Ear problems are extremely common in dogs. A study has shown that 1 in every 14 dogs suffers from an ear infection every year in the UK. There are many different causes of ear problems, and some dogs may be affected throughout their whole lives.
Ear problems can affect dogs of all ages, but some breeds may be at greater risk. While many cases are quick and easy to clear up, some causes of ear problems can lead to severe pain and lifelong treatment may be needed. Ear problems are often referred to as otitis, which means inflammation of the ear.
What are ear problems in dogs?
Ear problems are a common complaint that vets see and treat on a daily basis.
- There are many different causes, with bacterial infections and allergies being the most common.
- Ear problems can happen at any age.
- Infections are usually caused by reduction of air flow and the build-up of moisture.
- Ear problems may be easy to treat if caught early. Simple infections should clear within 1-2 weeks with appropriate treatment.
- If not treated early, the ear can become damaged and thickened, and treatment becomes difficult.
- Some dogs may need lifelong treatment if they have underlying problems like allergies.
- It’s important to investigate for underlying causes; otherwise, the ear problems will continue to return.
- May affect different parts of the ear: the ear flap and canal (Otitis externa), middle ear (Otitis media) or inner ear (Otitis interna).
- Most cases of middle or inner ear disease are due to bacteria after a ruptured eardrum. Ruptured eardrums result from repeated ear infections or incorrect cleaning.
Common causes of ear problems in dogs include:
- Allergies: Food allergies and environmental
- Bacterial and fungal infections
- Ear mites
- Foreign bodies (such as grass seeds)
- Injuries, such as bites and wounds
- Ear growths, such as tumours or polyps
- Vestibular disease
- Cleaning the ears too often
- Auto-immune conditions
- Endocrine disorders, such as thyroid disease (Hyperthyroidism in dogs)
Severe head shaking can lead to an aural haematoma.
Ear problems can be very painful in dogs, and if not treated quickly, may lead to lifelong problems. If your dog shows any signs of ear problems, speak to a vet as soon as possible to discuss the next steps.
Our Joii vets are available 24 hours a day if you have any concerns.
Symptoms of ear problems in dogs
One or both ears may be affected
- Ear irritation: scratching at the ears or rubbing them on the floor
- Head shaking
- Pain: avoidance or aggression when touched near the head or ears
- Red, inflamed skin inside the ears
- Discharge, such as wax or blood inside the ears
- Hair loss or skin sores around the ears
- A bad smell from the ears
- A head tilt
- Loss of balance
- A swollen ear tip is called an aural haematoma
Are some dogs more at risk of ear problems than others?
Any dog, regardless of age or breed, can develop ear problems.
However, there are some breeds that are at greater risk
- Basset Hound, Shar-Pei, Labradoodle, Beagle, Golden Retriever, Cockapoo, Spaniels, Bulldogs, Bichon Frise, and Pug
- These breeds are at higher risk due to a combination of factors, including shape of the ear, having hairy ears, and being prone to skin diseases and allergies.
Another risk factor is regular exposure to moisture
- This includes dogs that swim, frequent grooming or bathing, and hunting dogs
Puppies and young dogs are more at risk of ear mites.
Are my family at risk of catching ear problems from my dog?
None of the common causes of ear problems are known to transfer from dogs to humans.
How are ear problems diagnosed in dogs?
The diagnosis of ear problems will usually begin with a full physical exam, including an otoscopic exam. This is where your vet looks down the ear canal with a scope to check the ear canal and eardrum. This checks for any abnormalities, such as foreign bodies or growths. Your vet may diagnose an ear infection based on how the ear looks and a simple swab of the ear discharge.
Depending on the findings, further tests may include
- A swab of the ear, for cytology, to find out if bacteria, yeast, mites or other cells are present
- A swab may be sent off to see what medication is best to treat the infection
- Ear flushing, to clean the ear thoroughly
- A biopsy of any growths in the ear
- Imaging: Skull x-rays, CT or MRI may be recommended for certain conditions, especially those affecting the middle and inner ear
- Other tests to check for underlying diseases include diet trials, allergy skin testing, and blood and urine tests.
The above tests often require sedation or anaesthesia to make your dog more comfortable for the procedure. Ear problems can be extremely painful, and some dogs may not even allow an exam without it.
Vet treatment of ear problems in dogs
A physical exam is extremely important to check that the eardrum is intact, as most ear drops can cause severe side effects if used when the eardrum is not intact.
Treatment will usually involve one or more of the following
- To clean and soothe the ear canal
- Help break up the wax and allow the medicated drops to be more effective
- Some have antibacterial and antifungal properties
Medicated ear drops
- Usually contain a combination of antibiotic, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory ingredients.
- Range of different types; some are applied twice daily, some are longer-lasting, up to a week
- Often used after a swab has been taken, once results are known for what type of bacteria or yeast is present
- The length of course may range from 7 days to 14 days or longer, depending on how severe the infection is or what type of infection is present
- Always complete the course as advised by your vet
Oral (by mouth) medications
- May be used if ear drops are not possible due to too much pain or a ruptured eardrum
- Often used if middle or inner ear disease is involved
- May be used before a course of ear drops to help reduce thickening inside the ear canal
- Usually antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications
- Simple procedures such as ear flushing (to thoroughly clean the ears) or removal of foreign bodies
- More complex surgery may be required for ear problems that are not clearing with medical treatment or badly damaged ears.
- There are several different techniques, including:
Opening up the ear canal – lateral wall resection
Removing part or all of a diseased ear canal – vertical ear canal ablation and total ear canal ablation (TECA).
Other treatments may be necessary for any of the underlying diseases, such as ear mites. Find out more about the specific treatments for these conditions by following the links to the articles.
How to look after a dog with ear problems at home
Always speak to a vet before using any home remedies for your dog’s ears. Some products may make the symptoms worse.
- Make sure to use any medication as advised by your local vet. Do not skip any doses and finish the course. If you are struggling to use the medication, speak to your vet; an alternative may be available. If the problem persists, make sure to take your dog back for a recheck as soon as possible.
- Speak to a vet as soon as ear problems begin. Ear disease is easier to treat in the beginning, before the ear becomes thickened or develops resistant infections.
- Make sure your dog is up-to-date on parasite preventatives for fleas; these often cover ear mites too.
- Ear cleaners may be all that is needed for mild problems.
- A buster or inflatable collar helps to prevent self-trauma to the skin around the ears
- If underlying allergies are suspected, Hills Derm Complete food can be used long-term for management.
- Skin supplements can help reduce itching and improve the skin’s barrier function.
Our Joii vets are available 24 hours a day for advice.
Tips on how to live with a dog with ear problems
Ear problems can be frustrating to diagnose and treat.
- Some cases will respond well to a course of medication and never return. Unfortunately, some cases may return within a few months or not respond to the first course of medication.
- The prognosis of ear problems are generally good, but will often need long-term management
- Higher costs may be involved if surgery or allergy medication is required
- Make sure to speak to a vet as soon as the ear problem flares up. This is especially important if it does not resolve after a course of medication.
Tips on how to prevent ear problems in dogs
Some causes of ear problems are not preventable, but there are ways to reduce the severity of the symptoms or how often they occur.
- Reduce moisture: keep ears as dry as possible at all times. Dry thoroughly after bathing or swimming.
- Get your dog used to handling and ear cleaning when they are young.
- Manage allergies with appropriate diet and medication.
- Keep your dog up to date with parasite preventatives that protect against fleas and mites.
- Keep the hair around the entrance to the ear as short as possible to allow good ventilation.
- Clean the ears regularly with an appropriate cleaner. Use a cleaner that is pH-neutral. Different ear cleaners may be recommended depending on the type of ear disease.
- Avoid cleaning the ears too often. Once every 7–14 days is usually enough, unless there is an infection present. Speak to our Joii team to learn more about ear cleaning.
- Check your dog’s ears when you come back from walks. Remove any foreign material, such as grass seeds, before they work their way into the ear canal.
When to worry
When you should be worried about ear problems in dogs
Seek help from your local vet if
- Your dog’s ears are extremely itchy or painful
- Your dog has a head tilt or loss of balance
- Your dog’s ear infection has not cleared with the medication
- Your dog’s ears are swollen
Call us and speak to one of our Joii Vets if
- You have any questions about what ear cleaners are safe for dogs
- You want advice on how to clean your dog’s ears
- Your dog has repeated problems with ear infections and you are not sure what to do next