Ear infections in dogs and cats - Symptoms, causes, and treatment
Last updated June 2021
While ear infections in cats and dogs are fairly common, they can cause a lot of pain and discomfort if not identified and treated early. Dr. Jason Nicholas, The Preventative Vet, explains some of the most common causes of ear infections, and offers advice around treatment and prevention, as well as a step-by-step guide to safely cleaning your pet’s ears.
Symptoms of an ear infection
Regular examinations will help you easily recognize any changes in your pet's ear and spot any signs of abnormality. The symptoms of an ear infection include:
- Head shaking
- Scratching ears
- Blood on the outside of the ear
- Dragging head on carpet or furniture
- Abnormal discharge or odor from the ear
- Tilting head
- Abnormal movement of eyes
- Loss of balance
- Hearing loss
- Hair loss around the ear
There are many causes of ear infections in pets, and some breeds are more prone to developing ear infections than others. Here are some of the most widespread causes of ear infections:
- Parasites, such as mites and ticks, which can cause irritation and lead to inflammation and infection
- Allergies (the most common cause of ear infections), including environmental allergies (such as mold or dust mites) and food allergies
- Excessive hair growth inside the ear, which can restrict the air flow and trap moisture
- Foreign bodies, such as seeds or plant material, which can become lodged in the ear canal
- Growths, tumors or abscesses
It’s important to visit your veterinarian if you believe your pet may have an ear infection so they can help determine the cause and recommend the best course of treatment.
To diagnose the cause of the infection, your veterinarian may take a swab from the affected ear to identify whether any bacteria and/or yeast are present. They will also check the ear for wounds, swellings or parasites to help determine the underlying cause.
How to treat your pet's ear infection
Ear infections are often treated with ear cleaning and a course of topical drugs. It’s important to visit your veterinarian around two weeks after your pet has completed their treatment to ensure the infection has fully cleared up.
If the ear infection is the result of an allergy, lifelong treatment will be necessary to help limit reoccurrence and your veterinarian can advise you on the best treatment options for your pet.
The dangers of self-treating an ear infection
While you may be tempted to use medication left over from a past ear infection or obtain a medication from over the counter, it’s important to recognize the dangers of self-prescribing treatment for your pet’s condition. Inappropriate treatment may be ineffective, cause the infection to worsen, and could even lead to deafness.
How to clean your pet's ears
It’s important to pay attention to the health of your pet’s ears, and sometimes regular ear cleaning can be an important part of management/prevention of ear infections. Remember, excessive washing may cause damage to the ear canal, so it’s important to discuss with your veterinarian the best course of action for your pet when it comes to adopting a regular ear cleaning regime. Here’s Dr. Jason Nicholas’ step-by-step guide to cleaning your pet’s ears:
- Choose a location where you don’t mind getting messy, preferably somewhere outside.
- For the comfort of your pet, ensure the cleaner is at room temperature or briefly soak it in warm water before use.
- Hold up the ear flap and squirt a good amount of cleaner into the ear. Massage vigorously at the base of the ear where you can feel the bulb of cartilage. This helps drive the cleaner deeper into the ear and breaks up any debris or wax.
- Step aside as your pet shakes their head to get the bulk of the cleaner out of their ear.
- Wrap a cotton ball or tissue around your finger and wipe around the ear canal to remove any excess dirt and liquid.
- Wait around 15 minutes for the remaining cleaner to dry before administering any other medication prescribed by your veterinarian.
If your dog has excessive hair growth inside their ear canal, it’s a good idea to discuss with your veterinarian whether the hair needs to be removed, and if so, can advise how to remove the hair safely. Ensuring your pet’s ears are clean and dry after swimming, bathing or grooming will also help prevent ear infections.