Ear infections are a relatively common condition in dogs; in fact, roughly 1 in 5 dogs will get an ear infection at least once in their lifetime. I had to deal with this unpleasant ailment with my own dog, Juno, not too long ago.
In the midst of my searching for whatever information I could find to help me figure out how to treat my dog’s condition, I learned quite a bit about dog ear infections, and I thought it would be a good idea to put this information together for other dog owners who may encounter this aggravating ailment. So, to help my fellow comrades with “fur babies”, I humbly offer this collection of frequently asked questions about dog ear infections.
Q: What Causes Ear Infections In Dogs?
A: There are several different factors that can act as potential catalysts for canine ear infections. Some of the most commonly reported causes are:
This is perhaps the most prevalent cause for ear infections in dogs. Any time wax, dirt or other particles are allowed to build up in your dog’s ear, they can change the ear environment in a manner that can set the stage for an ear infection. This is one of the main reasons why proper hygiene is one of the best preventative measures you can take to reduce the risk of your dog getting an ear infection.
Technically termed Otodectes cynotis, these little parasitic bugs can wreak havoc on your dog’s ears, often causing infection due to their nefarious activities. The bites from these tiny bugs can be a source of irritation to your dog. Many times, your dog will respond to ear mite bites by repetitively scratching its ears, which can lead to infection due to trauma to the skin in and around the ears.
These single-celled fungi, officially known as Malassezia, are a highly prevalent cause of ear infections in dogs. Yeast thrives in environments that are dark, moist and warm, and that pretty much describes the ear canal of the average dog. Most ear infections caused by yeast require some type of anti-fungal agent in order to knock them out.
Various bacteria such as Staph, Pseudomonas, Proteus, Strep, and E. coli can be a source of ear infections in dogs. Healthy dog ears have natural defenses in place to fight off most of these types of bacteria, but if your dog’s health has been compromised by illness, irritants, allergens, or other similar factors, it can be more susceptible to ear infections.
Foreign objects in the ear
Dogs are known for their playful, raucous nature, which can sometimes work against them when it comes to staying out of messy situations. Just by rolling over in the grass or foraging through thick brush, dogs can easily attract foreign objects into their ears such as plant awns, cockleburs, etc., which can become infected if they get lodged into your pooch’s ear.
Like humans, dogs have a delicate hormonal system that, if thrown out of balance, can wreak havoc on their health, including their ear environment. These excesses or deficiencies in certain hormones can sometimes manifest in the form of an ear infection, among other maladies.
Hereditary or genetic predisposition
Depending upon what breed your dog is, it may have more of a hereditary or genetic predisposition to ear infections than other breeds. For example, it is a well-known fact that Cocker spaniels are predisposed to dealing with chronic ear issues.
Like humans, dogs can have allergies to certain materials or airborne particles, both natural (trees, weed pollen, grass, etc.) and man-made (rubber, plastic, etc.). No matter what particular type of allergen your dog might be sensitive to, keep in mind that it has the potential to alter your dog’s ear environment, which can set the stage for an ear infection to develop. Secondary infections can also come into play when a dog has displayed allergic reactions to certain items.
Q: How Is A Dog Ear Infection Diagnosed?
A: While you can sometimes “eyeball it” and determine that your dog has an ear infection, to get the most accurate analysis you need the help of a qualified veterinarian. Your vet will examine your dog’s ear with a special instrument known as an “otoscope”, which basically enables the vet to see into your dog’s ear canal.
With the otoscope, your vet can determine the severity of the ear infection, as well as whether or not there are any polyps, foreign bodies or other abnormalities that could be causing the problem. In addition, the vet will swab your pup’s ear canal in order to collect a sample for testing, just to see what types of debris or organisms might be causing the problem.
Q: What Are Some Symptoms Of An Ear Infection In Dogs?
A: Some of the symptoms that indicate your dog might be dealing with an ear infection include:
- Your dog might shake or rub its head on the carpet (to try to relieve the itching)
- Frequent scratching of the ears or head area
- You might see dark, crumbly looking debris in your dog’s ear
- Your dog might tilt its head to one side
- Your dog’s ears might be sensitive to the touch
- Itching, swelling, redness, or inflammation in or around your dog’s ear
- There might be some type of discharge coming from your dog’s ear
- Unpleasant odor in or near your dog’s ear
- Behavioral changes such as boredom, loss of appetite, irritability, etc.
Q: How Serious Is A Dog Ear Infection?
A: To be sure, no dog ear infection is life-threatening, but that doesn’t mean that the problem should be ignored. It’s not all that different than failing to repair a small leak in your roof; if you don’t go ahead and take care of it while it’s still small, it could develop into a major problem down the road, especially if there’s some heavy rain in the forecast.
An ear infection in your dog is basically the same type of situation; while the infection itself can be easily treated and is not a mortal threat to your dog, it can become a cause of a much larger problem if your dog continues to scratch its ears to the point of damaging its eardrum. In fact, repeated injury of the eardrum could lead to your pup permanently losing its hearing. In addition, your dog could very well ravage its skin due to incessant scratching, which could lead to several types of secondary infections.
Q: How Do You Treat An Ear Infection In A Dog?
A: This is a loaded question, because there are several different treatment approaches that can be implemented in order to bring healing to your pup’s ear. Perhaps the best way to categorize these treatments would be to say that there are natural treatments (i.e., home remedies) and there are medicinal treatments. I’ll cover some of the most popular natural treatments first, and then I’ll move to the medicinal treatments after that.
Natural (a.k.a. Home Remedy) Ear Infection Treatments
1. Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is a favorite natural treatment due to its long list of well-known health benefits. One of the main ways in which apple cider vinegar aids in healing ear infections is that it contains powerful microbial agents that act as an antibacterial powerhouse.
Apple cider vinegar is also an antiseptic, which means that it can stave off infections from those scratch wounds. One of the most popular ways to use apple cider vinegar to treat your dog’s ear infection is to dilute about two tablespoons of the vinegar into one cup of water. Give this mixture to your dog as a drink, or just put it in your dog’s water bowl instead of just “straight-up” water. The cool thing about this handy little elixir is that it is also an excellent topical cleaning solution for scrubbing gunk and debris out of your dog’s ears.
You can keep your pup’s ears nice and clean by scrubbing the interior ear flap with this solution, but please make sure to double-check for any scratch wounds or other open sores before using it. You don’t want to cause your dog any pain by scrubbing on a wounded area using a highly acidic solution that could easily create a harsh sting on your dog’s ears!
Now to clarify, you can use apple cider vinegar in very small amounts as an antiseptic for scratch wounds, but don’t do any scrubbing or wiping of the ear with the vinegar, as this can really put your dog in an uncomfortable (or even painful) position.
2. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is one of the most popular home remedies around for treating damaged skin and fighting off infections. Simply break open a liquid capsule of Vitamin E and spread it directly on the affected area in your pup’s ear. Experts also recommend using cod liver oil to accomplish the same ends.
3. Witch hazel
Witch hazel is a natural astringent derived from bark (hey, there’s a dog reference!), and it has been used in Native American cultures for centuries due to its medicinal properties.
Using a 1:1 ratio of witch hazel and organic apple cider vinegar, create enough of the mixture to fit into an eyedropper. Now squeeze a few drops into your dog’s ear canal, and then massage the outer area of your dog’s ear in order to work the solution further into the affected area. This powerful natural solution will knock out the infection, bringing much-needed relief to your pup’s ear.
4. Priobiotic yogurt
As I mentioned earlier, yeast is one of the main culprits behind ear infections in dogs. If your dog has a yeast-based infection, you can actually use probiotic yogurt to help fight that yeast off and neutralize their seemingly relentless activity.
Priobiotic yogurt has gained a stellar reputation in recent years for its beneficial effects on the digestive system, and it definitely packs a wallop in terms of killing yeast. Simply spread some organic probiotic yogurt on the affected area in your dog’s ear, and the live active cultures (i.e., “good bacteria”) contained in the yogurt will go to work on your dog’s behalf to get rid of that infection.
5. Essential oils
Essential oils are another wildly popular home remedy for knocking out an ear infection in your dog. Bear in mind that if you use essential oils, you must dilute them before you bring them anywhere near your pup! There are two main reasons why this is important.
For one, these oils are highly concentrated, and some can even burn the skin on contact, so you don’t want to hurt your dog while trying to heal him/her. Number two, your dog has a complex and amazingly keen sense of smell, which means that the aromas from these highly concentrated oils will be that much stronger in your pup’s nose than in your own.
While I don’t have any way of proving this scientifically, my thought is that bringing essential oils near my dog’s nose would probably be the equivalent of someone sticking a handful of smelling salts under my nose. So when you use essential oils, make sure to dilute them in a carrier oil of some sort, such as fractionated coconut oil or olive oil. Okay, now that my “essential oil disclaimer” is out of the way, here are the oils you should use to create an effective ear infection-fighting concoction:
Essential oil ingredients:
- Clover oil
- Tea tree oil (melaleuca)
- Oregano oil
- Rosemary oil
- Lavender oil
Squeeze one drop of each of the above oils into a small container (bowl or vial), and then add an equal proportion (5 drops) of your carrier oil and mix really well. Now pour this essential oil solution into your dog’s ear canal, and then work it further into the affected area by engaging in a process known as “milking”.
This basically means that you use your thumb and forefinger to gently apply pressure to the dog’s ear canal (from the outside), and then move it up and down as if you were milking a cow. This will work the essential oil mixture deeper into your dog’s ear canal, breaking up any stubborn debris and neutralizing bacteria or other infection-causing agents.
6. Margosa oil
Margosa oil is another natural compound that is famous for its antibacterial and antifungal properties.
If you combine one ounce of margosa oil with a half-teaspoon of eucalyptus oil, a half-ounce of olive oil and one teaspoon of tea tree oil, you will create a potent natural ear cleansing solution that can eradicate ear infections in your pup.
Using an eyedropper, squeeze about 10-20 drops of this solution into your dog’s ear and milk it from the outside like I explained earlier. This will reduce inflammation and produce a soothing effect on your pup’s embattled ear.
7. Hydrogen peroxide
Let us not forget the infamous infection-fighting power of hydrogen peroxide! This simple yet powerful combination of two of nature’s most basic elements (hydrogen and oxygen) can eliminate infections by breaking apart and destroying the walls of bacteria cells.
You can create an effective ear cleaning solution by combining one part hydrogen peroxide with one part water, and then use a bulb syringe to squeeze this solution into your dog’s ear. The germ-killing power of hydrogen peroxide will immediately go to work to get rid of infection-causing microorganisms. Wipe out the area using a soft cloth, and your pup will be good to go!
Medicinal Ear Infection Treatment
Each of the three ear infection medications I’m going to mention here are over-the-counter products that require you to insert a cleansing solution into your dog’s ear with an eyedropper or bulb syringe. I say this because I’m trying to avoid redundancy with explaining how to use these medicines. So with efficiency of explanation in mind, just remember this: Apply the treatment in your dog’s ear canal in the quantity recommended according to the directions, and then massage or work it into your dog’s ear by the milking action I mentioned before. Okay, now here we go:
1. Epi-Otic Advanced Ear Cleanser
This is one of the most popular ear infection treatments on the market. Epi-Otic has special anti-adhesive agents that can prevent bacteria and yeast from building up in your dog’s ear. This treatment should be applied two to three times a week.
2. Zymox Otic Enzymatic Solution
This topical ear medication treats both acute and chronic canine ear infections that are caused by yeast, bacteria or fungi. You can purchase Zymox with or without hydrocortisone, which is an added ingredient that can further reduce any swelling or inflammation associated with the infection. Acute infections should be treated for a period of 7 days, while chronic infections require a 14-day treatment period.
3. Nolvasan Otic Cleansing Solution
The “magic ingredient” in this cleansing solution is a chemical compound known as isopropanol, which handily breaks up debris and dead tissue in your dog’s ears. You can use this treatment anywhere between one to three times per day.
One thing that I wanted to make sure I mention is that all three medicines listed above have no reported side effects! This brings a sigh of relief to pet owners like me, because I am definitely protective of what types of medicines I would use on my dog.
Q: How Do I Clean My Dog’s Ear Infection?
A: Cleaning your dog’s ears is a vitally important practice, because many times it’s the accumulated dirt, wax, debris, and other gunk in your dog’s ears that can become a breeding ground for infections. Even when your dog’s ear gets infected, giving it a thorough cleaning can attack the problem at the root, so that your pooch’s ear can begin to heal.
It’s a very basic procedure, but it can require some persistence if you’re dealing with a pup with extra-filthy ears. You really only need two things to complete this task, and that’s an ear cleaning solution (e.g., Epi-Otic, Vetericyn All-Animal Ear Rinse, Virbac, etc.) and some gauze pads. When I say gauze pads, I’m not talking about the thick, pillow-like squares that you use to cover large wounds; there’s another type of gauze product that is as thin as a baby wipe, but strong enough to handle some good scrubbing action without shredding.
Speaking of shredding, that’s the main reason why I don’t recommend using cotton balls or soft tissue for this cleaning procedure; they can shred too easily, which can leave debris behind in your dog’s ear that can actually be a catalyst for more infection. The last thing you would want is to create another infection while trying to stop infection!
So anyway, all you have to do is squeeze a few drops of the ear cleaning solution onto the gauze pad – enough to make it slightly damp but not dripping wet – and then start wiping the interior of your dog’s ear flap with the gauze. This may require a little “elbow grease” to really get in there and scrub off the accumulated gunk in your dog’s ear, so be prepared to engage in some scrubbing action. That being said, be as gentle as you can while also firm enough to really dislodge the dirt, debris or even clusters of mites that may have tried to take up residence in your dog’s ear.
You’ll know that you’re getting close to being finished when there’s hardly any dirt or gunk to speak of on the gauze pad after a few good wipes. Until that time comes, keep changing out those pads and keep scrubbing until you don’t see any more evidence of dirt on the pad. Some dogs don’t mind this ear cleaning procedure at all (my Juno treats it like a trip to the spa), while other dogs don’t want anything to do with it. If you know that the temperament of your dog is not agreeable with a manual ear cleaning, you might want to take your pup to the vet so that the job can be handled by a professional – and someone who has a muzzle on hand to keep from getting bit!
Q: How Do I Prevent An Ear Infection In My Dog?
A: There are a number of preventative measures you can take to decrease the likelihood of your dog getting an ear infection. Here are some of the main ones to remember:
- Try to keep your dog’s ears cleaned on a regular basis, so that wax and other debris won’t be able to build up in their ear canal and potentially cause an infection.
- Be sure to thoroughly dry your dog’s ears after any time spent in the water.
- Tweeze hairs away from the openings of your dog’s ear canals, as they can be debris magnets.
- Make sure that your dog’s bedding, cage area, or other place they tend to hang out stays clean, so that mites, fleas, ticks and/or other contaminants will not be attracted to your pup’s primary stomping grounds.
- Keep feeding your dog a healthy diet, so that your pup’s ear environment will stay healthy and balanced. Remember, great dog health starts from the inside out!
Alright, you now have plenty of information to help you understand, prevent and treat an ear infection in your dog. Use it wisely, and if you have any doubts about what route you should take, be sure to consult with your veterinarian before proceeding.