ear infections in pets

ear infections in pets
Posted by Dr. Nina Mantione on Oct 29 2010

Some days it seems like all I do is clean and medicate ears. It should come as no surprise then that ear infections are one of the most common ailments to lead pet parents to bring their pets in for a sick visit.

Dogs and cats typically get what we call otitis externa, which is an inflammation of the ear canal, rather than a middle ear infection, which kids tend to get. Our pets can certainly get middle ear infections too, but they usually result from a progression of an ear canal infection into the deeper structures of the ear.


If you have ever had a pet with an ear infection, you are familiar with the symptoms: head shaking, scratching, reddish-brown build up of ear wax (that pet owners often mistake for dried blood), and (ugh) the odor. The odor can range from a yeasty, musty smell to a nausea-inducing foul aroma that can make entering the exam room a challenge.

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What causes ear infections?

Ear infections always have an underlying cause, the most common being allergies. Both food allergies and inhaled allergies (atopy) can cause inflammation of the delicate skin in the ear canals and lead to a secondary infection with either yeast or bacteria. Other underlying causes are often ear mites, moisture in the ears from swimming or baths and, in cats, pharyngeal polyps.

Ear infection treatments

Treating ear infections is pretty straightforward in the early stages, but as an animal begins to have recurrent infections (and this is a VERY common scenario) treatment can become more and more difficult. Over time, chronic inflammation causes permanent thickening of the skin in the ear canal, which can lead to a narrowing of the canal itself. This narrowing inhibits airflow and normal drainage from the ear and leads to MORE inflammation – a vicious cycle that grows progressively harder to break. Chronic treatment contributes to antibiotic resistance and deleterious changes in the normal bacterial flora, again making the likelihood of repeat infection almost a given.

Treatment consists of proper cleaning with appropriate products (please – I’m begging you – not rubbing alcohol or peroxide) and consistent application of a topical ointment. Following directions to the letter (even though our pets never do!) is what helps to ensure that an infection is fully eradicated.

Often, if the ear canal is significantly swollen, oral steroids are used to diminish the inflammation (don’t worry, they won’t turn Fido into Hulk).

If it continues to be a chronic problem or these treatments fail, we may begin to venture into more expensive medications, bacterial cultures, deep ear flushes, food trials and referrals for allergy testing. Luckily, pet insurance from Petplan covers this type of chronic condition (as long as it isn't pre-existing), which can really help pet parents afford to always choose the best treatment for their pet.

In extreme cases, or “end-stage ear disease,” surgical treatment (where the ear canal is opened up or removed entirely) becomes necessary.

Just like in humans, ear disease is an itchy, painful condition for your pet, so if you suspect an infection be sure to see your veterinarian ASAP!

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