The bond with your pet is special, and over time pet owners and their four-legged companions sometimes resemble each other with their expressions. Your pet’s internal physiology, including their heart and lungs, functions similarly to human physiology—in fact, many pet owners say that their pets make their hearts complete. However, one pet aspect that is vastly different from their owners is their ears. Unlike humans, pets have a long ear canal with a unique L-shape that increases their chances of developing infections from trapped debris or bacteria. Pet owners who have suffered ear infections are familiar with the discomfort, and the resulting difficulty hearing, and understand how painful ear infections can be for their pets. Our Groves Veterinary Clinic team breaks down the “ear-ie” truth about ear infections, and how to recognize and treat them in your pet. 

Risk factors and causes of pet ear infections

The unique structure of your pet’s ear can lead to inflammation of their external, or horizontal, ear canal (i.e., otitis externa), which is one of the most common disorders affecting dogs’ ears. Cats are also at risk of otitis externa. Any breed, age, or sex can develop an ear infection; however, younger animals are more commonly affected, because they have an underdeveloped immune system. Small amounts of microorganisms, such as bacteria and yeast, normally inhabit your pet’s ears, but disruption in the ear environment, such as swimming, can cause an increase in these microorganisms, which are then replaced by disease-causing organisms. Pets who live in humid climates, like Port Charlotte, have an increased risk of developing ear infections because the moist air can disrupt the natural ear flora. Pets with narrow ear canals, floppy ears, or excessive hair in their ears also are at an increased risk of developing painful ear infections. Other causes include:

  • Ear mites
  • Bacterial infection
  • Fungal infection
  • Viral disease
  • Allergies 
  • Foreign bodies, such as grass
  • Ear polyps
  • Trauma
  • Cancer
  • Excessive cleaning
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Endocrine disease, such as hypothyroidism
  • Medication reaction

Ear infection signs in pets

It may not be immediately obvious that your pet’s ear is infected during the early disease stages. Subtle signs, such as occasional scratching or rubbing their ears, may be a clue that your pet’s ears are inflamed. Bring your pet for a veterinary examination if your notice any of the following signs:

  • Dark black, brown, or white discharge
  • Redness or swelling in or around the ear
  • Head shaking
  • Pawing at the ears
  • Foul odor
  • Scaly skin
  • Scratching at the ear
  • Ulceration
  • Head tilt
  • Whining, or hissing, when their ear is touched
  • Circling

 Ear infection diagnosis and treatment in pets

Pets who develop otitis externa are at risk for more serious middle or inner ear infections, which can lead to hearing loss or neurologic problems. An ear infection diagnosis is based on your pet’s history, clinical signs, and an ear examination. Our veterinarian will look inside your pet’s ear and collect a sample of the debris or exudate, if possible. Advanced ear infections are painful, and your pet may need to be anesthetized to allow our veterinarian to properly examine their ear. In some cases, they may prescribe an anti-inflammatory, such as a steroid, for your pet, so an exam can be performed after the medication has decreased ear swelling and pain. Our veterinarian may also recommend a cytology exam  to examine ear debris under a microscope, to determine the underlying cause of your pet’s ear infection. Recommended diagnostics are based on the severity of infection and signs, and may include: 

  • Allergy testing
  • Ear sample bacterial culture
  • Blood work to rule out underlying endocrine or immune diseases
  • Advanced imaging, such as X-ray or computed tomography (CT), to visualize the ear canal

Most ear infections can be treated with an antibiotic ointment that is placed inside your pet’s ear. Ear cleaning solutions and pain medication may also be prescribed. Pets who have ear mites will require anti-parasite treatment. Ear infections can take time to resolve, and some pets may require treatment for several weeks, or months. 

Preventing ear infections in pets

Early recognition of signs and treatment are vital to prevent more serious ear infections that may require surgery. Prevention tips include:

  • Regularly inspecting your pet’s ears for changes in color, smell, or debris
  • Keeping your pet’s ears dry and well-ventilated
  • Never placing anything in your pet’s ears, including over-the-counter cleaners or remedies, unless advised by our veterinarian
  • Drying your pet’s ears after bathing or swimming

Call our Groves Veterinary Clinic office if you have questions about your pet’s ear health, or schedule an appointment if they are showing ear infections signs. We are here to help you and your pet, especially when they are suffering with a painful ear infection.