A small, wiry haired dog

Ear infections can cause discomfort and pain in your pet if not identified and treated early. To protect your pet, read on to find the symptoms of an ear infection, what can cause an infection, and how an ear infection can be treated. Dr. Jason Nicholas, The Preventative Vet, offers advice for keeping your cat and dog healthy and happy.

Ear infections in dogs and cats - Symptoms, causes, and treatment

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
  • Swelling
  • Loss of balance
  • Hearing loss
  • Hair loss around the ear
  • Inflammation

Causes

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:

  • The growth of bacteria or yeast, which can be more common in pets who live in humid climates or frequently swim or bathe
  • Parasites, such as fleas, lice, mites and ticks, which can cause irritation and lead to inflammation and infection
  • Allergies, including environmental allergies (such as mold or dust mites), food allergies or flea 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
  • Immune system imbalances, which are particularly common in recently vaccinated puppies and kittens
  • An abundance of ear wax, which is more common in older pets

Diagnosis

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 microscopic sample from the affected ear to identify whether any bacteria or fungi 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 normally treated with professional cleaning and a course of oral antibiotics or 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, your veterinarian may offer advice around making changes to your pet’s environment to minimize their exposure to allergens. 

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 prescription from over the counter, it’s important to recognize the dangers of self-prescribing treatment for your pet’s condition. Inappropriate treatment may 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 clean them frequently based on their lifestyle and medical history, particularly if they are prone to ear problems. Here’s Dr. Jason Nicholas’ step-by-step guide to cleaning your pet’s ears:

  1. Choose a location where you don’t mind getting messy, preferably somewhere outside.
  2. For the comfort of your pet, ensure the cleaner is at room temperature or briefly soak it in warm water before use.
  3. 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.
  4. Step aside as your pet shakes their head to get the bulk of the cleaner out of their ear.
  5. Wrap a cotton ball or tissue around your finger and wipe around the ear canal to remove any excess dirt and liquid.
  6. Wait around 15 minutes for the remaining cleaner to dry before administering any other medication prescribed by your veterinarian.

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.

If your dog has excessive hair growth inside their ear canal, it’s a good idea to pay a visit to your groomer or veterinarian for advice on how to remove this safely. Ensuring your pet’s ears are clean and dry after swimming, bathing or grooming will also help prevent ear infections.