibiotics (for bacterial infections), antifungals (for yeast infections), corticosteroids (to reduce inflammation and discomfort), or a combination of medications. Most topical ear medications must be applied once or twice a day for two weeks. Alternatively, your veterinarian can apply a long-acting medication into your dog’s ears, which will remain in place to treat the infection. This is an excellent option for dogs who may be difficult to medicate at home.  

Use oral medications as directed by your veterinarian: Sometimes ear infections require oral medications, such as antibiotics and antifungals to treat the infection, and corticosteroids or Apoquel® (oclacitinib) to decrease itch and inflammation in the ear.

Schedule a recheck: with your veterinarian to make sure that the treatment was effective and the infection has fully resolved. 

Beware of natural or home remedies: Some pet owners opt for natural remedies to provide relief or address minor ear issues, but these should be used with caution and only under veterinary guidance. Pet owners should be aware that it is not safe to put anything into a dog’s ear unless directed to do so by your veterinarian – if the ear drum is ruptured, this can lead to complications such as hearing loss. 

Consider a diet change: If food allergies are suspected as the underlying cause of recurrent ear infections, a diet trial with a hydrolyzed protein or limited ingredient diet may be recommended. 

Add supplements for skin health: Supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oil) and probiotics may be beneficial for dogs suffering from skin and ear issues due to allergies. 

Make lifestyle changes: Things as simple as thoroughly drying the ears after swimming and grooming, routine ear cleaning, and avoiding known allergens can help prevent infections.

Manage underlying conditions: Food and environmental allergies are the most common cause of ear infections in dogs. If your dog has recurrent ear issues, talk to your veterinarian about the possibility of allergies and potential treatments or dietary changes. Additionally, medical conditions such as hypothyroidism can make a dog more susceptible to ear infections. This can usually be easily managed with daily medication. Regular veterinary check-ups can help detect and manage these conditions.

  1. In some cases, surgery may be needed: If there are tumors or polyps in the ear, these may need to be surgically removed. In cases of severe or recurrent ear infections, more extensive procedures such as a total ear canal ablation (TECA) to remove the entire ear canal may be indicated.

Final Words on Ear Infections in Dogs 

Otitis externa is an extremely common and frustrating condition for dogs and owners alike. It can cause severe itching and discomfort in the ear canal. If you notice signs of an ear infection, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible to diagnose and treat the issue. 

Fortunately, once an ear infection is recognized, it is usually possible to effectively treat with topical and oral medications. Most simple ear infections will fully resolve with two weeks of treatment. 

Dogs with underlying allergies are often plagued by chronic or recurrent ear infections. While this is a more complex situation, these dogs can often find relief with allergy medications and changes to diet and lifestyle.


Are there home remedies for dog ear infections? 

Ear cleaning can be beneficial in treating early or mild ear infections. It’s crucial to approach any other home remedy for ear infections with caution. Before putting anything in your dog’s ears, always consult a veterinarian to ensure the treatment is appropriate and won’t worsen the problem. In general, ear infections require veterinary attention to resolve. 

When should I see the vet for an ear infection? 

While ear infections are not medical emergencies, they are painful, itchy, and annoying for your dog. Therefore it’s best to make an appointment as soon as you notice symptoms of an ear infection. 

Are certain breeds predisposed to ear infections? 

While ear infections can affect dogs of any breed, age, or sex, certain breeds do tend to be affected more frequently. This is often based on the shape and appearance of their ears. Big floppy ears (Cocker Spaniel, Basset Hound, Golden Retriever, Labrador, and other breeds) can trap moisture, which yeast and bacteria thrive on. Excess hair in the canal (Poodles, Schnauzers, and more) can also collect moisture and debris. Other breeds who are prone to allergies or love the water can also see more ear infections. 

Are ear infections contagious? 

Luckily, ear infections are not contagious to other pets or humans. However, certain underlying causes, such as ear mites, can be spread to other animals. Ear mites may be seen in puppies or shelter dogs, but are rare in adult dogs. 

Can ear infections be prevented? 

Regular ear care can significantly reduce the risk of ear infections in dogs. One of the most effective measures is routinely cleaning the ears with a veterinarian-approved solution, especially after swimming or baths, to avoid creating a moist environment that promotes bacterial and yeast growth. For dogs with allergies, managing these through dietary adjustments or treatments can help decrease recurrent ear problems.



Liza Cahn, DVML

Liza Cahn, DVM

Dr. Liza Cahn is a veterinarian who graduated from Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. She has five years of experience working as a veterinarian in small animal practice in Washington and California. She loved working with dogs and cats and educating owners on all aspects of veterinary medicine, especially animal behavior and dermatology.

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The information contained within this site is not intended as a substitute for professional medical or veterinary advice. PetLab Co. is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If your pet has, or you suspect your pet has any medical condition, you are urged to consult your veterinarian. Medical conditions can only be diagnosed by a licensed veterinarian. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Results May Vary. Not intended for human consumption. Please consult your veterinarian regarding any change in treatment or supplementation.
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