Ear infections in dogs: symptoms, causes and treatment

Many dogs will get an ear infection at some point – so could you spot the signs and know what to do next? Here’s how to tackle the problem and help prevent it coming back.

Dog ear infections are very common – but they can be very painful for our pets and, if left untreated, can cause permanent damage to their hearing. They can be caused by a wide range of issues, but knowing the warning signs of an infection can help you keep your dog’s ears as healthy as possible.

There are three sections to a dog’s ear: external, middle and inner. Around 95% of all ear infections affect the external ear, where the ear flap and canal meet. Ear infections in dogs usually start with inflammation of the ear canal, which your vet might refer to as ‘otitis’, and cause pain and irritation.

Dog ear infection symptoms

The following signs can all be an indication that your dog has picked up a pesky ear infection:

Ear flapping

If your dog has long-hanging ears, you may see them shaking their head and flapping their ears more often. This can be a way to try and relieve the irritation of their sore ears.


Dogs with upright ears are more likely to rub their ears against their paws or legs to try and ease some of the irritation. They may also rub their ears on you, or your furniture.

Head tipping

If only one ear is affected, from a grass seed or other irritant, you may see your dog tipping their head to one side, often with the affected ear on the lower side of their head.


A bit of light brown earwax is normal in dogs, but an oozy, dark-coloured or smelly discharge can be a symptom of ear infection.


Otitis can cause redness on your dog’s ear flaps, as well as in the ear canal. This will obviously be easier to spot in less hairy areas.


Once an ear infection is established, your dog’s ear is likely to be uncomfortable. They may try to avoid you touching their ears and become a little head-shy. In extreme cases, your dog may show signs of aggression if you try to examine their ears.


Another sign of pain in dogs, this may particularly occur when you try to touch or look inside their ears.

What causes ear infections in dogs?

Infection of the ear can be caused by a short-term issue that’s easily resolved, or a persistent infection that needs ongoing treatment. These are the main causes of dog ear infections:

Foreign bodies

A sudden-onset ear irritation can often be due to something getting stuck in a dog’s ear canal – grass seeds are a regular culprit. This problem is more common in floppy-eared breeds such as Cocker Spaniels and Labradoodles. Breeds with upright ears, like German Shepherds and Huskies, are more likely to avoid the problem. Grass seeds stand a higher chance of getting caught under floppy ears, where they can work their way down the ear canal, causing considerable irritation.

Bacteria and yeast build-up

Some breeds, such as Labradors, are more prone to a build-up of wax inside their ear canals. This can then lead to an increase in bacteria, which, if left untreated, can cause an infection. Dog ear yeast infections are also extremely common, often due to the overgrowth of a yeast called Malassezia in the ear canal. It is this yeast that gives dogs the ‘wet dog’ smell. This type of infection may be accompanied by a greasy, smelly discharge.


Itchy skin, including on the ears, can be a sign of allergies. If your dog’s ear infection symptoms are accompanied by other signs of skin irritation, such as excessive licking of paws, or dragging their bottom along the floor, then an allergy could well be responsible. Allergies, and the scratching they cause, can lead to persistent and recurring ear infections that are hard to clear up completely. You’ll need to identify the root cause of the allergy in order to come up with a plan for managing the problem – ask your vet for advice.


Sometimes hormone imbalances can be the cause of dog skin infections that also include infection of the ears. Excessive levels of natural steroid hormones, or a lack of thyroid hormone, can both cause infections. Similarly, skin issues connected to diabetes can include ear infections. Any hormonal changes like these can increase the risk of skin infections in your dog – in the same way puberty is associated with acne in teenagers!

Treatments for dog ear infections

The type of treatment your vet recommends will depend on the underlying cause of your dog’s ear infection. Often, they’ll need to run some tests, such as ear swabs or blood samples, in order to determine whether the infection is bacterial (and, if so, which type of bacteria) or yeast. Antibiotics do little for yeast infections and therefore it is important to know which type of infection is occurring.

Ear drops are often recommended for less aggressive infections, while antifungals will be prescribed for dog ear yeast infections. Oral antibiotics are better suited for more established bacterial infections. Some bacterial infections are straightforward to treat, while others may be caused by antibiotic-resistant strains, making their treatment more complex.

And if your dog regularly suffers from a build-up of wax, then cleaning their ears regularly can help reduce irritation and infections.

With your vet’s help, it should hopefully be possible to find the cause of ear infections, rule out any underlying conditions, choose the best possible treatment and get your dog back to their healthy, happy self.

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