Common and Painful: Ear Infections

Dr. Ruth MacPete explains pet ear infections. For more from Dr. MacPete, find her on Facebook or at!

As a primary care veterinarian, ear infections are one of the most common problems I encounter. Although some animals go to the vet to have an ear problem addressed, many ear infections are discovered incidentally during a routine physical exam. Ear infections can be painful, and if untreated, they can become chronic and lead to hearing loss or aural hematomas due to head shaking and scratching. In order to avoid these potential problems, I want everyone to know how to recognize an ear infection.

What are some of the common causes of ear infections in pets?

  • Ear mites
  • Foreign bodies like plant awns
  • Allergies
  • Polyps or tumors
  • Infection
  • Conformation: Large floppy ears cover the canal, trap moisture and decrease airflow creating the perfect environment for bacteria and yeast.

How do you know if your pet has an ear infection?

  • Shaking head
  • Rubbing or scratching at ears
  • Head tilt
  • Painful sensitive ears
  • Ear discharge or debris

What should you do if you think your pet has an ear infection?
If your pet has any of these symptoms, take them to your veterinarian. Your vet will check your pet’s ear canals and do a thorough otoscopic exam to look for foreign bodies and make sure that the tympanic membrane  (ear drum) is still intact. They may also check for bacteria, yeast and mites. 

The goal of treatment is to clean the ear, decrease inflammation, treat pain, and ultimately address the underlying cause. Depending on the cause, your veterinarian will dispense the appropriate medications and of course remove any foreign bodies that may have caused the inflammation and secondary infection.

How do you prevent ear infections? Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that prevents ear infections in pets. However, there are some steps you can take to decrease the chances your pet will develop an ear infection. 

  1. Most importantly, keep your pet’s ears clean. Certain breeds of dogs are prone to ear infections and benefit from having their ears cleaned regularly. Always use a pet ear cleaner; never use water, alcohol or peroxide. Ear cleaners are gentle and formulated for use in the ear. Next time you see your veterinarian ask them to show you how to properly and safely clean your pet’s ears at home.
  2. Keep your pet’s ears dry. Excessive moisture predisposes pets to ear infections, so try not to get water in your pet’s ears when bathing them and try to limit swimming if your pet has a history of ear infections. You can also speak with your veterinarian about medications to help dry the ear canal after swimming.
  3. Catch and treat ear infections early. Become familiar with the symptoms of an ear infection. If your dog is shaking their head, scratching at their ears, or has foul-smelling discharge from their ears, take them promptly to your veterinarian to avoid the problems associated with chronic infections.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

Reviewed on: 
Tuesday, August 5, 2014