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Ear Infections And Your Dog

Does your dog have itchy ears?  Has he been shaking his head or rubbing his face on the furniture or carpet?  Does he smell?

If so, he probably has an ear infection. Otitis externa, or outer ear infection, is one of the most common reasons for veterinary visits.

The ear canal of the dog has both a vertical and a horizontal component, turning inward to reach the ear drum.  This shape predisposes dogs to ear problems because wax, dirt and debris have to work its way around the corner and up, rather than straight out.  Too much ear wax, oils from the skin and other debris serve to feed bacteria and fungus normally present in the ear canal, causing them to over grow.

There are other factors involved, including diet, seasonal allergies, breed and genetic predisposition, but essentially, inflammation from fungus, bacteria or both causes pain and smelly discharge.

The symptoms of ear infection are shaking the head or scratching at the ears, rubbing the ears on furniture or carpet and a bad smell from the ears.  Advanced cases will also have yellowish discharge. In severe cases, the crusting surface of the ear canal will start to bleed.

When an ear infection moves to the other side of the ear drum, it becomes a middle ear infection and can cause neurologic symptoms, such as head tilt, ataxia (balance issues) or drooping of the face on the side of the infected ear.


Ear infections are confirmed with a cytology. In a cytology, a sample of the discharge from the ear canal is fixed to a slide and stained, then examined under the microscope to determine if the infection is fungal, bacterial or both.  Depending on the result of the cytology, the severity of the infection and your dog’s pain level, your vet will prescribe medication.  A common treatment is an ointment applied directly to the ear canal but your dog may also need corticosteroids, pain medication or antibiotics as well.

Stubborn ear infections that do not respond to treatment or that recur will need to be cultured.  In an ear culture, a sample is taken from the ear canal and sent to an outside lab, where they plate it and try to grow the organism living in the ear.  If an organism grows, the lab then identifies it and performs sensitivities tests to determine which medications will kill the organism and which, if any, it is resistant to.

Dogs that are prone to ear infections will benefit from regular ear cleanings.  Breeds with hair in the canal, such as poodles, can have that hair plucked out.  Ask your vet to show you the proper method to clean your dog’s ears.  It is important to note that you should use a specific ear cleaner meant for dogs.  The pH of the ear can contribute to or prevent ear infections.  The ear canal is also sensitive and harsh cleaners can cause pain and irritation.

If you have a breed that likes to swim, proper drying out of the ears will help prevent ear infections. The shape and orientation of the canine ear canal makes it easy for excess water to get trapped.

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