ear infections in pets

ear infections in pets | vet looking in dogs ear with otoscope
Posted by Dr. Nina Mantione on May 21 2020

Ear infections are one of the most common health problems that triggers a pet owner to bring their dog or cat to the veterinary clinic for a sick visit.

Dogs and cats typically get what we call otitis externa, which is an inflammation of the ear canal, rather than a middle ear infection, which kids tend to get. Our pets can certainly get middle ear infections too, but they usually result from a progression of an ear canal infection into the deeper structures of the ear.

Outer ear inflammation, or otitis externa in fancy doctor-speak, is any redness, swelling and discomfort in the part of the ear exterior to the eardrum.

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What causes ear infections?

Ear infections always have an underlying cause, the most common being allergies. Both food allergies and inhaled allergies (atopy) can cause inflammation of the delicate skin in the ear canals and lead to a secondary dog ear yeast infection or bacterial infection. Food allergies account for 15% to 20% of all chronic ear problems. Most ear problems are actually the result of inflammation followed by bacterial infection, then complicated by excessive yeast growth.

Other underlying causes are often ear mites, moisture in the ears from swimming or baths, and in cats, pharyngeal polyps.

Pets afflicted with otitis externa rub, shake, scratch and experience varying degrees of misery. Make no mistake about it ― ear infections hurt, and they make pets and their owners very unhappy. One of the challenges with most ear infections is that they’re not really infections.

By the time you get to the vet, it’s easy to miss the true inflammatory cause because of the existing infection. In other words, bugs or fungi end up getting blamed for an allergic or inflammatory condition. 

Diagnosing ear infections

My standard supposition when confronted with an angry ear is to bet on inflammation. When I’m sussing out the source of the ear agony, I ask a few questions:

  • How long has this been going on? Greater than a week or two often tips the scale toward allergy.
  • How often do these occur? More than one “ear infection” per year suggests inflammation as the true trigger.
  • What was the sequence of symptoms? Shaking or rubbing first followed by discharge and stinky smells tells me there’s more than bacteria or yeast to blame

Because food allergies are often the cause, you can bet I’ll also spend time quizzing the owner about dietary habits. The best diagnosis always begins with a thorough conversation.

5 common traits of pets prone to ear infections

1. A history of allergies

Whether it be food allergies, contact allergies, or seasonal inhaled allergies.

2. Floppy ears

The shape, size and hairiness of your pet’s ears often have a lot to do with the risk of ear problems. Dogs and cats with drooping, flat, low and furry ear tubes (like Basset Hounds) have a higher incidence of ear issues than those with upright, wide, clean canals. American Cocker Spaniels have lousy ear shapes worsened by an often-inherited anomaly known as congenital cornification defects

3. A history of ear infections

Some infections are recurrent after they’ve been cleared; if your pet has had an infection in the past, be vigilant about monitoring ear health.

4. Increased ear wax production

​​​​​​​Some dogs and cats just produce a lot of ear wax. This debris can trap bacteria or yeast and may contribute to increased ear infections.

5. Excess ear hair

​​​​​​​Dogs with hair in their ear canals, such as Poodles, are prone to infection. If your pet has excess ear hair and is getting ear infections often, talk to your veterinarian about how to keep the ear canals clean and healthy.

When examining your pet’s ears, be sure to observe both the ear flap (or pinna) and as much of the ear opening as they will allow. Please do not insert anything into your pet’s ears.

Basset Hound dog standing in grass field

6 dog ear infection symptoms

If you have ever had a pet with an ear infection, you are familiar with the symptoms: head shaking, scratching, reddish-brown build up of ear wax (that pet owners often mistake for dried blood), and (ugh) the odor. The odor can range from a yeasty, musty smell to a nausea-inducing foul aroma that can make entering the exam room a challenge.

  1. Increased discharge. Ear infections are typically accompanied by thick brown or yellow discharge. Black crumbly debris (resembling coffee grounds) can also be a sign of ear mites.
  2. Foul odor. Both yeast and bacterial overgrowth result in a particularly stinky ear.
  3. Crusty ears. Crusts on the pinna or inside the ear are abnormal.
  4. Sores on the pinna, especially in cats.
  5. Painful, red, or ulcerated ears.
  6. A swelling on the ear flap or hematoma. A collection of blood within the ear flap can form due to excessive head shaking that sometimes accompanies ear infections.

If you think your pet has an ear infection, you’ll want to get to the vet as soon as possible as this is a very painful condition. There, they will determine the type of infection, clean your pet’s ears, recommend a leave-in ear medication or a medication for you to continue at home. If it’s your pet’s first ear infection ask your veterinary team for an ear cleaning and medication demonstration.

How to treat a dog ear infection

Treating ear infections is pretty straightforward in the early stages, but as an animal begins to have recurrent infections (and this is a VERY common scenario) treatment can become more and more difficult.

Over time, chronic inflammation causes permanent thickening of the skin in the ear canal, which can lead to a narrowing of the canal itself. This narrowing inhibits airflow and normal drainage from the ear and leads to MORE inflammation – a vicious cycle that grows progressively harder to break.

Chronic treatment contributes to antibiotic resistance and deleterious changes in the normal bacterial flora, again making the likelihood of repeat infection almost a given.

Treatment consists of proper cleaning with appropriate products (please – I’m begging you – not rubbing alcohol or peroxide) and consistent application of a topical ointment. Following directions to the letter (even though our pets never do!) is what helps to ensure that an infection is fully eradicated.

Often, if the ear canal is significantly swollen, oral steroids are used to diminish the inflammation (don’t worry, they won’t turn Fido into Hulk).

Veterinary ear infection treatment cost

If it continues to be a chronic problem or these treatments fail, we may begin to venture into more expensive medications, bacterial cultures, deep ear flushes, food trials and referrals for allergy testing. Luckily, pet insurance covers treatment of chronic conditions such as ear infections, which range from $235.96 in Shih Tzus to $287.77 in Goldendoodles according to Petplan claims data. 

In extreme cases, or “end-stage ear disease,” surgical treatment (where the ear canal is opened up or removed entirely) becomes necessary.

Just like in humans, ear disease is an itchy, painful condition for your pet, so if you suspect an infection be sure to see your veterinarian ASAP!

Preventing future infections

When it comes to keeping your pet's ears clean, less is actually more. A normal healthy ear in a dog or cat contains a delicate balance of good bacteria and yeast. Regular inspection of your pet’s ears will be your first line of defense in the battle for optimal ear health and prevention of ear infections.

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