Ear Infections and Your Dog

Your dog's ear infections can be a real pain, for both you and your dog.  Let's talk about why they occur and how best to treat them.  And away we go...


  • They are VERY sensitive, as anyone who has had an ear infection can attest.
  • The shape of the ear canals allows problems to get in, but prevents their getting out.  More on that below.
  • For many dogs, irritated ears are one of the first signs of systemic allergies, infections, or thyroid problems.

LET'S TALK ABOUT THE SHAPE OF THE EAR CANAL. Whoever designed dog ears had an off day.  Here's the problem:  The canal is the shape of an "L", with the ear opening at the top of the L and the eardrum at the end of the bottom leg.  This means that gunk and hair (and foxtails, where I practice) can easily fall into the TOP of the ear (ie, the "vertical canal"), then come to rest down in the "horizontal canal", where it would take a minor miracle for them to get out.  That's the BIGGEST problem for ears.

The OTHER big problem for ears is.... ALLERGIES.  If you have inflammation in ONE dog ear, it's just bad luck.  IF BOTH EARS ARE INFLAMED, OVER 80% OF THE TIME IT IS DUE TO ALLERGIES... usually to something your pet has eaten.  More specifically, a protein (think meat) or preservative in the diet.

The last thing you should understand is that the ear canal itself is narrow -- about the diameter of a pencil in the average 40 lb dog -- and lined with glands.  This means that MOISTURE tends to accumulate in the horizontal ear canal... and bacteria and fungi love nothing more than dark, moist homes.
Solve these 3 issues, and you'll solve ear issues in 99% of the dogs in the world.



  • Scratching at an ear
  • Tilting the head so that the painful ear is lower than the normal ear
  • Smelly ear discharge
  • Redness and inflammation around the ear opening




  • The hardest one first: We need to pull the hair from in and around the opening to the vertical ear canal. This hurts, about like us pulling our nose hair, but is necessary to prevent hair (and the stickers that stick to that hair) from falling down into the ear canal.  Can we use an electronic hair trimmer, like those designed for humans?  Only if you use a piece of gauze or cotton to block the ear canal, otherwise the hair you trim will end up down there and cause the very problem we are trying to prevent.
  • Routine ear flushes are the best way to head off problems.  You can spend $15-25 at your vet's, or for about 5 bucks you can make up your own.  A 50/50 mix of white vinegar and 70% rubbing alcohol will work great for almost all dogs.  The vinegar kills bacteria and fungi, and the alcohol dries the ear membranes out.  Fill one of your dog's ears up with this mix, rub the base of the ear, and let them shake.  Then do the other side.   Here are a few hot tips:

               a) do this outside :)
               b) warm the ear solution to body temp -- not too hot, not too cold.  Your dog will love you for this.
               c) if your dog has an open sore down in the ear, this will STING so talk to your vet about an alternative like saline solution.

  • If you live in the west, understand that dried weed stickers (the foxtails that I mentioned earlier) are a seasonal risk. The best way to avoid them is to avoid the areas they are found.  

1) If it's both ears, be VERY cognizant that this is usually not so much an ear problem as a dietary allergy, usually to a meat within your diet or treats.  Until you solve the underlying allergies, you are screwed... so think hard about this.
2) You can flush the irritated ear with saline solution, like I use for my contacts.
3) If you have ear ointment that has worked before, you can use that.

Most times you'll need to take your dog to the vet to solve this. Why?  Because your vet is able to a) really give your dog's ears a deep cleaning and b) prescribe the most effective medication to solve your dog's ear infection.

1) Recognize that it's not much easier for a vet to deal with a very painful ear than it is for you. Many pets need to be sedated to allow examination and treatment of a painful ear.
2) If you live in an area with stickers, ALWAYS mention this to your vet.
3) If it's a mild or first- time problem, ask them for a combination ointment instead of spending money on testing. These days, most ear meds contain a drug to kill bacteria, another drug to kill fungi, and a third drug to reduce inflammation.  This eliminates having to do a lot of testing for most dogs.  Skip straight to the treatment. 
4) If it's a bad or recurrent ear infection...

  • Your pet should be sedated to solve it.
  • Your vet may recommend a culture to determine what bugs are living in your dog's ears, and what antibiotic is best to treat them.
  • Your vet may also want to do a blood test to check your dog's thyroid function, since one symptom of hypothyroidism is ear infections.
  • Along with an ear ointment, many vets will prescribe oral antibiotics and pain relievers.

A couple other things:
Try like heck to avoid any antibiotic ointment containing GENTAMYCIN.  Although effective for certain bacteria, it can every once in a while create permanent hearing loss.  There are better and safer drugs these days.

Because treating a dog's painful ears is no fun for anyone, there are now REPOSITORY meds that can be put into your pet's irritated ear.  These "Otic packs" eliminate the need for daily treatment, and will gradually be absorbed over a 10-14 day period.  Because they completely fill the ear canal, they may reduce your dog's hearing until they absorb.

It's your pet's life.  It's pretty important.