For those of you who don’t know what a dog's ear infection looks (or smells) like, cheers. For those of you who do, I feel your pain.
Skin problems, particularly ear infections, are one of the most common issues we see in veterinary practice. Owners bring in their itchy, red, scaling, crusty dogs (and cats) daily.
I often get what I like to call "repeat offenders", meaning pets that are seen for multiple ear infections over time. These pets are uncomfortable, and their owners can be sad or frustrated. But why? What’s actually going on in those ear canals, and how come it’s so common for these pets to be seen again and again?
In this article, we’re going to look at why ear infections in dogs occur, why they can be super frustrating for owners, and how together we can make them less so!
Symptoms of Ear Infections in Dogs
First off, it’s important that pet owners know how to spot a potential ear infection. You may notice more obvious signs, such as:
Redness of the outer ear flap (called the pinna)
Discharge (can be many colors: yellow, green, gray, dark brown, or even red!)
There can also be subtle signs that might point to an ear infection:
Rubbing head or ears against surfaces
Some sensitive pets may just act ‘off’ or even be less interested in food
What Ear Wax Colors in Dogs Mean
A little bit of debris or discharge in your pet's ear without pain, redness, or odor can sometimes be a non-issue.
But there are a fair few ear wax colors that can absolutely suggest a bigger problem:
Pale yellow to light brown: This may be a normal buildup without infection and can be cleaned at home as long as there are no other clinical symptoms.
Dark brown: This often accompanies a musty smell, and often indicates a yeast or bacterial infection. These dogs will need medication and an ear cleaner from your vet!
Yellow to green or milky: This type of discharge usually goes along with a more offensive odor (the one I mentioned at the beginning of this article, if you know, you know). We get worried about significant bacterial infections in these pets, and they should absolutely be seen by your vet.
Red: Sometimes people mistake the dark brown, yeasty debris above for red or blood. However, bright red discharge or blood in your pet's ear can indicate a multitude of issues, like a growth, severe infection, or wound. These pets also need prompt veterinary attention.
What Causes Ear Infections in Dogs?
So how did we get here? Owners ask me this question about ear infections almost every time, and it’s a good one, though loaded.
The most simple way I like to explain it is to remind owners that the ear canal is just an extension of your skin, the largest organ of the body. It starts with something that causes irritation of the skin barrier down in the ear canal. We’ll come back to what kind of thing that could be in a moment.
When the skin becomes irritated, your pet will shake, scratch, or rub, causing damage to the normal barrier that healthy skin has. With continued irritation and damage, bacteria and yeast that normally live on the skin and don’t cause problems will then have the chance to overgrow and cause an active infection.
It’s a slippery slope of irritation, inflammation, and organism overgrowth, or what we know as an ear infection. This means that, typically, ear infections are not something that is passed from animal to animal or from animal to person.
Common Contributors to Ear Infections in Dogs
Here’s a list of common things that can kick-start this irritation in the ear canal:
Foreign bodies (like grass seeds or other plants)
Skin growths or tumors
Water or moisture (common after swimming, bathing, grooming)
Parasites (Ear mites)
Underlying allergies: flea allergy, food allergy or sensitivity (such as chicken) or environmental allergy (pollen or grasses)
Dog Breeds Prone to Ear Infections
There are certain breeds that are more at risk of developing ear infections simply because of their anatomy.
Dogs with flopped-over ears, particularly those with long, pendulous pinnae (ear flaps), are predisposed to trapping moisture in those long ear canals.
This includes breeds like:
Additionally, some breeds are also predisposed to developing ear infections as they are more likely to suffer from underlying allergic skin disease. Commonly treated pups include:
Poodles (or any Poodle crosses)
If your pet has underlying allergies contributing to ear problems, it’s more likely that they will continue to have repeat ear infections on and off unless we figure out what they’re allergic to and how we can avoid or manage those allergens.
This takes some time and dedication on everyone’s part, but if it’s done well, it can decrease the number of trips you and your pup are taking to the vet down the road.
We can’t cure your dog's allergies, but our hopes are to decrease the frequency and severity of symptom flare-ups over the long term, including ear infections.
Can You Clean Your Dog's Ears at Home?
Cleaning your dog's ears at home in cases of non-problematic buildup is absolutely okay. If your pet has some pale to light brown waxy debris with no redness, odor, pain, or itchiness associated, it’s likely fine to clean that out.
The important thing is using an appropriate cleaner and knowing how to clean your dog's ears safely! All dogs have an L-shaped ear canal, which is a common reason why ear cleaning as well as treating infections can be tricky.
To clean your pup's ears, you’ll need some cotton gauze or cotton pads and some safe ear cleaner. I do not recommend pet owners use cotton swabs to clean their pets ears, as it is very easy to stick them too far down the ear canal and risk damaging or puncturing the eardrum!
Some of my favorite safe cleaners that owners can use at home for general ear cleaning include products such as Virbac’s EpiOtic or Dechra’s CleanAural.
Vets typically don’t encourage using things like hydrogen peroxide or apple cider vinegar to clean dog ears. These solutions are harsh and can cause significant irritation to the ear canal.
When to See a Vet for Your Dog's Ear Infection
If you notice discharge in your pet's ears that is yellow, green, red, or dark brown, your dog should be seen by your vet. In particular, schedule a visit if you notice redness, pain, itchiness, head shaking, scratching, or an odor. These can all be indicators that an active infection is present and requires attention.
Your vet will look down your dog’s ear canal to evaluate the skin and eardrum. They’ll also be looking for any foreign bodies or growths along the way. It’s essential to make sure that the eardrum isn’t ruptured prior to putting most cleaners and medications into the ear canal.
Your vet will also take a sample of the debris to look at under a microscope to confirm if there’s an infection and, if so, what types of organisms are present. This impacts what medications will be chosen to treat the infection.
Ear mites also require a sample to be checked under the microscope for diagnosis.
Your vet will often prescribe an ear cleaner (which may have different ingredients from ones you have at home) as well as a medicated topical ear ointment. These ointments may include anti-fungals, antibiotics, and/or an anti-inflammatory like a steroid.
In severe cases, oral antibiotics and/or steroids may also be necessary to treat deeper-rooted infections.
Don’t skip your rechecks! When your vet recommends that your pet be seen for a recheck after treating an ear infection, stick to it. One of the keys to success is checking that the infection is resolved prior to discontinuing the medications used. This recheck, believe it or not, often saves people more visits and money later on.
Do Cats Get Ear Infections?
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the kitties. While we typically see more ear infections in dogs, our feline friends can be affected too.
Clinical symptoms for cats are usually similar to their canine counterparts. This includes debris or discharge, redness, itching or scratching, head shaking, and odor.
Causes also include things like parasites and underlying allergies. I tend to see more ear mites in cats than in dogs, particularly rescued kittens or stray cats.
Luckily, treatment of ear mites is usually quick and effective. In cases of recurrent ear infections, we start to think more about ear canal growths or allergies. The diagnosis of infection will be made similarly, using a scope to look down the canal and taking a sample to look at under the microscope.
Cleaning cat ears is a bit more challenging and comes with a few more risks than cleaning dog ears. Generally speaking, I recommend wetting a cotton pad or ball with a safe ear cleaner and cleaning the outer flap/canal as best you can (i.e., do not fill the canal and massage as you would when cleaning a dog's ear).
If your cat requires a deeper clean, having trained veterinary staff perform this is ideal, as cats can have complications and side effects if not done appropriately.