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recurring ear infections in dogs

Infected ear

If your dog is getting frequent ear infections, there could be an underlying issue causing the infection to return. Here’s how to finally break the cycle and get your pup some much needed relief.

Causes of chronic ear infections in dogs

Here are some potential reasons why your dog is having frequent ear infections:

1. Bacterial and yeast infections

Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of natural yeast in your dog’s ear, most commonly stemming from allergies. Bacterial infections come from bacterial growth in the ear, usually caused by moisture or wax buildup.

Dogs dealing with bacterial or yeast infections in their ears typically have symptoms including red or brown discharge or crustiness around the ear, a musty smell coming from the ear, and lots of scratching/itching at the ear.

2. Food or environmental allergies

Dogs who suffer from both food and environmental allergies are more likely to develop ear infections. About half of the dogs who have skin allergies and up to 80% of dogs with food sensitivities will develop ear infections during their lives. The most common food allergens in dogs are proteins, including chicken, dairy products, beef, eggs, and lamb.

3. Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroid dogs (dogs with low thyroid hormone levels) are predisposed to ear infections. These infections are typically seen as infections in one or both ears.

4. Mass in the ear canal

Dogs with recurrent ear infections may have a mass or tumor in their ear canal causing the issue. Common ear canal tumors include polyps, ceruminous gland adenomas, and adenocarcinomas. These usually come with waxy or bloody discharge in one ear, a foul odor, head shaking or ear scratching, and swelling.

5. Water in the ear canal

Having moisture in the ear canal can lead to bacteria growth, causing a bacterial infection. If your dog has been around water, be sure to carefully dry out their ears to help prevent any water from getting trapped.

6. Ear mites and parasites

Ear mites and parasites like ticks will cause your dog’s ears to itch. This usually makes them shake their head or scratch their ears excessively. Ear mites can also produce wax and irritation that could lead to an infection and can cause their ears to be red, swollen, and inflamed.

7. Trapped foxtails

Spontaneous ear infections in dogs (usually in just one ear) that have had exposure to foxtails or other grass awns may have a piece of the bristle-like plant embedded in their ear. This can lead to irritation and cause your dog to scratch at their ear. It may even lead to a secondary infection.

8. Wax buildup

Wax is a normal occurrence in both our ears and our pup’s ears. But, too much wax buildup can lead to a blockage and not allow proper airflow, and potentially lead to an infection in the ear canal. Ear mites and allergies are the most common culprits causing excess wax buildup.

9. Autoimmune disease

Diseases, where the immune system attacks healthy cells, are rare but can result in inflammation in your dog’s ear canals and lead to infections. These diseases include pemphigus, lupus, or vasculitis.

10. Breed

Dogs with floppy ears or lots of hair tend to be prone to ear infections. Shar Peis, Cocker spaniels, Golden retrievers, Poodles, Fox red Labrador retrievers, and basset hounds are at the top of the list of breeds that are most affected by ear infections. Research also shows that designer crossbreeds, such as labradoodles or cockapoos, are at a much higher risk of ear infections, as well.

🚨Dog ear infections don’t usually go away on their own, so it’s important to see a vet — especially if your dog is getting them often.

Common signs of canine ear infections

Ear infections in dogs can be found in all parts of the ear, but are most commonly found in the tubular part of the outer ear (known as the external ear canal) when the layer of skin lining the canal becomes inflamed. This type of infection is also known as otitis externa. They can also develop in the inner ear (otitis interna) or the middle ear (otitis media).

Some symptoms of ear infections include:

  • Itchiness
  • Pain
  • Scabs or crusting in the ears
  • Swelling or redness in the ear canal
  • Head shaking
  • Scratching at the affected ear
  • Pus or dark brown material in ear canals
  • Odor coming from the ears

How to stop the cycle of chronic ear infections

If your dog is suffering from ear infections more frequently (every few weeks or months after initial treatment), be sure to talk to your dog’s vet. They can identify a cause and help you come up with a plan to prevent further infections. Your vet also may end up treating any residual infection with antibiotics or other medications, such as topical medication or a medicated cleanser.

For breeds that have a lot of hair in their ears that can make them prone to ear infections, regular grooming is important. This may involve plucking, shaving, and removal of hair from the ear canals.

Cleaning your dog’s ears

Another way to help prevent further ear infections is knowing how to properly clean your dog’s ears to get rid of any bacteria, debris, or wax build-up. There are a variety of vet-approved ear cleaners you can buy to help.

  1. Simply use a cotton ball or cotton round (NOT Q-tips).
  2. Moisten it with the ear cleaning solution of choice (making sure to follow the instructions on the package so you know how much to use).
  3. Gently wipe the outer ear clean.

You can also try massaging the base of their ear to ensure the cleaner is doing its job of getting all the debris or wax out. Just be sure not to go too deep or press too hard. Repeat the process until their ears are squeaky clean and give them a treat for praise!

👉 Dog owners shouldn’t clean their dog’s ears more than 2-3 times weekly to avoid irritation — unless instructed by your veterinarian. Typical maintenance for cleaning ears is about once weekly.

Frequently asked questions

What’s the most common cause of dog ear infections?

Bacterial and yeast infections are the most common type of ear infections found in dogs. They can have an array of underlying causes such as allergies, moisture in the ear, wax build-up, or parasites.

Will a dog ear infection go away on its own?

Ear infections typically won’t go away on their own, so it’s important to have your dog seen by your veterinarian for treatment.

What does a dog ear infection look like?

Most ear infections in dogs will have a dark discharge or drainage, swelling, visible irritation or inflammation, scabbing or crust around the ears, and usually comes with a foul odor.

Can ear infections be caused by food allergies?

Absolutely! Dogs with food or environmental allergies are more likely to develop ear infections due to inflammation.