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canine health problems
Cleaning dog ear discharge

The essentials

  • Ear discharge isn’t a condition; it’s a symptom — So it’s very important to act fast to figure out the underlying issue causing it.
  • It can have different colors and textures — Keep an eye out for anything unusual with regular ear checks and cleanings.
  • The most common culprit is usually an infection or a foreign material in the ear — But there are also other potential causes that can be ruled out by a vet visit.
  • Some breeds are more prone to waxy buildup than others — No dog is immune, though!

What is ear discharge?

Ear discharge is one of the most common reasons for vet visits. The discharge itself isn’t an actual condition, though — it’s a symptom of an underlying issue, like an infection. Depending on the cause, discharge is usually either yellow and waxy, yellow and moist or smelly, dried and brownish, or black.

Dog with ear discharge

Here's an example of what ear discharge looks like. 📷: Wikimedia Commons

🚨 Many of the underlying conditions associated with ear discharge can also be super painful, so it’s important to get a full diagnosis ASAP.

Five common causes of ear discharge in dogs, explained

There’s a wide range of ear discharge causes including bacterial infections, allergies, foreign objects in the ears, ear mites, tumors of the ear canal, and endocrine disorders (like hypothyroidism). Other accompanying symptoms can also include inflammation in the external ear canal, head shaking, odor, erosion, and ulceration.

Infection. Bacterial, fungal, or yeast infections can all cause discharge and buildup. The most common location for ear infections that lead to discharge is the outer ear (otitis externa). However, discharge can be a symptom of middle or inner ear issues as well. Treatment depends on the type of infection and where it is, but usually includes a thorough ear cleaning and medicines prescribed by a vet.

Allergies. Whether they’re seasonal, food-related, or environmental, canine allergies are definitely not fun for your pup. They can lead to ear problems like redness, swelling, itchiness, and wax buildup, and they create the perfect environment for secondary infections. The best way to treat your pup’s allergies is to first figure out what’s causing them, then work with your vet on a plan for avoidance and symptom management.

Dirt or wax buildup. This can be caused by a variety of factors (some of which are mentioned above), especially if your pup likes to stay active outdoors and in the water. Too much moisture or debris can cause wax buildup and create the perfect environment for infections. The best way to treat and prevent it is to give your dog regular ear cleanings, grooming, and ear checks.

Wounds. Open cuts, scrapes, or lacerations in your pup’s ears are not only at higher risk of infection, but they can also throw off their ear health. Always take extra care to keep your dog’s ears clean and dry when there’s an injury. Treatments depend on the severity of the wound. Minor lesions probably won’t need a vet visit, but make sure to keep an eye on them just in case.

Ear mites. Ear mites spread through direct contact with another infected dog and are known for how quickly they begin to reproduce. Symptoms include itchiness, head shaking, dark and crusty debris in your pup’s ears, redness, and swelling. Because ear mites are so itchy, the possibility of a secondary ear infection is high. Treatments usually start with thorough ear cleanings and topical medications — a combination of antiparasitics and an antibiotic.

💡 Pro tip

When it comes to ear mites, oral antibiotics seldom work as a treatment. But some oral flea and tick preventions (in the isoxazoline class, specifically) have the unique side effect of killing ear mites!

Treating your dog's ear discharge

Ear discharge treatment is completely dependent on the underlying cause, which is why you should always see a vet if you’re not sure. Potential treatments for your dog could include:

  • Medicated drops. These can be over-the-counter or prescribed by your vet. They’re applied directly into your pup’s ears, and they’re meant to be used until the infection has completely cleared (typically a few weeks).
  • Ear cleanings. While your dog might not be the biggest fan of this part, it’s absolutely vital to make sure their ears get a thorough cleaning. And if you’re doing the cleaning yourself, make sure any materials you use are vet-approved! Remember to never use Q-tips in your dog’s ears — only cotton swabs or balls.
  • Oral antibiotics or steroids. With more severe cases, your vet may also recommend additional medications based on an ear cytology or ear culture. These depend on the type of infection, the severity, and what your veterinarian is comfortable recommending with other treatments.

🚨 Always keep in mind that misuse of antibiotics can lead to antimicrobial resistance and make infections more stubborn to treat, so always go by what your dog’s vet says!

How to prevent ear discharge

The good news for pet parents is that oftentimes ear discharge is very preventable in dogs. Here are a few tips to follow:

Regular ear cleanings are key — Regular ear cleanings, whether at the vet or at home, are necessary to prevent dirt and wax buildup. Our vet’s favorite ear cleaner for dogs is Virbac Epi-Otic!

Do your research — While no dog is immune to ear problems, there are certain breeds that typically have more problems than others.

Keep your dog groomed — Excess ear hair can trap dirt and debris. Try to keep the hair around your dog’s ears trimmed, especially for any pet out there with long, floppy ears!

Be sure to dry ears after they get wet — If your dog likes to swim, try to dry their ears afterward. You can also get special drops that will help prevent swimmer’s ear.

Frequently asked questions

How can I treat my dog’s ear discharge?

The best way to treat ear discharge is to first figure out what’s causing it. A vet appointment is almost always necessary for a full diagnosis.

Why is there pus coming out of my dog’s ear?

It’s likely due to an untreated infection. Treatment usually requires antibiotics or antifungals, ear-cleaning solutions, and ear-drying solutions.  Long-term or chronic ear issues sometimes need surgery.