Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
We’re reader-supported. When you click on our chosen products, we may receive a commission. Learn more.
canine health problems

Ear infections in dogs: Signs, causes, and treatment

Ear infections (otitis externa) in dogs are common, and if left untreated they can cause severe damage; here’s what to do

Updated October 11, 2021

Created By

Christy Caplan, CVT,
Dog with an ear infection

Infected ear

The essentials

  • Otitis externa is the inflammation of the external ear canal — Which is typically caused by ear mites, bacteria, and/or yeast infections
  • The ear canal may be painful or itchy — Pet owners need to watch for headshaking, odor, redness of the skin, swelling, scratching, and increased discharge. Severe ear infections can also cause hearing loss, a head tilt, and circling.
  • Major reasons for ear problems include everything from allergies to injuries Dogs may have grass seeds in their ear, or pets that swim a lot are candidates for ear infections.
  • A vet can help pet owners with cleaning and treatment Learning how to clean your dog’s ears properly is an essential skill, and every pet owner needs to know the steps.

What is otitis externa? 

Otitis externa is defined as inflammation of the external ear canal consisting of the pinna (ear flap) and the vertical and horizontal ear canals up to the level of the ear drum (tympanum). The ear can be divided into the external ear, middle ear, and internal (inner) ear. The inner ear has components that contribute to both hearing and balance.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Infections in the outer ear (otitis externa) and ear flap (pinna) are the most common. Middle (otitis Media) and inner ear (otitis Interna) infections are more severe but not all that common. A middle ear infection results from an extension of an outer ear infection through a punctured ear drum.

The canine ear canal is L-shaped and is angled down toward the ear drum. This makes doggie ears susceptible to ear infections since they create a warm, moist environment. A dog’s ear canals should always be clean. Dogs don’t typically build up wax in the ears like people do.

👉 If you see yellow or brown material in the ear canals, your dog may have an infection.

Signs to watch out for 

There are many symptoms of a canine ear infection that pet owners need to monitor for. It’s best to try and avoid ear problems, but there are breeds predisposed to issues. Regular cleaning may help prevent ear problems and eliminate some symptoms like itching, swelling, and odor. However, ear cleaning will not treat an infection. Also, one or both ears may be affected.

  • 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

Major reasons for ear problems

Due to the shape of their ear canal, the outer ear tends to hold fluid, and ear infections may quickly develop. Here are some of the common ear problems in dogs:

  • Bacterial and yeast infections (usually the cause). If you see your dog scratching and shaking its head, an ear infection may be the reason. Also, look for redness and swelling of the skin folds.
  • Allergies (food or environmental allergies). Dogs that have food allergies and environmental allergies are at risk for recurring ear infections. Allergies can cause bacterial and/or yeast infections.
  • Hypothyroidism. Recurrent bacterial and yeast infections of the skin and ears often occur secondary to hypothyroidism.
  • Mass in the ear canal. Pets with ear canal tumors include an inflamed, itchy and painful ear, persistent odorous discharge (that can be waxy, pus-filled, or bloody), head shaking, and ear scratching.
  • Water in the ear canal. If your dog takes baths or goes swimming, water may get into the ear canal which could lead to an ear infection.
  • Ear mites and parasites. These tiny bugs live in ear canals and feed on skin debris. Mites are another common reason for infections but are more common in puppies and kittens. They cause intense itchiness in the ears.
  • Trapped foxtails. Foreign bodies in the ear passages cause irritation and later infection. If your dog was on a hike, always look for plant material or weeds under the ear flaps.
  • Wax build-up. Excess wax and moisture in the ear predispose to a fungus infection. The discharge may be dark, thick, waxy and an odor is present.
  • Injury.  Any open wounds on the ear flap or entrance of the ear canal can lead to an infection.

Breeds prone to ear infections

According to research done by the Canadian Vet Medical Association, some breeds are more likely to get ear infections, “cocker spaniels, Jura des Alpes, Brittany spaniels, golden retrievers, and West Highland white terriers are overrepresented (5). Some older studies also show that Labrador retrievers, miniature poodles, Afghans, Scottish terriers, fox terriers, Maltese, and German shepherds are also predisposed.”

Dog breeds with floppy, large, or hairy ears are also more prone to infection. Hanging, floppy ears decrease airflow and humidity in the ears. These breeds commonly include:

  • Cocker spaniels
  • Golden retrievers
  • Poodles
  • Labrador retrievers
  • Basset hounds

Overall treatment and diagnosis 

Your vet will perform diagnostic tests and conduct an ear exam. The first step is to determine the cause and a number of steps are taken to treat the ears depending on what the vet discovers.

  • Otoscopic exam
  • Ear mite check and ear cytology (using the microscope)
  • Remove any foreign bodies like a foxtail
  • Clean the ears (see below) and medicate with topical or oral medications

To prevent your pup from getting future ear infections, your vet will show you how to properly clean your dog’s ears.

Cleaning a dog ear with a cotton bud

Time to clean those ears!

How to clean doggie ears correctly

Always have the following materials on hand so you can regularly clean your dog’s ears. When you’re at the vet for a wellness appointment, ask your vet if your dog’s ears need to be regularly cleaned and for a brief demonstration.

Materials to have on hand

Your veterinarian can help you select an ear cleaner that is right for your dog. Pet owners may use human grooming tools including:

  • Cotton balls
  • Tissues
  • Cotton applicators

Step 1 — Set up a safe area for your dog where they’re comfortable and relaxed during any grooming activity or ear cleaning.

Step 2 — Review the ear anatomy in the above chart and ask your vet if you have any follow-up questions. Again, you’re only cleaning the outer ear.

Step 3 — Hold the ear flap upright and fill the ear canal with the ear cleaning solution. To fill the canal, squeeze the bottle directly into the canal for about 5 seconds.

Step 4 — Keeping the ear flap out of the way, massage the base of the ear with your fingers for about 20 to 30 seconds.

Step 5 — The cotton balls or cotton applicators can be used to gently wipe the wax from the external ear canal. Again, the wax you’re removing should be visible.

👉 Always talk to your vet if you have any questions about over-the-counter ear cleaners and skip cleaners with all-natural remedies if your dog has an ear infection. 

Most dogs only need their ears cleaned every three to four weeks. However, if your dog is prone to ear infections due to breed or allergies, then it’s best to clean the ears every two weeks for maintenance. Always clean your dog’s ears after a bath or swimming with a routine ear cleaner that contains a drying agent. Epi-Otic is an over-the-counter cleaner that will get rid of any water in the ear canal and dry out the ear so that an infection is less likely to develop.

👉 Here’s our entire list of favorite ear cleaners for dogs that don’t have ear infections. 

Our vet’s favorite OTC dog ear cleaner: Epi-Otic

This product is frequently recommended by vets. Many customers use this cleanser with dogs that are known for having sensitive ears. The solution is non-irritating and works well, often with medication or ear drops prescribed by a vet.

Ingredients: The main ingredient is 0.2% salicylic acid. Water, ethoxydiglycol, and PEG-40 hydrogenated are the primary ingredients.

👉 Be sure to work with your vet on the ear cleaner they recommend. Ear cleaners aren’t meant to treat infections and should only be used to clean ears.

Prevention to keep your doggo out of the vet  

Keeping ears clean of discharges and secretions helps reduce irritation. Ask your vet for best practices and follow the above steps about how to clean. In addition, pet owners need to watch and monitor chronic dirty ears, and any signs of discomfort warrant a vet visit.

Avoid infections with squeaky clean ears

A pet’s ear infection may need a full course of treatment from a vet. If there are severe symptoms, your puppy’s ears may need a medicated cleanser. Otitis externa is an infection of the external ear canal and there are many reasons this may occur. Pet owners should refer to the above list of common signs of ear infections to determine if their pooch has a problem. Early treatment and medical advice are important as your vet can diagnose and treat the infection immediately.

Frequently asked questions

Is apple cider vinegar good for dog ear infections?

No. Apple cider vinegar isn’t recommended for treating an ear infection. It can add moisture in the ears and make the infection worse.

How can I soothe my dog’s ear infection?

Cleaning your dog’s ears per your vet’s instructions will help soothe your dog’s ear infection. The medication used will help the infection go away quickly.

Can you use white vinegar in a dog’s ear?

Vinegar alone and home remedies aren’t recommended. There are better ear cleaners with drying agents and ear medications available that are much more effective in cleaning the ears and treating for infection, respectively.

Can I treat my dog’s ear infection at home?

Nope! You must see a vet first to diagnose the reason for the infection. You can treat the infection after your vet appointment as the instructions will be clear on what you need to do at home. Over-the-counter medication (like ear mite medication) doesn’t work.  It’s better to have your local vet determine the cause of the infection so that the appropriate medication is prescribed.