Common canine ear problems – causes, signs and treatment

Diagram of dog ear

Imagine if you were a dog with a highly uncomfortable ear infection. You scratch and scratch. You shake your head around. And, you hope your human will take notice. Ear infections occur regularly in dogs and can be quite serious in some cases. So, here are some common canine ear problems, their causes and treatment.

3 types of ear infections

There are 3 types of ear infections and these refer to the location of the problem. Otitis Externa means that the inflammation affects the layer of cells lining the external portion of the ear. Otitis Media & Otitis Interna refer to infections of the middle and inner ear canal and these are often the results of infection spreading from the external ear. Unfortunately, More advanced ear infections can be quite serious as they can lead to deafness, loss of balance and facial paralysis.

What are the causes of ear infections?dog with funny long ears

Airborne Allergies: Just like with humans, airborne allergies often occur seasonally. This means that your dog may be more prone to infections between April and September.

Food Allergies: This can be tough to diagnose but it is possible. Typically, it requires that your dog eat absolutely nothing other than food containing protein and carbohydrate sources that she has never been exposed to or a diet that has been processed as hypoallergenic. Further, this food trial needs to last at least 8 weeks. Needless to say, this will be a challenge!

The most common offending foods are beef, chicken, eggs and dairy.

Most dogs get ear infections from food allergies. These allergies cause inflammation in the intestines and this leads to bacterial and/or yeast overgrowth there. This then spreads throughout the body, including the ears

Bacterial infections: Most of the bacterial infections that affect your dog’s skin are strains of staph but they aren’t the same kinds that affect humans. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about becoming infected.

Yeast infections: A yeast infection in the outer ear is easy to spot. You will see a waxy residue and scabbing around the ear opening. Fortunately, this condition is easy to treat. However, an ear infection caused by yeast might also be associated with an underlying cause such as allergies, bacteria, a ruptured eardrum, a tumor, a polyp or a trapped object.

Due to your dog’s ear anatomy, yeast has a favorable environment in which to grow. Her ear canal is actually shaped like an “L” so stuff can get trapped in there

Mites: These pesky little beasts can do quite the number on your dog’s ears. Sometimes, the exterior symptoms of mites can look similar to those of yeast infection. There may be irritation or dark flecks. Unfortunately, mites are really hard to see.

These little critters feed off your dog’s ear wax. An infestation can lead to a bacterial infection.

Some of the other causes of ear infections are hypothyroidism, Cushings Disease and foreign objects becoming lodged in the ear canal.

Husky scratching ear

What are the signs of ear problems?

  • Shaking of the head
  • Head tilting
  • Scratching
  • Scabs
  • Inflammation
  • Odor from ears
  • Lack of balance
  • Unusual back-and-forth eye movements
  • Redness in the ear canal
  • Swelling in outer portion of the ear
  • Brown, yellow or bloody discharge

Are some types of dogs more prone to ear infections?

Any dog can have an ear infection. However, here is a list of dogs that are more likely to be afflicted.

Cocker Spaniels: Because their ears are heavy and floppy with thick hair.

Labrador Retrievers: They love to play in the water and this means there is more opportunity for moisture to get into their ears. Yeast and bacteria thrive in moist environments.

Pit Bulls: They are prone to skin and ear infections that are often related to allergies.

Poodles: They have very hairy ears and are prone to infections. The hair can keep debris from entering and that’s a good thing. But, on the other hand, the hair can make it more difficult for foreign material to exit the ear canal.

Shar-Peis: This breed is known for heavy skin folds and very narrow ear canals. This means that even a small amount of debris can clog the canal and cause problems. Further, these narrow canals make it harder for material to exit.

Allergic Dogs: A dog with allergies will scratch her ears and this disrupts normal defenses against infection. Also, a dog’s allergic response is an overgrowth of the normal yeast or bacteria in the ears. These dogs often develop chronic or recurring infections.

TreatmentDachshund having ear examined

When you take your dog to the veterinarian for a suspected ear infection, the doctor will perform an otoscopic exam, in which she will look deep into the ear canal. She will look under a microscope at material from the ear canal, also known as an ear cytology. Then, she can prescribe a medicated ointment, based on what the exam and cytology show, and provide recommendations on cleaning.

In extreme or chronic cases, your veterinarian may take a biopsy or x-ray.

It should be noted that some ear infections can cause the eardrum to rupture. If that happens, many medications used to treat ear infections can cause deafness and other side effects. Therefore, your veterinarian must determine if the eardrum is intact.

Uncomplicated ear infections can take 10 to 30 days to resolve. However, some can take months and others may be chronic.

How to prevent ear infections

Cleaning the ears is very important and you can do it with a cleaning solution. You then massage the canal from the outside and wipe it out with an absorbent gauze. Don’t use paper towels or cotton as these materials can leave residue.

It’s also important that you thoroughly dry your dog’s ears after swimming and try to prevent water getting in during a bath.

You can also clean your dogs ear flaps with Q-tips. However, don’t use these in her ear canal

A nutritional diet is also important in the prevention of ear infection. Supplements can also help. If allergies are at the root of the problem, a daily omega-3 fatty supplement can help.

In some cases, plucking ears is beneficial. But, this isn’t for every dog. So, if your dog has very hairy ear canals, it can help to keep them hair free. This is something that may be best performed by your veterinarian.


These are common canine ear problems that you should be aware of. Remember, ear infections are very uncomfortable for your pooch and can even lead to more serious problems.

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