Ear Problems Leading to Otitis in Dogs

Ear problems are one of the most common reasons that dog owners seek veterinary care. Inflammation or infection of the ear, called otitis, can be a particularly frustrating problem for you and a painful ordeal for your dog. 

Why are ear problems so common in dogs?
To understand why you’ve never had an ear infection and yet your dog suffers constantly with one episode after another, just look at his ears. Does he have cute, floppy ear flaps that hang down and cover the openings to his ear canals? They may make him look adorable, but they also obstruct air flow and contribute to the creation of a cozy, warm, moist environment underneath. What about hair? Try to look down inside the ear canal. Do you see a nice, smooth, accessible tunnel or an opening that is obliterated by a mass of fuzzy hairs that can trap even more moisture and debris?

While you’re looking into his ear canal, what else do you notice? When your doctor looks into your ear, the view is straight in horizontally through the canal to the ear drum. Not so for a dog. From the visible opening your dog’s ear canal heads straight down vertically and then makes a right-angle turn before finally proceeding horizontally to reach the eardrum. The shape of the canal means even less air flow, more trapped moisture and a more difficult path for anything (wax, debris, foreign objects or infectious agents) to work up and out of the canal. It also means anything good (like cleansers and medications) have a more difficult path to travel.

How does the environment affect ear problems in dogs?
We’ve already touched on why some dogs (like those with floppy ears or hairy ears) might be more prone to ear problems, but why don’t all Basset Hounds have bad ears and why do some German Shepherds battle chronic ear infections? Sometimes, it has to do with environment—living in a warm, wet environment or swimming a lot causes inflammation and moisture in the canals. 

What else may cause ear problems in dogs?
Allergies in dogs often manifest as red, itchy, inflamed ears that become infected. In fact, sometimes, ear problems are the only symptom you will see in an allergic dog. The same is true for dogs that have underactive thyroid glands; dogs that have oily hair coats or excessive dandruff can have those same problems in the lining of their ear canals—thus causing irritation and providing safe harbor for infectious agents to live happily and to reproduce beyond what would be normal.

How do you know if your dog has an ear problem?
Sometimes it will be, quite literally, painfully obvious. Any of the following may be signs of an ear issue:


  • Your dog is crying or pawing at his ear or cheek
  • Your dog is shaking or tilting his head
  • You see or smell purulent (pus discharge)
  • You see infectious discharge
  • Your dog’s ear flap or canal is red and inflamed

Other times your dog will just be depressed and you won’t see anything at all on the surface to alert you of an issue with his ear. I have seen happy dogs with the worst-looking ear infections imaginable, and I have seen minor ear infections that caused dogs to become anorexic and listless. It just depends on the dog. If your dog isn’t acting like his normal self, see your veterinarian.

How do you treat canine ear problems?
That will depend on several factors:

  • The type of problem (infectious, inflammatory, parasitic and/or foreign object)
  • The chronicity (is this a first time issue or a persistent/recurrent one?)
  • Are underlying, more systemic issues suspected (allergies, thyroid, etc.)?

Your veterinarian will take different diagnostic steps depending on the answers to these questions.

How will my dog be examined for ear problems?
After an external examination of the ear flap and external canal, a nice, small cotton swab can be gently inserted into the horizontal portion of the canal to check debris. This can also be a way to gauge your dog’s comfort or discomfort level. If a dog won’t tolerate the least invasive little cotton swab then he is not going to be keen on the insertion of the larger otoscopic cone needed to evaluate deep down into the canal and around that bend to see the ear drum. That is why some dogs, with really painful ears, need mild sedation just to accomplish a good, thorough examination. There may also be so much debris or fluid in the canal that careful irrigation has to be performed to clean it out in order to visualize the ear drum, check for foreign bodies, check for ticks or mites, and to prepare the canal for effective medical treatment. Remember, we mentioned that the anatomy of the canal makes it harder to get debris out and to get medication in—a thorough cleaning to start can make all the difference. 

A quick check of any discharge can be performed under the microscope to identify bacteria and/or yeast. Then appropriate medications can be prescribed topically and/or orally. Just be sure that your veterinary staff instructs you on the proper techniques for cleaning and medicating your dog’s ears and that you keep any recheck appointments so that the full extent of the ear canal can be visualized again to verify complete cure before you quit treatments.

If the problem does not resolve or if it recurs, your veterinarian may need to perform cultures to identify more effective medications and may recommend further testing for those potential predisposing problems mentioned above. Most importantly, realize that even though it seems like an ear infection should be any easy thing to cure in dogs that is not always the case. You and your veterinarian really need to work as a team for a successful outcome.

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.