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Common dog ear problems and how to treat them

The essentials

  • Ear problems are quite common in dogs — Bacterial infections, foreign objects, ear mites, hematomas, and hearing loss are all ear issues our canine companions face.
  • A veterinarian can recommend appropriate treatment — Whether your pup needs a round of antibiotics or surgical intervention, many common dog ear problems can be easily treated.
  • There are ways to prevent common ear problems in dogs — Regular ear cleaning and frequent veterinary check-ups are two ways to prevent some of the most common ear issues.

Understanding your dog’s ears is like reading a health report for your furry friend. Beyond just a floppy or perky appearance, a dog’s ear can be a key indicator of their well-being. If your dog’s ear hurts when touched or you notice signs like redness, smelly ears, and swelling, these could be signals of various ear problems. 

Let’s dive into the fascinating world of canine ear health and help you decode the messages your pup’s ears might be sending.

Common ear problems in dogs

Ear infections

Bacterial infections, also called otitis externa, are one of the most common causes of ear problems in dogs. These ear infections can be caused by a variety of factors, with moisture and warm environments being particularly conducive to bacterial growth. Dogs with floppy ears, like cocker spaniels or basset hounds, are more susceptible because their ear anatomy provides a cozy space for bacteria to thrive. However, all breeds can be affected.

One primary cause of bacterial ear infections is excess moisture in the ear canal. This can result from swimming, bathing, or even just excessive wax buildup that traps moisture. Allergies, ear mites, or foreign objects lodged in the ear can also create an environment that promotes bacterial growth. Dogs with a history of ear infections, food allergies, or those with underlying health issues may be more prone to these infections.

Symptoms of a bacterial ear infection include redness, swelling, a foul odor emanating from the ear, and increased scratching or rubbing of the ears. If your canine companion tilts their head or your dog’s ear hurts when touched, it could be an indication of discomfort. Recognizing and treating these symptoms are crucial to prevent the infection from worsening.

Foreign objects

Foreign objects finding their way into a dog’s ears is a more common occurrence than one might think. Dogs have a curious and adventurous nature, and can unknowingly get items lodged in their ear canals. Common culprits include grass seeds, small rocks, plant material like foxtails, or even insects. Dogs with upright ears, like German shepherds or Jack Russell terriers, may be more prone to this issue, but it can happen to any breed. Signs of a foreign object in your dog’s ear include excessively shaking their head, tilting it to one side, or pawing at their ear. You may also notice increased sensitivity when touching the affected ear or a sudden onset of head tilting.

Treatment for foreign objects in a dog’s ear involves a gentle approach. It’s essential not to use sharp objects or attempt to remove the object yourself, as this can lead to further complications or ear injuries. Instead, take your dog to their veterinarian. They will use specialized tools to safely extract the foreign object and ensure minimal discomfort for your pooch.

To prevent foreign bodies from entering your dog’s ears, keep the ear canal clean and dry, and regularly inspect your dog’s ears for any visible debris, especially after outdoor activities. If your dog spends time in environments where debris is common, consider using protective ear covers or keeping their ears gently covered during play.

Ear mites

Ear mites are pesky little parasites that can cause discomfort for our canine companions. These tiny mites, known as Otodectes cynotis, are often responsible for ear infections in dogs. The transmission of ear mites usually occurs through direct contact with an infected animal, commonly in places like parks and kennels, or during social interactions.

One of the primary signs of ear mites in dogs is incessant scratching at the ears. If your dog seems bothered by their ears, shakes their head frequently, or their ears appear red and inflamed, it could be an indication of an ear mite infestation. 

Another telltale sign is the appearance of dark, coffee-ground-like discharge in the ear. In severe cases, ear mites can lead to secondary bacterial infections, making the condition even more uncomfortable for your dog.

If you suspect ear mites, it’s important to get your dog to the vet as soon as possible. Your veterinarian will conduct an examination and may take a sample of ear discharge to confirm the presence of mites under a microscope. Treatment typically involves specialized medications, such as ear drops or topical solutions, to eliminate the mites and alleviate the associated symptoms.

Preventing ear mites involves maintaining good ear hygiene. Regularly inspect your dog’s ears for signs of redness, swelling, or discharge. Clean the ears as needed using a veterinarian-recommended dog ear cleaning solution. If you have multiple pets, be cautious when introducing a new animal to the household, and monitor their interactions to reduce the risk of mite transmission. 

Aural hematoma

An ear hematoma refers to the accumulation of blood outside of blood vessels in the ear. In a dog’s ear, it often presents as a swollen, fluid-filled pocket between the skin and cartilage. One common cause of ear hematomas is vigorous shaking or scratching of the head, which can lead to trauma to the blood vessels in the ear. 

Dogs with ear infections, allergies, or those prone to ear irritation may be more prone to this condition. Ear hematomas can also result from trauma caused by rough play, ear infections, or the presence of foreign objects.

Symptoms of ear hematomas include swelling or “ballooning” of the ear flap, an ear that appears warm to the touch, and head shaking or tilting. If left untreated, ear hematomas can lead to complications such as scarring and deformity of the ear.

Treatment for ear hematomas may involve oral steroids or surgical correction, where the space is drained and closed. It’s essential to address the root cause, whether it be an ear infection, allergies, or other contributing factors, to prevent recurrence.

To help prevent ear hematomas, regularly monitor your dog’s ears for signs of irritation or infection. It’s also important to seek treatment for ear infections and allergies and minimize trauma to the ears during play. If you notice any abnormalities in your dog’s ears, consult with your veterinarian for a thorough examination.

Deafness and hearing problems in dogs

Deafness in dogs can be congenital (present at birth) or acquired. Congenital deafness is often linked to genetics, particularly in certain breeds with a genetic predisposition. Acquired deafness may result from aging, injury, ear infections, exposure to loud noises, or certain medical conditions.

Identifying hearing issues in dogs involves observing changes in their behavior. Common signs include unresponsiveness to verbal cues, failure to react to loud noises, increased startle response, or difficulty waking up when asleep. Some dogs may compensate for their loss of hearing by relying more on their other senses.

If you think your dog is experiencing hearing problems, a veterinarian can perform a thorough examination. This may include behavioral assessments, auditory testing (typically done by a veterinary neurologist), and diagnostic imaging to determine the cause. Treatment options depend on the underlying issue. 

For example, if the cause is an ear infection, appropriate medications can be prescribed. However, some cases of hearing loss may be irreversible.

Preventing hearing problems involves protecting your dog from exposure to excessively loud noises, avoiding the use of cotton swabs in their ears, and maintaining good ear hygiene. And of course, you should always keep up with those veterinary check-ups.

Diagnosing dog ear problems

Diagnosing ear problems in dogs is a crucial step in providing effective treatment. Veterinarians use a systematic approach to pinpoint the specific issue affecting a dog’s ears to better inform treatment options. This typically includes:

  • Visual inspection. The vet will conduct a thorough ear examination to assess external signs such as redness, swelling, or discharge.
  • Otoscope examination. Specialized tools, like an otoscope, can be used to examine the ear canal’s interior. This allows them to identify any abnormalities, such as foreign objects, inflammation, or signs of infection.
  • Microscopic analysis. Other diagnostic tests, like taking samples of ear discharge for microscopic analysis to identify bacteria, yeast, or parasites, may be necessary.
  • Advanced imaging. In some cases, imaging techniques like X-rays may be utilized to visualize the deeper structures of the ear. 

Treating your dog’s ear issues

Tailored treatment by a veterinarian is essential in solving your dog’s ear problems. From antibiotics and surgery to therapy and ear drops, understanding these treatment options empowers dog owners to actively participate in their pup’s health journey. 


Antibiotics play a pivotal role in treating dog ear infections. Prescribed by a veterinarian, these medications work to eliminate the underlying bacterial culprit causing discomfort. Antibiotics target the infection, alleviating symptoms such as redness, swelling, and pain.


In cases where ear problems persist or are severe, surgery may be a recommended course of action. Surgical interventions can address issues like ear hematomas or the removal of stubborn foreign objects. Under the skilled hands of a veterinarian, surgical procedures can correct structural problems, alleviate pain, and promote the overall health of your dog’s ears.


Therapeutic approaches can be used to manage and improve various ear conditions. This may include physical therapy to address a loss of balance or coordination issues related to hearing loss. Behavioral therapy can assist in adapting to hearing impairment, fostering effective communication between you and your pet. Additionally, therapeutic ear cleaning routines may be recommended to maintain optimal ear health and prevent future problems.

Medicated ear drops

In addition to oral antibiotics, veterinarians may prescribe medicated ear drops for targeted treatment. These drops are designed to address infections or infestations directly within the ear canal. Following the recommended dosage and administration guidelines is vital for the success of this treatment.


For conditions involving inflammation, such as ear hematomas or severe infections, veterinarians may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications. These drugs help reduce swelling, pain, and discomfort, promoting a quicker and more comfortable recovery for your pooch.

How to prevent dog ear problems

Preventing dog ear problems is a proactive approach to ensuring the well-being of our furry friends. While some issues, like congenital deafness due to genetics, may be beyond our control, many ear problems can be mitigated through good ear hygiene and preventative care. 

Regularly inspecting your dog’s ears for signs of redness, swelling, or unusual discharge allows for early detection of potential problems. Implementing routine ear cleaning, using veterinarian-recommended solutions, helps remove excess wax and debris, reducing the risk of infections and other complications.

In addition to hygiene practices, be mindful of your dog’s environment and minimize exposure to loud noises to avoid hearing loss. This can be common in dogs used for hunting or military purposes, for example. It’s also important to protect your dog’s ears during water activities and be vigilant about preventing foreign bodies like plants and insects from entering their ears. 

Lastly, regular veterinary check-ups are essential for preventive care. Veterinarians can identify potential issues early on, provide advice on maintaining optimal ear health, and recommend appropriate treatments.

Ultimately, knowing how to spot, prevent, and treat common dog ear problems is part of being a responsible pet parent. If you suspect something’s up with your pup’s ears, reach out to their veterinarian for guidance. Early treatment is key to getting your dog back to their lively, tail-wagging self again.

Frequently asked questions

What are signs that your dog is suffering from an ear problem?

Common signs that your dog is suffering from an ear problem include excessive scratching or pawing at the ears and noticeable changes in their behavior, such as increased head shaking or tilting. These behaviors often signal discomfort or irritation in your dog’s ears, indicating a potential ear problem that requires attention.

What are the signs of inner ear problems?

Inner ear issues may manifest as balance problems, uncoordinated movements, or a persistent head tilt. You might also observe abnormal eye movements, like flickering or rapid eye jerks. If your dog exhibits these signs, consult with a veterinarian as soon as possible, as inner ear problems can affect their overall well-being.

What are the most common ear problems in dogs?

Common ear problems in dogs include bacterial infections, caused by factors like excess moisture or allergies; ear mites, tiny parasites leading to irritation; foreign objects, such as grass seeds or small rocks, getting lodged; and ear hematomas, where blood accumulates between the skin and cartilage. Recognizing these issues early is key to effective treatment.

What are the risks of untreated ear problems in dogs?

Untreated ear problems can lead to more severe complications, including chronic infections, hearing loss, and in extreme cases, damage to the ear canal or structures. Persistent discomfort may also impact your dog’s behavior, potentially causing anxiety or aggression. Timely veterinary intervention is crucial to prevent these risks and ensure your dog’s comfort and health.

How do you treat ear problems in dogs?

Treating ear problems involves a tailored approach based on the specific issue. This can include antibiotics for bacterial infections, surgery for conditions like ear hematomas or foreign object removal, and therapy for hearing-related problems. Maintaining good ear hygiene, routine cleaning, and regular veterinary check-ups are essential components of effective treatment and prevention.