Chronic Ear Infections in Dogs: They’re Smelly and Tough to Resolve

Mary Simpson
by Mary Simpson

For those of us with floppy-eared dogs, we know the signs of a pending ear infection all too well. The constant ear scratching, head shaking and that tell-tale funky smell is typically down to a yeasty build-up that happens when ear flaps prevent air circulation and trap moisture inside your pet’s ear canal. It’s not only messy but can be uncomfortable to the point of downright painful for your pooch.


But beyond having to deal with those smelly ears, there are other reasons you need to take quick control of the situation and one of those is that ear infections don’t resolve themselves. If left untreated, you can end up with a very expensive, chronic condition that’s very difficult to resolve and that will only get worse.

And while most are considered “otitis externa” meaning only the outer lining of your dog’s ear is inflamed, it can quickly evolve into something called “otitis media or interna”. This means the infection has invaded his middle and inner ear canal. When this happens, your pet can experience permanent deafness and even facial paralysis.

What Causes Ear Infections

Because your pet’s ear canal tends to be shaped like an “L”, fluids can accumulate and if not cleaned regularly or treated at the onset, infections can occur in one or both ears. Now, although our lead-in talked about floppy-eared pooches being particularly prone, any breed can pick up an ear infection under the right conditions and that includes exposure to ear mites.

Ear mites are tiny parasites (miniscule spiders) that can affect any ear type and feed on the naturally occurring waxy oils in your pet’s ear. Highly zoonotic, mites can spread from animal to animal and can be picked up by your pet when he runs around outdoors. The visual red flag of ear mites is a dark waxy residue inside your pet’s ear canal that can often resemble coffee grounds. Because they don’t burrow deeply into his inner ear, ear mites are relatively easy to treat through an over-the-counter topical style of ointment. However, if left untreated, the build-up of bacteria-laden excrement these minute parasites leave behind can create an ideal breeding ground for ear infections.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Ear Mites in Dogs

Other potential causes for ear infections can include:

·      Skin Allergies – this type of allergy or sensitivity can result in your pet’s skin breaking down and ultimately producing more wax in the ear canal. This excess wax encourages overproduction of bacteria and yeast and leads to ear infections if not caught early.

·      Food Allergies – these allergies cause intestinal inflammation plus the overgrowth of bacteria and yeast in the digestive tract. This can then spread to other parts of your pet’s body - including inside his ears.

  • Certain Ailments – particularly endocrine disorders such as Hypothyroidism where sores and scabbiness can cause inner ear infections and Cushing's disease that can result in thinning skin and lesions.

·      Injury – cuts and wounds can happen in a fight with another animal or simply from the edge of your pet’s claw when he’s scratching his ear. An open sore in a moist, bacteria-laden environment is prime for infection.

·      Wax or dirt build-up – when proactively cleaning your dog’s ears isn’t part of your regular grooming schedule, you may find yourself springing for pricey meds to fight a preventable infection.

·      Damp and Wet Ears – dogs who love to swim are prime for creating that moist, warm environment bacteria loves to grow in. So, be sure to dry your dog’s ears inside and out, when his swim (or bath) is over.

Diagnosis and Treatments

So, you’ve tried cleaning your dog’s ears but the smell, scratching and head-shaking return within days. It’s now time to get an official diagnosis from your vet and put a treatment plan in place. Determining whether it’s simply dirty ears or an actual infection is critical to devising an effective recovery plan. Also important will be understanding if the infection is mild or more advanced.

Once in the office, your vet will illuminate your pet’s inner ear using an otoscope that allows for a fuller examination of the ear canal and drum for signs of inflammation. Culture swabs will be taken for analysis and your vet will gently manipulate the ear area to determine if your pooch is in any pain. If the infection appears severe, your vet may even recommend gentle sedation to conduct a more in-depth examination of the inner ear.

After the diagnosis, a prescribed regimen of antibiotics should see your little guy feeling better within two weeks. In more severe instances, that road to recovery can be months rather than weeks. The key takeaway here is that it’s critically important to follow through with the full series of antibiotics prescribed. Even if it seems like the stinky-ear issue has resolved itself and you’re thinking it may make sense to save some of the meds in case this happens again (we’ve all done it), finish the entire prescription. Missed doses can cause your dog to relapse and that will not only take you right back to square one but could result in the infection becoming chronic.

Related:  Six Ways to Properly Clean a Dog’s Ears

How to Avoid Ear Infections

Most ear infections are a mixture of moisture, bacteria and those floppy ears that prevent the airflow needed to eradicate some of that moisture. So, three easy tips for keeping infections at bay include:

1.    Dry your dog’s ears out after swimming, bathing or having walked in the rain. A quick rub with a soft cloth or paper towel is all it takes to begin the drying process and prevent moisture from building up.

2.    Clean your dog’s ears regularly. If he’s floppy-eared, that may be weekly. If his ears are upright, include it in his grooming/brushing ritual. A quick inspection and light cleaning can alert you to potential problems before they become serious.

3.    Inspect both inside and outside your dog’s ears at the same time you’re grooming or brushing him. Injuries can happen and if you’re not diligent in checking, even small nicks and scratches can become infected.

Ear infections are uncomfortable for your pet, unpleasant to live with for you, and often very costly if left untreated. Having a solid, preventive maintenance plan in place is an easy, inexpensive way to keep him happy, healthy, and hearing for years to come.

Mary Simpson
Mary Simpson

Sharing space with three seriously judgy Schnoodles and a feline who prefers to be left alone. #LivingMyBestLife

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