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What are ear infection symptoms in dogs?

Cavalier king Charles getting ears checked advice

A dog's infected ear may be red and warm

© Shutterstock

From what causes an ear infection to how long it lasts and whether you need to take your dog to the vet, it's all here for you to learn about. 

By Dr Holly Graham BVMedSci BVMBVS MRCVS

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Ear infections can lead to a lot of discomfort in your dog – and it can often be difficult for you work out that they have such a problem. As such, it's important to recognise the many symptoms listed here so that you can help your pet get back to normal as soon as possible. 

What are the symptoms of an inner ear infection in a dog?

Ear infections are common problems in dogs, particularly if ears are floppy or hairy, and symptoms can range in severity. Most dogs with an uncomplicated ear infection have itchy or smelly ears. Your dog may be scratching at his ear with his feet, shaking his head from side to side, or rubbing his head along the floor.

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You may notice that their ear is red and warm, waxy and may smell unpleasant. The wax can be any colour from green to black, and sometimes small amounts of blood or pus can be seen in the ear. The outside ‘pinna’ or flap of their ear may look dry or red, but most infections are present in the ear canal where it’s difficult to see without special tools.

Ear infections can be very uncomfortable, so you may notice that your dog doesn’t like you touching their ear. Inner ear or serious infections may cause some dogs to tilt their head to one side, and can affect their balance.

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How can I treat my dog's ear infection at home?

Most ear infections can’t be treated with home remedies, and it’s always best to get your dog checked over by a veterinarian. Before putting any medication down an ear, it’s important that the ear is checked thoroughly. If the eardrum has ruptured or perforated, putting anything into the ear can be very dangerous. Some infections can be managed with daily cleaning, however lots require antibiotics or anti-fungals to be applied directly to the ear – and unfortunately these can only be prescribed by a veterinary surgeon.

It is important not to use any old treatments you may find in the cupboard for new infections, as they may cause damage or contribute to antibiotic resistance. Once the infection has been successfully treated, it’s a great idea to get your dog used to regular ear cleaning with a product recommended by a vet. In the future this may help to prevent further infections.

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What can I give my dog for an ear infection?

Ear infections can require multiple different treatments to get rid of the problem. Usually treatment of an infection requires either antibiotic or antifungal drops (or a combination), a cleaner and it may even need anti-inflammatory painkillers, depending on how sore your dog’s ear is. All of these need to be prescribed by a veterinarian. It’s not recommended to give your dog any treatments until they have been checked over by their vet, however gently wiping the ear with cool water and cotton wool can help to get rid of some of the wax.

Are ear infections in dogs painful?

Ear infections in dogs can be very painful. Like with humans, ears are very sensitive and when they are irritated can become very sore. Dogs usually scratch and rub at their ears because of the itchiness, but this can make things worse. If the infection is caught early or is mild, it can be managed with ear drops, which contain low doses of anti-inflammatory steroids. However, some dogs need extra pain relief with other types of medication. A vet will be able to prescribe appropriate pain relief after a thorough health check.

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Can I give my dog Benadryl for an ear infection?

Ear infections can be related to allergies. It may seem strange that things like food or allergens in the environment can affect your dog’s ear, but many ear infections are secondary to allergic skin disease. If your dog is regularly having problems with their ears, or if problems seem to flare up at around the same time each year, speak to a vet about potential allergies.

Benadryl is a human anti-histamine, and is fairly safe for use in dogs. However, its effects aren’t always reliable. It may be useful in the management of an allergic flare up, as with human hayfever. However, it shouldn’t be used without consulting a vet first. There are lots of medications that are designed for dogs that vets offer before recommending the use of Benadryl.

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What causes dog ear infection?

Ear infections in dogs can be caused by bacteria or by yeast. These bacteria and yeast can be found on normal skin, but with the right conditions (warmth and moisture) can overpopulate the ear and cause irritation to the skin. Damage to the skin of the ear provides an excellent home for the bacteria to breed, so an itchy dog is more likely to get an overgrowth of the normal skin microflora. Waxy ears contain more bacteria, so make an infection more likely too. 

Bacteria that aren't found on the skin can be another potential cause – dogs who swim are more prone to infections, as bacteria found in the water is often left in the ears. Parasites are another common cause of irritation and infection. Ear mites are a regular finding in dogs' ears. While they are seen more often in puppies, they can spread from animal to animal, and can be picked up from the environment.

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What dog breeds are prone to ear infections?

Breeds with droopy or floppy ears are often more prone to infections than dogs with erect or ‘up’ ears. This is because of the conformation of the ear. The flap of the ear hangs over the ear canal and makes it more difficult for any water to drain from the ear, keeping it warm and moist. It's the perfect bacterial breeding ground. 

Dogs with fluffy or hairy ears are also similarly affected, as wax can become stuck around the hairs and increase the number of bacteria present in the ear. Dogs with sensitive skin are also more commonly affected, as the skin barrier isn’t in optimum condition. This allows bacteria and yeast to penetrate the skin and establish an area to grow and cause problems.

Will a dog ear infection go away on its own?

A true ear infection is unlikely to go away on its own and, if it isn’t treated quickly, infections can get much worse. As well as being painful and irritating, infections that aren’t treated can spread deeper into the ear and damage the eardrum, causing lifelong problems. It’s important to get an ear infection checked by a vet as soon as you can. In some cases there may not be an infection present, particularly if this part of an allergy. Finding out what may have caused the irritation and flare up may reduce the itchiness. However, it’s always best to get this checked.

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What is the best antibiotic for dog ear infection?

There isn’t a ‘best’ antibiotic for an ear infection. However, most vets will prescribe a first line antibiotic for an uncomplicated infection. This is an antibiotic that works for a wide range of bacteria, and most ear infections respond well to this. It’s important to remember that not all infections require antibiotics. A vet may suggest taking a swab from your dog’s ear to check what sort of bacteria or yeast are present. If there aren’t any bacteria found but there are some yeast cells, the infection can be treated with anti-fungal ear drops instead. If the vet is worried that the infection may be more complicated, or if it hasn’t responded to the first antibiotics, a swab may be taken and sent to a lab. This lab is able to grow the bacteria on the swab and send a list of antibiotics that should be effective in clearing the infection.

Antibiotic resistance (where bacteria are no longer killed by certain antibiotics) has become more common in recent years, so sometimes infections can be difficult to get rid of. It’s important to follow your vets instructions about antibiotics, to help us stop antibiotic resistance.

How can I treat my dog's ear infection without going to the vet?

It’s always recommended to take your dog to the vet, if you think they have an ear infection. Ear infections can require lots of different medications that can’t be bought over the counter or online, and it can be dangerous for your dog if you try to treat this at home.

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What is the brown stuff in my dog's ears?

The brown stuff in your dog’s ear is wax, like in humans. A small amount of light brown wax is normal, but large amounts of dark brown or yellow wax is a sign that something might be going wrong. Normal wax can be gently removed using cotton wool and a good quality ear cleaner. Ears should not have any pus-like discharge.

Can you put peroxide in a dog's ear for an ear infection?

Peroxide should never be put into your dog’s ear. Peroxide is an irritant and can damage the skin of the ear. Always speak to a vet about products that are safe to use in your dog’s ear, especially if you are concerned about an infection.

How do you get rid of a yeast infection in a dog's ear?

Yeast infections are very common and are usually easily treated. A vet will be able to prescribe an ear cleaner or drops containing an anti-fungal ingredient, which should be used regularly to remove waxy build-up and kill the yeasts present in the ear. These ear cleaners can sometimes sting, so a vet may prescribe treatment to reduce the irritation in the ear before recommending the use of this. Occasionally yeast infections don’t respond fully to the cleaners, so your dog may be prescribed a course of anti-fungal tablets.

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Can a dog's ear infection spread to his brain?

Severe infections in the inner ear can spread to the brain, however this is rare. If this happens, the part of the brain controlling breathing and heart rate can be affected. Dogs with an inner ear infection are more likely to show signs of disorientation and problems with balance and deafness.

What's the recovery time for a dog inner ear infection?

Inner ear infections can take a long time to resolve, compared to simple outer ear infections. Most inner ear infections require two to four months of antibiotic therapy, however relapses can happen and sometimes require surgery to completely cure. In some cases your dog may need to stay with the vets while they manage nausea and provide intravenous fluid therapy associated with the inner ear infection. Balance problems associated with an inner ear infection usually improve within two to six weeks, but sometimes don’t completely resolve. Small dogs tend to recover quicker than larger breeds.

Is my dog with an inner ear infection having a seizure?

Dogs with inner ear infections may look like they are having a seizure, but usually only the ear is affected – not the brain. Inner ear infections can cause shaking, rolling and loss of balance. While this may look like a seizure, it is actually associated with the inner ear. 

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Worried about your pet?

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