Get to the bottom of your pet’s ear problems


URBANA, Ill. — Head-shaking, scratching at the ears, and a foul smell are common signs that an ear infection is brewing.

According to Dr. Amelia White, a veterinary dermatology resident at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, ear infections are usually caused by an underlying problem, so “it is important to treat both the ear infection and the primary cause to completely resolve the problem.”

“Owners often bring the pet in after noticing odor and discharge in the pet’s ears,” Dr. White explains. “Most of the time these bacterial and yeast infections of the ears turn out to be secondary to a primary cause, but it can take time and several tests to arrive at a diagnosis.”

External ear infections

Some of the most common primary reasons for external ear infections are food and environmental allergies, external parasites such as mites and ticks, foreign bodies, cancer, a problem of the endocrine system such as hypothyroidism, and autoimmune diseases. Owners may be tempted to clean the gunk out of their pets’ ears themselves, prior to visiting the veterinarian, but Dr. White recommends against this. Cleaning could cause further damage to the ears, if owners have not been instructed on proper ear-cleaning techniques.

“Never use cotton swabs, which can cause impaction of wax deep in the canal. They can cause trauma to the ear canal or ear drum, and can break off within the canal,” said Dr. White.

Don’t clean ears

Another reason not to clean the infected ears is to allow the veterinarian to see the disease in its most natural state. After the veterinarian determines the cause of the infection, the owner can be shown the appropriate follow-up care.

The veterinarian will begin by examining the ear canal using a hand-held otoscope to see if there are any abnormalities with the ear canal tissue or ear drum.

If debris is present, the veterinarian will obtain a sample for microscopic examination for parasites, bacteria, yeast, and inflammatory cells. Depending on the severity and frequency of the infections, a veterinarian may recommend more advanced diagnostic techniques, such as deep ear flushing, video otoscopy, radiographs, CT scan, or even MRI.

Referral to a specialist is recommended in chronic or unusual cases of ear infection. According to Dr. White, identification and treatment of the primary cause of infection is the most important aspect of therapy, because if the primary cause is not addressed, the ear infection will return rapidly or fail to respond to therapy.


Typical treatment includes ear cleaners to remove debris, topical ear medications to treat for parasites and/or infection, and occasionally systemic antimicrobials or anti-inflammatory medications. These are all easy to administer at home.

“If left untreated, an ear infection may spread to the middle or inner ear, which can lead to neurologic problems and deafness,” said Dr. White.

So how can an owner prevent ear infections in their pet? According to Dr. White, normal dogs should not develop ear infections; however, there are some predisposing factors that can lead to ear infections in normal pets.

No regular ear cleaning

Examples include frequent swimming or bathing, narrow ear canals, long floppy ears, traumatic plucking of hair from the ear canals, and overly aggressive cleaning of the ears. Unless a pet is participating in an activity that may predispose it to infection, such as daily swimming, then regular ear cleaning is not recommended in normal pets.

“I also recommend not to pluck the hair from the ear canals of dogs during grooming, as this creates inflammation within the canal that often leads to secondary infections,” explains Dr. White. “If you are concerned about the routine care plan for the ears of your pet, I always recommend discussing this with your veterinarian in order to develop the best health plan for the pet.”

Talk to the veterinarian. For more information about ear problems in pets, speak with your veterinarian.


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