Ear infections and your pet

Written by Dr. Colleen Fisher  | Published on: 7/4/2021


What do your dog’s ears smell like? Ears that smell like sour grapes or bread dough can be a symptom that your pet has an ear infection. Other signs include redness around and inside the ear, head shaking, scratching, or even tilting the head to one side and walking off-balance. Hot, humid weather can make this uncomfortable condition even worse.

What causes ear infections?

  • Environmental allergies, known as atopy, to pollens, other plant materials, indoor and outdoor molds, dust mites, tobacco smoke, and scented products
  • Food sensitivities to specific ingredients in your dog’s diet
  • Foreign bodies such as grass awns
  • Moisture build-up after swimming or grooming
  • Hormonal conditions such as thyroid disease
  • Immune-mediated disease
  • Masses growing inside the ear canal
  • External parasites such as ear mites (note: ear mites are common in young kittens, adult dogs are rarely diagnosed)
  • Bacterial and yeast infections generally develop secondary to one of the above reasons and are uncommonly the primary cause of ear problems

How does my veterinarian diagnose an ear infection?

  1. The physical exam.  Allergic ear and skin disease causes both inflammation and infection, so the doctor will want to be thorough in their examination. They will check not just the ears but also eyes, nose, paws, and belly to make sure only the ears are affected. Using an instrument called an otoscope, they can look down the external ear canal to check the ear drum, look for foreign bodies and growths, and collect samples of wax and debris for analysis.
  2. Checking under the microscope. Your vet tech will prepare a sample of the discharge collected by the doctor and look for bacteria, yeast, and parasites like ear mites under magnification. The results of this test help the vet decide what medications to use.
  3. Bacterial culture and sensitivity. In the case of severe or chronic infections, the doctor may recommend sending a sample away for full culture to determine the exact species of bacteria present and find out if the organisms are sensitive to the treatment being used.
  4. Blood testing. Additional diagnostic testing may be indicated if your dog shows skin lesions, a head tilt, or the doctor has observed growths within the ear canals.
  5. Imaging. Skull x-rays, CT scans, or MRIs may be recommended in complicated cases.

Do ear infections affect hearing?

Most dogs will retain their hearing after an acute ear infection. Severe and chronic ear infections may cause damage to the ear drums and changes within the middle and inner ears, which result in loss of hearing over time. If the ear drum is abnormal, routine cleaning and treatment may affect hearing and cause deafness.

Pet insurance can help with the cost of vet visits

If your dog has smelly, itchy ears, your dog is in pain and it’s time for a trip to the vet clinic. Always check with your veterinarian before putting anything in your dog’s ears - including drops for people found at the pharmacy. Because we are often treating inflammation at the same time as infection, your doctor may prescribe an ear drop with multiple targeted ingredients. Some problems will require oral medications or even special diet trials.  Learn what’s covered by Petsecure and get a free quote today.