Painful, itchy ears are no fun for our pets. Unfortunately for our pups, ear infections can be a common occurrence due to the shape of their ears. The bad news is if outer ear infections (otitis externa) are left untreated or poorly managed, they can spread to the middle ear (otitis media) and inner ear (otitis interna) which could lead to permanent hearing loss. Read on to learn more about what causes an ear infection, how to prevent it, and how to treat it if your dog gets one.
“Ear infection” is a general term for infections that can be found in the outer, middle, or inner ear. This can occur in one or both ears and is the result of some sort of inflammation in the ear. Some common causes of ear infections include:3
- Foreign objects or injury
- Wax buildup
- Cleaning too frequently
Dogs who spend time in the water and breeds with long droopy ears, such as cocker spaniels or hounds, are more prone to otitis externa.
There are several warning signs for ear infections in dogs. If they seem visibly uncomfortable or are developing different behaviors relating to their ears, consider lifting their ear and taking a look. If you’re unsure, give your veterinarian a call to see what they advise.
Symptoms of dog ear infections include:
- Constant ear scratching or head shaking
- Foul ear odor
- Ear crusts and scabs
- Yellow or brown ear discharge
If the ear infection progresses deeper into the ear, your dog’s symptoms may include balance issues and even hearing loss. If you notice symptoms worsening, contact your vet immediately. Dogs' ears can be highly sensitive when infected, so you won’t want to do any treatment yourself until you get the green light from your vet.
For outer ear infections, usually the vet will do a visual exam to check for inflammation for a diagnosis. If your dog is experiencing an inner ear infection or pain, sedation may be necessary to prevent your dog from nipping and to make sure they’re comfortable through the exam.
Many vets will also take an ear swab to determine if any kind of bacteria or parasites are present. For more severe ear infection cases that cause balance or hearing issues, X-rays or biopsies may also be necessary. Dogs with ear infections may have an underlying condition, like allergies or hypothyroidism, so allergy tests and blood work may be included to help identify the underlying cause.
Treating otitis externa involves cleaning and treating the ear and managing any underlying diseases. The most common methods of ear infection treatment include:
- Routine ear cleaning
- Medicine (anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, etc.)
If medication is needed, it will depend on the type of infection (e.g., bacterial). An anti-inflammatory is often included to relieve pain and inflammation. Dogs with painful ears will need to be sedated or anesthetized for treatment. Chronic otitis externa may require surgical treatment since it could spread deeper into the ear and narrow the ear canal.
Treatment must continue until all infection is gone, which can take at least several weeks and involve periodic rechecks. Treatment for chronic ear infections may be ongoing and can likely be treated at home as you learn to treat your dog’s condition.
Cleaning your dog’s ears is typically the first step towards ear infection treatment and prevention. Your vet will give you clear instructions when leaving their office if your dog has been diagnosed with an infection. There are differences in care depending on your dog’s breed and your vet’s advice, but here’s a typical step-by-step process on how to clean a dog’s ears once or twice a month:
- Use the ear cleaning solution that your vet prescribed.
- Gently lift your dog’s ear and drop in the prescribed amount of ear cleaning solution.
- Place a cotton ball in the ear canal opening and gently massage the base of the ear with your thumb and index finger
- Clean the ear with the cotton ball, dispose of it when it has collected debris, and clean again with a fresh cotton ball. Repeat as needed until the cotton ball comes out relatively clean.
- Let the ear dry for at least 10 minutes before administering any medication your vet has prescribed.
Unless your vet says otherwise, you shouldn’t clean your dog’s ears too often – this can also cause infection! Cleaning a dog’s ears too frequently can remove healthy wax that helps trap bacteria and debris that could harm your pup.
If you’re cleaning your dog’s ears regularly, but are worried they may still get an infection, there are still a few things you can do to prevent it. Here are some other precautionary measures you can take to prevent your dog from getting an ear infection:
- Keep your dog’s ears dry. Use drying agents if your dog swims a lot and to prevent water from getting in your dog’s ears during a bath. This can help prevent swimmer’s ear in dogs.
- Pluck or clip hair that’s in and around the ear canal to keep the ears well ventilated. Consult with your veterinarian before doing this.
- Be proactive about caring for your dog’s ears and seek veterinary treatment if you think your dog is showing early symptoms of an ear infection.
- Manage underlying health conditions.
Taking care of your pup can get pricey, especially if they’re battling a chronic condition. Getting a dog insurance policy with MetLife before a health concern becomes a pre-existing condition can help offset the cost of care for your furry friend.1,2 Interested in learning more? Get your free quote today.