Ear infections in dogs are a common and painful result of an overgrowth of yeast or bacteria in the ear canal. Symptoms are wide-ranging and usually quite noticeable, including scratching at ears, foul odor from the ears, discharge, blood, and head tilt. There are a variety of causes of ear infections in dogs, such as ear mites or moisture trapped in the ear. Basset hounds, Chinese Shar-peis, Labradoodles, beagles, and golden retrievers are especially susceptible to ear infections. Your vet can quickly diagnose an ear infection through a series of non-invasive tests and prescribe medication that will usually resolve the condition in weeks. You can take several measures to help prevent ear infections in your dog, like cleaning and drying its ears after swimming or bathing. Depending on the bacteria in your dog's ears, some ear infections are transmittable to other animals. A dog's ear infection is rarely contagious to a human.
What Are Ear Infections?
Ear infections result from a bacterial or yeast overgrowth in a dog's inner or outer ear canal. The ear canal is the pathway from the inner and middle ear to the ear flap (pinna), and a healthy ear canal should only contain earwax. The three types of ear infections in dogs are otitis externa, media, and interna. The most common infection is otitis externa, which affects the cells lining the outer portion of the ear canal.
Symptoms of Ear Infections in Dogs
Ear infections can be extremely painful for dogs. If your dog is displaying any physical or behavioral changes that may indicate pain or discomfort, especially in or around the ears, pay a visit to your vet right away.
Numerous symptoms can signify an ear infection in your dog, many of which are readily observable. Head shaking, scratching, and rubbing are tell-tale signs of otitis externa, but you may also see your dog tilting its head, holding one ear down, and being reluctant to have its head or ears touched. Sometimes the ear infection will cause a foul odor and create ear discharge. Occasionally, hair loss or blood will be seen from constant scratching and rubbing on the ear. Ear hematomas may form on the outside of the ear from the trauma. If the middle or inner ear is affected, hearing loss, abnormal eye movements, and a loss of balance can result.
Causes of Ear Infections
There are several causes of ear infections in dogs. Understanding the factors contributing to the infection will help you prevent future pain and discomfort for your dog.
- Ear mites: Ear mites are tiny, incredibly itchy parasites that can live in a dog's ear canal. An ear mite infestation may lead to ear infection due to the environment in the canal created by the parasite. The symptoms of ear mites are almost identical to those of an ear infection, even if the mites haven't caused a secondary infection. If you suspect your dog has either condition, pay a visit to your vet right away.
- Allergies: Dogs that have allergies may be particularly susceptible to ear infections. Food allergies and environmental allergies, especially skin irritants like pollen or dust, can cause secondary, recurring ear infections.
- Water in the ear: Moisture in a dog's ear creates an ideal environment for bacteria and yeast to grow. If the moisture itself doesn't cause an ear infection, the bacteria in the water can.
- Excessive hair in and around the ear opening: Hair around a dog's ear can transport moisture or bacteria that can cause ear infections. Hair can also carry parasites and irritants that can enter and infect the ear canal.
- Growths in the ear or covering the ear opening: Ear tumors or growths, benign or not, can lead to ear infections. Polyps can form in clogged wax-producing glands and cover the ear opening, impeding proper bacterial and yeast regulation and causing infection.
Diagnosing Ear Infections in Dogs
To diagnose your dog with an ear infection, your veterinarian will begin with a physical examination of the ear. Your vet will use an otoscope to look inside your dog's ear and then may swab the ear canal to obtain and test a bacterial sample. The vet will look for any abnormalities in the canal through the otoscope, like swelling, discharge, growths, and redness. A biopsy may be performed in severe cases or if your vet finds a malignant growth.
Ear infections in dogs are usually treated with topical medications in the form of ear drops or ointment. However, if the affected ears are very painful, your vet may prescribe oral medications for pain and inflammation. Before applying topical medications to the ear, the ear must be clean. Your vet may prescribe a medicated ear cleaner or recommend an over-the-counter solution. Once the ear is properly cleaned, the topical medication can be applied and gently massaged into the ear canal. If the ear is extremely dirty or painful, your dog may need to be sedated or anesthetized and have its ear cleaned by a vet.
While uncommon, if a dog has developed severe chronic inflammation and medications are no longer effective, surgery may be needed to remove the ear canal. This procedure is called a total ear canal ablation (TECA). TECA surgery may also be recommended if tumors or polyps are present in the ear canal.
Watch Now: How to Clean Your Dog's Ears
Prognosis for Dogs With Ear Infections
Swift ear infection treatment is essential to the health and wellbeing of your dog. Ear infections are prevalent but easily treatable with topical medications. Typically, within a few days, your dog will begin to feel better, and after one to two weeks, the infection will be resolved. But, some ear infections are challenging to treat and can be resistant to medication. Additionally, if an ear infection is left untreated for a prolonged period, it can cause severe inflammation, permanent damage to the eardrum, and impact your dog's hearing.
How to Prevent Ear Infections
There are a few easy ways to help prevent your dog from developing an ear infection. Cleaning and drying your dog's ears after a bath or a swim is one of the best preventive measures you can take. Additionally, if your dog has a lot of hair in and around its ear opening, clipping or plucking excess hair can reduce some heat and moisture in the ear that can contribute to an ear infection.
If your vet suspects that an allergy causes your dog's ear infection, you will need to regulate allergens through diet changes or limiting exposure to irritants. If a growth has formed in or around the ear canal, removing it can help prevent future infections.
Types of Ear Infections in Dogs
Otitis interna, otitis externa, and otitis media are three main types of bacterial or yeast ear infections. The presence of yeast or bacteria does not always result in inflammation and disease. There are a variety of bacteria that can cause ear infections. The following types of bacteria and yeast are the most common causes of ear infections in dogs.
- Pseudomonas aeruginosa
- Staphylococcus pseudintermedius
- Klebsiella spp.
- Escherichia coli
- Malassezia pachydermatis
Are Ear Infections Contagious to Other Animals?
Ear infections are not usually contagious to other animals, but there are exceptions. If the ear infection results from an ear mite infestation, another dog or cat can easily contract these parasites and develop a secondary ear infection. Additionally, if the type of bacteria in the ear infection is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus pseudintermedius (MRSP), it is spreadable to other animals.
Are They Contagious to Humans?
Ear infections in dogs are not usually contagious to humans. Still, if the infection is due to methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus pseudintermedius (MRSP), it could be spread to humans. This is rare, especially in non-immunocompromised people.
How do you know if your dog has an ear infection?
If you see your dog shaking its head and scratching its ears or notice a foul odor or discharge, your dog may have an ear infection. If your dog seems to be experiencing pain or discomfort in or around its ears, visit your vet immediately.
What does an ear infection look like in a dog?
Infected canine ears are crusty, red, and often have a brown, yellow, or bloody discharge.
How do you clean a dog's ears?
You can clean your dog's ears by gently wiping away buildup with gauze soaked in apple cider vinegar or hydrogen peroxide. This may help treat mild infection, but you will likely need to bring your pet to the veterinarian for prescription medication.
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