How can I tell if my dog has an ear infection?

Signs of ear infections include:

  • Odor
  • Debris in the canal
  • Ear itching/scratching or head shaking
  • Red and thickened skin on ears
  • Infected ears also tend to be warm and painful to the touch

What causes ear infections?

Ear infections can be caused by things like foxtails or ear mites, but the most common cause that we see in general practice is underlying allergies.

There are predisposing factors, such as hair in the ear, floppy ears, or swimming, which can increase the risk of developing infections.

There are also perpetuating factors, such as a swollen and stenotic, or narrow, ear canal or thickening of the skin inside the ear. These can alter the normal cleaning function of the ear and make it harder to treat infections.


Normal Ear
Hill’s Atlas of Veterinary Clinical Anatomy

What happens during an ear exam?

The first step in an ear exam is looking at the ear flap (or pinna) for signs of redness or inflammation.

We obtain a small sample of the debris present in the ear to perform a cytology, where we look under the microscope to determine if there are things like bacteria, yeast, inflammatory cells or ear mites present so the appropriate treatment can be determined.

We examine the horizontal canal by placing an ear cone inside the ear and visualize the tympanic membrane, or ear drum.


Normal Ear (Video Otoscopy)


Normal Ear
Entrance to Vertical Canal


Normal Ear
Horizontal Canal Free of Debris
Note normal tympanic membrane at end of canal


Abnormal Ear (Video Otoscopy)
If very inflamed, we may not be able to see the ear drum.


Abnormal Ear
Swelling and redness at entrance of vertical canal


Abnormal Ear
Waxy debris and mild redness in horizontal canal
Note swelling and narrowing of canal. Unable to visualize tympanic membrane.


Video Otoscopy

We are very excited to have the capability of using video otoscopy in our practice. The use of video otoscopy provides the best view and examination of the ear canal. It has a strong light without increased heat and it has a magnified view. This allows us to best evaluate the health of the ear and for any abnormalities that require attention. We can check for masses or foreign material and evaluate the health of the ear canal, and more importantly the tympanic membrane. Video otoscopy also works under water so that we can flush the debris as we are viewing the canal. This means video otoscopy is involved in both diagnosing and treatment.

How do we treat ear infections?

Appropriate antimicrobial medication is used to treat the infection as well as steroids to help with the inflammation. These medications will be topical and applied into the ear; we sometimes also prescribe oral medication when needed.

Cleaning and flushing the ear free of debris is a very important step. This is important to do in the hospital and also at home. Medication cannot treat the infection if it is sitting on top of a ball of waxy debris. Debris in the ear is also a nidus for the infection.

As previously mentioned, ear cleaning is also an important thing to do at home if indicated. When a pet has an ear infection, the pet’s own normal self cleaning mechanism of the ears may be compromised and not functioning properly so we have to clean the ears for our pets until the infection is under control.

Some pets require general anesthesia for deep ear flushing using video otoscopy. This may be necessary for removal of foreign material such as a foxtail, if there is significant debris in the canal that doesn’t respond to home flushing such as plugs in the ears, or if there is a suspicion that there is disease of the middle ear.

How do we know when an infection is cleared?

Recheck exams with your veterinarian is important to ensure the infection is cleared the the pet’s self cleaning mechanism if functioning. Continued flushing at home may be necessary for maintenance as well as work up of allergies to control recurrence.