Dog Ear Problems: Signs, Common Causes, Treatment

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Tan and white dog with large ears sitting on a dog bed

Dogs occasionally scratch at their ears and shake their heads, and it’s perfectly normal. However, if your dog is constantly shaking their head or pawing at their ears, that’s an indication of discomfort and the presence of an underlying problem. Learn about the signs, common causes, and potential treatments for dog ear problems.

Causes of dog ear infections and diseases

There are many causes of ear problems in dogs. Some common examples are: 

  • Bacterial and yeast infections
  • Ear mites
  • Ear wax or dirt buildup
  • Allergies
  • Ticks
  • Foreign bodies
  • Polyps or other masses 

Fortunately, these conditions all result in similar symptoms that you can identify. 

Symptoms of dog ear problems

We don’t want our pets to be uncomfortable, so it is good to be vigilant about noticing symptoms of dog ear problems early on. Signs to watch for include: 

  • Excessive discharge from the ears
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Indications of pain 
  • Foul odor 

It is a great idea to check your dog’s ears once a week. If you think your dog is developing an ear infection or other problem, make an appointment with your veterinarian right away to prevent the problem from getting worse.

Treatments for dog ear infections and diseases

The external canal of a dog’s ear is shaped like an “L,” which makes it difficult to see deep inside without special instruments. By doing a thorough exam and looking deep into the canal and taking samples, your veterinarian can usually diagnose what is causing your dog’s ear problem. In more challenging cases, sedation, radiographs, and cultures are necessary, especially if the condition has been going on for a long period of time. 

The good news is that most ear problems in dogs, when caught early, can be treated with either topical and/or oral medications, and the problem usually clears up in a couple of weeks. If your dog is in pain and is resistant to treatment, pain medication can help make them more comfortable and amenable to care. 

If the condition is more severe or chronic, a longer course of treatment and more sophisticated testing might be necessary. Veterinary specialists can help in these cases, most often either a dermatologist or a surgeon. 

Preventing ear infections

What can you do at home to help prevent ear infections in dogs? Be diligent about checking your dog’s ears regularly. If your dog goes swimming, make sure to dry their ears thoroughly after a day in the pool or lake. Remember this at bath time, too. 

You can also talk to your veterinarian and keep some prescription ear cleaner on hand. These cleaners are formulated to help dry the ear canal and keep unwanted bacteria and yeast at bay. In a pinch, hydrogen peroxide or some rubbing alcohol on a Q-tip or cotton ball can be used, but this is not something you want to do long-term. Before you begin any treatment, make sure to review with your veterinarian how to safely clean your dog’s ears. 

Unfortunately, some dogs are just predisposed to developing ear problems. Dogs who have skin allergies and dogs with long droopy ears (basset hounds, for example) are more affected. These dogs require more maintenance in the way of regular cleanings to avoid severe ear infections. 

Determining whether it's a medical emergency

Is a dog's ear problem ever an emergency? Usually not. It is typically pretty safe to wait for an appointment with your veterinarian. However, signs such as asymmetric pupil size, a head tilt, circling, or imbalance can indicate an infection that has gone deeper into the ear — and these signs should be considered an emergency. If your dog seems systemically ill and is not eating or is running a fever, these signs also suggest a much more serious problem and should be treated right away. 

Please note: If you observe these more severe signs, it is important that you do not put anything into your dog’s ears prior to seeing a veterinarian. In these cases, the eardrum might be ruptured, exposing the sensitive inner ear structures to potential serious damage.