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Conquering Ear Infections in Dogs

by Shawn Finch, DVM

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Otitis externa – inflammation of the outer ear canal, the most common form of ear disease in dogs, is usually infectious and almost always secondary to an underlying problem.

ot/o – ear

-itis – inflammation

-externa – outer

Otitis externa is very common in dogs.  Some breeds are more prone to ear infections than others.  It is commonly suspected, though not proven, that floppy ears may be generally more predisposed to becoming infected than upright ears, though this may also be linked to breed disposition.  For example, three of the more common breeds to suffer from ear infections are Cocker Spaniels, Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers, all of whom also have floppy ears.

Otitis externa in dogs can be strictly inflammatory with no infectious component, secondary to a foreign body such as a splinter or weed seed, secondary to ear mites (uncommon in dogs) or caused by a bacterial or yeast overgrowth.

Clinical signs of possible otitis externa:

  • pain
  • itchiness
  • redness of the underside of the ear flap and ear canal
  • dark or yellow debris in the ear canal
  • a foul smell to the ear
  • lethargy
  • decreased appetite
  • head shaking
  • face rubbing or pawing


Have your veterinarian check your dog if you notice any of these signs.  The key to treating a first ear infection is to attack it hard and for the appropriate length of time.  Clean the ears or have them cleaned very well.  Follow your vet’s instructions for cleaning and medicating at home.  In many cases – though it is the minority of cases – dogs will have a single ear infection, recover completely and never suffer a second ear infection.

The key to treating a second or chronic ear infection is to determine the underlying cause, while also addressing the ear infection directly.  The most common cause of recurrent or chronic ear infections is allergies.

Types of allergies that may predispose to otitis:

  • flea allergy
  • contact/environmental allergies
  • food allergies
Other Risk Factors for developing otitis:
  • breed predisposition
  • moisture in the ear canal
  • excess hair in the ear canal
  • excess debris in the ear canals
  • hypothyroidism
  • immune conditions
Otitis and Joy the Puppy


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Our own Joy the Puppy has an allergy to chicken.  She is a three year old spayed female Lab-Something.  We diagnosed her condition one year ago with a full skin work-up to rule out other causes of her itchiness followed by a six week novel protein diet in which her signs – hair loss, itchiness and allergic otitis – resolved completely. When we reintroduced proteins, one at a time for a week at a time, she “flared,” became very itchy, with the reintroduction of chicken.

She is on a novel protein diet, which has successfully controlled her allergy signs.  If she is exposed to chicken (most often from stealing Max the Cat’s food!), the first sign that manifests is allergic otitis.  Her ears turn bright red and become very itchy.  Chronic ear issues can be so frustrating – I hope just knowing that chronic ear issues can often be successfully managed as is the case with Joy the Puppy is encouraging.

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May your dog never suffer a single ear infection, and if he does, may it be the only one, and if it is not, may the underlying cause be successfully found and managed.