As one of the top reasons dogs have veterinary visits, ear infections can cause significant pain and discomfort. Cats less commonly suffer ear infections. Your pet may experience one or two ear infections during their lifetime, but many pets experience chronic (i.e., recurring) ear infections, which can be difficult to treat effectively, because each infection causes ear canal damage that predisposes your pet to future problems. To break the recurring infection cycle, your veterinarian must identify and eliminate the ear infection’s underlying cause. WesVet Animal Hospital veterinarians are experienced in ear infection management, and can identify the cause of your pet’s ongoing ear problems. 

How ear infections develop in pets

Pets’ ear canals are L-shaped, with a vertical portion and a horizontal portion. Ceruminous glands line the canal and produce a light, protective wax layer, and bacteria and fungi live there harmoniously as they do on normal skin. Infection develops when the ear canal becomes inflamed, leading to increased wax production and overgrowth of yeast, bacteria, or both. Ear infection signs include:

  • Pain, discomfort, and itching
  • Ear scratching or rubbing
  • Frequent head shaking or head tilt
  • Foul ear odor
  • Excess dark, tan, or yellow ear discharge
  • Ear canal redness and swelling

Ear infection causes in pets

Inflammation is the primary ear infection cause in pets. Inflammation occurs for many reasons, including:

  • Food and environmental allergies
  • Ear mites
  • Skin disorders that cause increased wax production or slow cell turnover
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Foreign bodies (e.g., grass awn, foxtail)
  • Ear canal polyps or tumors 

Some pets have underlying factors that allow inflammation and infection to develop more easily. These include:

  • Long, pendulous ear flaps—common in basset hounds and cocker spaniels
  • Excessive hair inside the ear canal
  • Small, narrow ear canals—common in shar-peis and pugs
  • Moisture accumulation because of frequent swimming
  • Immune system suppression because of disease or medications

Ear infection treatment in pets

If your pet has an acute ear infection, our veterinarian will likely prescribe topical ear drop medications for a few weeks. Our veterinarian will examine your pet’s ears and run a cytology test, in which they examine ear debris under a microscope to identify the parasites and determine the most effective medication. Our WesVet Animal Hospital veterinary team will then clean your pet’s ears, and teach you how to clean them at home. You may need to clean your pet’s ears frequently during treatment to allow better medication coverage. If our veterinary team recommends your pet’s ear hair removal, your veterinarian or groomer should perform the procedure.

If your pet’s eardrum is broken or our veterinarian suspects that the middle ear beyond the eardrum is affected, oral antibiotic treatment is usually required. If your pet’s ear infection is severe or they are experiencing extreme pain, they may need sedation or anesthesia before we perform a deep ear flush.

When ear infections in pets become chronic

Many pets experience occasional ear infections throughout their lifetime, but some pets struggle with infections that are difficult to treat, do not completely resolve, or keep recurring. These pets usually have a combination of the underlying factors discussed earlier, with allergies contributing to the overwhelming majority. 

Chronic infections can also perpetuate themselves, because inflammation causes thickened, narrowed ear canals that trap debris and make cleaning difficult to impossible. Ongoing antibacterial medications can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, further complicating matters. Severe, long-lasting outer ear canal infections can damage the eardrum, middle ear, and—rarely—the inner ear, causing neurological and balance issues. Chronic ear infections can also lead to deafness from canal obstruction or structural damage. 

Treating chronic ear infections in pets

To resolve your pet’s chronic ear infections, the veterinarian must identify and address all the infection’s underlying causes. Diagnostics to determine the infection’s extent and underlying causes may include:

  • Allergy testing and medication or food trials
  • Cytology and bacterial cultures
  • Head imaging with X-rays, CT, or MRI
  • Blood work

Once our veterinarian identifies your pet’s ear infection causes, treatment may include:

  • Referral to a veterinary dermatologist for specialized treatment
  • Deep ear flushing 
  • Intentional eardrum rupture to allow middle ear drainage (i.e., myringotomy)
  • Topical or oral medications, including allergy medications, antibiotics, antifungals, and steroids
  • Allergy immunotherapy (i.e., allergy shots)
  • Surgery to remove tumors or polyps
  • In end-stage ears, surgery to remove part or all of the ear canal

Veterinarians cannot change some of your pet’s underlying ear infection factors such as genetically small ear canals, narrow canals from chronic inflammation, or excess skin cell or wax production. If your pet has one of these underlying factors, they may recommend ongoing preventive treatment with low-dose anti-inflammatories or specially compounded medications for your pet.  

Chronic ear infection treatment can be complex, and if you want your pet’s treatment to be successful, you must commit to the process. Keep in mind that some pets do not respond to medical therapies, and require surgery to control the infection. In some cases, complete ear canal removal may be recommended to ensure your pet’s comfort.

Preventing ear infection recurrence in pets

Preventive measures for your pet’s ear infection depend on whether their ear infections occur occasionally or keep recurring. For most pets with the occasional ear infection, prevention includes:

  • Periodic at-home ear cleaning with a veterinarian-approved cleansing solution
  • Keeping ears dry during swimming with cotton balls and ear wraps
  • Trimming or plucking excess ear hair
  • Treating allergies

For chronic ear infections, prevention is more intensive, ongoing, and customized to each pet’s needs. Some pets require daily topical medications, special medicated cleansers, and medications to control systemic conditions. Ensure you understand and follow your veterinarian’s instructions for preventing your pet’s ear infections.

Pets’ ear infections can be mild and occasional, or may become chronic, negatively affecting their quality of life. Contact our WesVet Animal Hospital team to schedule your pet’s ear exam if they show ear infection signs. We can help prevent your pet’s acute ear infection from becoming chronic by implementing an effective treatment plan.