Spotting, Diagnosing, and Treating Dog Ear Infections
As we travel around treating pets, we see a lot of the same problems popping up more often. One such issue that’s always prevalent is dogs with ear infections. And as we treat them, we invariably end up answering a variety of questions about them.
Pet owners want to know things like:
- What causes dogs to get ear infections?
- What are the signs that a dog has an ear infection?
- What are some of the treatment options for them, both at home and vet-based remedies?
Given that dog ear infections are so common among our patients, we thought we’d spend the time to answer some of those questions here.
What Causes Dogs to Get Ear Infections?
Ear infections are caused by different kinds of pathogens. They usually are a mix of yeast and bacteria.
However, the underlying inflammation from many dog ear infections is actually related to allergic skin disease.
There are primary infections that can happen that are not related to allergic reactions, but the majority of dog ear infections have some underlying causes due to the dog having an allergy. This could be due to something in their environment or most commonly, something in their food.
In an ear infection, first, the allergy causes inflammation in the ear. The normal bacteria and yeast that live on your dog’s skin and inside their ears are able to take over because of the inflammation in the ear, secondary to the allergy. When this happens, you have to treat the ear infection, but you also have to treat the underlying problem that started the ear infection. Again, for most dogs, this is some sort of a reaction to something.
For dogs, inhaled allergies can be manifested as skin problems. Many dogs are seen for an ear infection but when asked if the dog is itchy in general, owners say yes.
To draw a parallel with people, we’re in the pollen season right now and people are fighting allergies left and right. In humans, we get eye infections, respiratory infections, and more, all as secondary issues related to allergies.
Allergic reactions in dogs can also be related to flea allergies. If the dog is allergic to flea bites and they’re getting bitten by fleas, that can lead to an ear infection. Often if the dog is scratching his neck or rear-end suggesting flea bites, then we look in their ears and they’ve usually have some sort of ear reaction.
Your Dog’s Food Might Be the Cause
The most common reason for dog ear infections is actually a food allergy.
In many cases where dogs have ear infections, we try to address the food first. There are blood tests we can do to determine what they’re allergic to. Or you at home can do food trials where you take them off of what they’re eating and put them on novel proteins and see how they do.
If you do a food trial, it’s going to be about sixteen weeks before you’re sure that it either is or is not the food that’s causing the reaction.
In other cases, there are specific prescription diets that have broken down the proteins into small pieces which don’t cause the reaction when your dog eats them.
Another problem with food allergies is that dogs can be allergic to ANYTHING in their food. There is currently a big push to feed dogs “grain-free,” as if the grains are what’s causing all of the allergies in dogs. However, dogs can be allergic to the protein in any food. We see dogs who turn out to be allergic to carrots, beef, chicken, rice, or soybeans. So just because dog food is grain-free does not mean that your dog does not have an allergy to it.
In Some Cases, It’s Not the Food
While the bulk of ear infections are caused by food, dogs can also be allergic to dust mites, grasses, or any sort of pollen or plant material. This can sometimes manifest itself in ears and skin.
Those, of course, are a lot harder to avoid than food—and all these allergies are cumulative. So if your dog is allergic to something in their food and then they get hit with something in the springtime, that can compound and now you have a really uncomfortable and itchy dog with ear infections in both ears.
We always tell owners of dogs who have multiple ear infections that we want to address the food first, even if that’s not the primary cause. There’s really no reason for the dog to be eating something that it’s allergic to.
Once we get them off of that food, hopefully, it helps keep the dog from getting additional ear infections. Then we can try to address the environmental allergens—which is a lot more difficult because generally, that is where we end up having to do some sort of medication. Unlike with restrictive diets, avoiding the world just isn’t possible.
Allergy shots can also be an option, but sometimes those aren’t as effective. It could be compliance of the owners giving the shots, or it could be that it takes a year for them to really take effect.
Either way, we usually end up doing some sort of allergy medication in the season that the animal is having a problem to try to prevent the ear infection.
How Can I Tell if My Dog Has an Ear Infection?
There are a few ways to tell if your dog has an ear infection. Generally, if your dog is shaking their head or itching their ear with their back leg, they probably have an ear infection.
Sometimes, there’s also a smell. Maybe there’s a strong odor coming from your dog, and even after a bath, the odor persists. In this case, just do the sniff test at the ear. In most dogs, there is a yeast component, so it almost smells like a “yeasty bread” odor.
So while an ear infection can be as severe as seeing some discharge coming from your dog’s ear, generally if they have an infection, they’ll be shaking their head, scratching their ear, or have an odor that you can’t identify.
How Does a Vet Treat My Dog’s Ear Infection?
There are a few things your vet can do that will help with the ear infection.
There are prescription drops you can put in twice a day that a veterinarian can give you. While there are over-the-counter medications that are available, you have to be very careful with those. While they might mask the symptoms because they might have an anti-inflammatory in them, they won’t actually treat it if they don’t have an antibiotic or an anti-fungal.
These can make your dog feel better but they’re actually not treating the infection. Also, owners need to be VERY carefully about what they purchase to put in their dog’s ear without an official diagnosis.
While there are twice a day drops, we often use a gel product that goes in the ear and is a time-release. The vet will put it on once and then the owner puts it on a week later and then leaves the ear alone for six to eight weeks.
Many owners prefer the gel and have been happy with those products. They are really nice because you don’t have to treat the dog twice a day, and because a lot of dogs don’t particularly like fluid being put in their ear.
Lastly, sometimes we treat ear infections orally, or with an injection for underlying allergy. And sometimes we take a multi-pronged approach depending on what the specific infection looks like.
One Step Further
So your dog has an ear infection: it’s smelly, it hurts, it itches and your poor dog is uncomfortable. Help!
We treat the secondary infection so your dog can start to feel a lot better almost immediately—but it’s going to come back if we don’t get to the underlying problem.
Sometimes if we see a dog that has multiple ear infections we’ll also do a culture, where take a swab of the ear and look at two things.
First is a cytology. This is when we look at the cells that come out so we can tell if there are bacteria or yeast in there—and in what proportions. But we can’t identify the specific bacteria that way.
Second, we might also send a swab to the lab and have them do a culture to determine the specific kind of bacteria present. Then we can treat that bacteria directly instead of just putting a general antibiotic in the ear and hope that we’re hitting the right one.
Doing a general antibiotic may work the first or second time on an ear infection, but if your dog continues to have problems, you really should culture the ear to make sure you’re hitting the right bacteria.
You also don’t want to take the general approach too often because you might end up creating resistant bacteria.
Is There Anything I Can Do at Home to Treat or Prevent Dog Ear Infections?
There are a few safe things you can try at home if you are careful.
First, there are ear cleaners available over the counter, or you can get one from your veterinarian. A mild ear infection, if it’s yeast-based, will sometimes respond to a cleaner. And certainly in a preventative sense, if your dog is prone to ear infections, you should clean their ears once or twice a week.
Sometimes if you catch an infection really early you can start cleaning the ear a couple of times a week. However, if your dog is really shaking their head and scratching a lot, you’re not usually going to resolve the infection that way. But you can certainly start there and once you get to the vet they will treat it.
Also, if your dog’s swimming a lot, that can make them prone to infection– especially if they have ears that hang down instead of staying erect.
If you do have a dog that swims a lot, clean their ears carefully after they go swimming. It will help to dry out the ear canal and could prevent a secondary ear infection from the moisture that’s in their ears.
Flea Control Can’t Hurt
Another thing to consider is flea control. If there’s any question that your dog has fleas— and if it’s summertime and your dog goes outside, you should assume they have fleas. Even if its wintertime and the dog is inside, the fleas can live through the winter because you keep your house warm.
We always suggest that if you’re spending money with a vet on an issue that may be related to an allergy, it can be very cost-effective to put your dog on flea control. This will allow you to make sure that it’s not part of the problem, even if you don’t think you see fleas.
To help, there are over-the-counter flea controls. You can ask your veterinarian for their recommendations at your next visit.
A Final Note of Caution
It’s very important to that owners understand they can’t see down in that ear canal as a vet can with our tools and training.
If you put something in the ear and the eardrum gets ruptured, you’re going to risk their dog’s hearing in that ear.
One of the things we look for during an exam is to make sure that the eardrum is intact before putting medication in the ear. If your dog’s ear infection has been going on for any length of time you really need to be very careful.
Avoid sticking Q-tips down in your dog’s ear, unless you’ve been instructed to and trained by your veterinarian to do it. We recommend sticking with cotton balls so that you’re not poking something down into the ear.
And finally, be aware that your dog’s ear infection is going to be super painful in the beginning. So be careful if you do any cleaning and know that your dog is going to be relatively uncomfortable.
At-Home Dog Ear Infection Treatment
When your dog is experiencing something as uncomfortable as an ear infection, it may be hard to get them to cooperate. They could also be stressed out and even unwilling to listen to you at all.
In situations like these, the help of a mobile vet can really be beneficial. Vet’s Here provides quality at home vet care just like you’d get at a clinic, but without the hassle and stress of getting your dog there.
We offer check-ups, wellness exams, imaging, lab work, and yes, ear infection treatment.