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Canine Ear Infections: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention
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Canine Ear Infections: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Charlie, Critter Culture Staff
Updated Oct 6, 2020

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One of the most common health issues for dogs is an ear infection. Veterinarians call this type of infection otitis externa, an infection of the external ear canal. Dogs with long, pendulous, furry, or floppy ears are more prone to ear infections, but any breed of dog can develop one, and there are multiple causes. If you suspect your dog has an ear infection, a trip to the vet is in order.

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Symptoms of an ear infection

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Signs may be mild in the beginning, but progress with time. Symptoms of an ear infection range from visible wax buildup to sores and persistent scratching at the ear. One of the early signs of a canine ear problem is head shaking. You may notice an unpleasant odor or a dark or yellowish discharge from the ear. The skin inside the ear swells and turns red, and some infections lead to a crusty buildup or a narrowed ear canal.

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Watch for more serious signs

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If a dog’s ear infection has spread to the inner ear, the symptoms become more pronounced and serious. Vomiting and nausea are initial signs. As the infection progresses, it may alter your dog’s balance. Some dogs walk in circles, leaning toward the side of the infected ear. If the infection is in both ears, then a dog will sometimes swing their head from side to side and may have trouble standing. Drooling from one side of the mouth, an inability to blink or eat or an eye discharge are also signs of inner ear infection.

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Dogs with allergies are prone to ear infections

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Ear infections in dogs are usually a skin-related condition due to environmental or food allergies, and studies show that allergic dermatitis causes most canine ear infections. Plus, skin allergies can trigger recurring ear infections. These allergic reactions can sometimes lead to an infection in only one ear, but a majority of dogs have infections in both.

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Ear infections might indicate a disorder

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Autoimmune disorders or endocrine disorders increase the likelihood of canine ear infections. An autoimmune disorder means the dog’s immune cells can’t tell the difference between normal tissue and foreign cells. These disorders can affect the skin and eventually lead to external ear infections. Endocrine disorders like Cushing’s disease make the dog’s body produce too much cortisol, leading to skin infections and ear infections. There is no prevention for these hereditary conditions. Regular ear cleaning and pet checkups help keep these dogs healthy.

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A physical examination reveals the cause

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After examining the outer ears, the veterinarian will use an otoscope to examine both ears and evaluate the amount of swelling, along with any signs of a discharge or a mass. Canine ear infections are usually a secondary condition that starts with a primary cause. While allergies and hormonal issues usually infect both ears, polyps and foreign bodies lead to infection in one ear.

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Bacterial infections require medication

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Several different types of bacteria cause canine ear infections. Staphylococcus intermedius is the most common. Dogs normally carry this bacteria in their mouths, nose, skin, ears, and intestinal tracts. Ear pus is a sign of a bacterial infection, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a germ that is commonly found in water or soil. Once the veterinarian determines the type of infection, they can prescribe the proper medication to resolve it. Without treatment, the infection can worsen.

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Yeast overgrowth can produce an ear infection

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All dogs have yeast organisms that grow on the surface of their skin. Most of the time, it isn’t harmful. But sometimes, the yeast overgrows, making your dog vulnerable to infection. Dogs with restricted airflow to their ears experience higher rates of yeast infections. If the yeast infection is bad enough, it can lead to fungal infections such as like ringworm.

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Foreign bodies can lead to infection

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One of the most common foreign bodies that vets trace to an ear infection is grass seeds. Dirt, sand, or other plant materials are also a cause. Polyps or tumors may block the ear canal and cause infection. If your dog has mites in its ears, you’ll see brown particles, similar to coffee grains, or a dark, waxy secretion in the ears. You may also notice blood specks or blood pooling in your dog’s ears.

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Treating an ear infection

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The first step toward clearing an infection is to clean the ear. Next, the veterinarian will prescribe an oral medication to get rid of the infection and reduce inflammation. They may also prescribe a topical medication, such as drops or ointments, to treat specific bacteria, yeast, or mites. For dogs with recurring ear infections due to allergies, identifying the cause, then adjusting the food or the environment usually takes care of the issue. Occasionally, surgical intervention is necessary.

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Prevention is key to healthy ears

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Treating a dog’s allergies will usually put a stop to recurring ear infections. Checking the ears a couple of times each week makes it easier to recognize any changes. Keep the dog’s ears clean, but don’t overdo it. Clip excess hair around the ears to promote good air circulation. After bathing or swimming, check your dog’s ears for moisture and dry thoroughly.

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