If you have had an ear infection, you know how painful and irritating this condition can be. When your pet has a chronic ear infection, they suffer too, enduring inflammation and pain in a seemingly never-ending cycle of one ear infection after the other. Owners often find managing their pets’ chronic ear infections challenging, but in some cases, owners may not be aware their stoic pet is in pain. To help prevent your pet from developing this condition, read our Town & Country Animal Hospital PC team’s guide to help you recognize chronic ear infection signs, and learn about effective treatments. 

Signs your pet may have an ear infection

Your pet may be stoic, hiding their ear infection signs, but if your pet begins demonstrating uncommon behavior, they may be suffering. If you suspect your pet has an ear infection, look for these signs:

  • Scratching or pawing at the ear — Your pet may paw or scratch at their ear more frequentlyindicating pain or itchinesswhich may increase and intensify if the ear infection goes untreated.
  • Head tilt and shaking — A tilted head, often accompanied by head shaking, are an ear infection’s common early signs. The infection causes a pressure buildup in your pet’s ears, and they may tilt their head to one side or shake their head to relieve the pressure and pain.
  • Gait imbalance — Like humans, pets rely on their ears for balance. An ear infection may impact your pet’s balance, causing them to stumble or to walk with a lopsided gait. 
  • Ear odor — Pets with a moderate-to-severe ear infection may have a strong, unpleasant odor emitting from their ear as a result of a bacteria buildup inside. As the infection progresses, the odor can intensify.  
  • Ear swelling and redness — An infected ear can appear red and inflamed. While this inflammation may be visible on the ear’s outer surface, you may only be able to see the redness when looking deep inside the ear. Remember to be gentleyour pet’s swollen and red ear may be very tender to the touch. 
  • Ear discharge — A  severe ear infection’s bacterial buildup may cause a pus-like discharge from the ear. 

What causes chronic ear infections in pets?

Ear infections have many causes. Our veterinary team will diligently work to determine your pet’s underlying ear infection cause. The most common causes include:

  • Allergies — Seasonal (e.g., molds and pollens), environmental (e.g., dust), or food (e.g., protein) allergies may predispose your pet to ear infections—often a secondary allergy sign. An allergy can cause your pet’s ears to become itchy and inflamed, leading to a bacterial infection. Because an allergy is a common ear infection cause, keep a record of when and how often your pet has infections. For example, if your pet’s ear infections usually occur during the spring and fall, your pet may have seasonal allergies. If their ear infections occur throughout the year, your pet may have a food or environmental allergy. 
  • Foreign matter — Foreign material such as grass, dirt, and debris may enter your pet’s ear canal, causing inflammation and yeast and bacteria overgrowth, leading to an ear infection. 
  • Parasites — Parasites, such as ear mites in cats, are incredibly itchy. Mange mites can also cause itchy ear infections in pets.
  • Masses or polyps — Ear growths trap moisture in the ear canal, causing excess wax accumulation. While pets’ ear growths are usually benign, they can cause chronic irritation and inflammation that often lead to an infection. 
  • Moisture and humidity — High temperature and humidity levels can result in yeast and bacteria overgrowth in your pet’s ears, leading to an infection. 
  • Resistant bacteria — Certain bacteria types are not susceptible to common ear medications, and can result in chronic ear infections. Culture and sensitivity testing are necessary to identify these antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains, which often require special ear cleaners and medication to resolve the infection.
  • Breed — While any pet can develop an ear infection, some breeds are more predisposed to this condition than other breeds. Dogs with floppy ears or those who have a lot of hair in their ears are more susceptible to ear infections than pets who have ears that stand straight up. Ear infections are more common in the following breeds:
    • Labrador retrievers
    • Golden retrievers
    • Poodles
    • Cocker spaniels
    • Beagles 
    • Basset hounds

How are chronic ear infections in pets diagnosed?

If you suspect your pet is suffering from an ear infection, schedule an appointment for a thorough veterinary examination. Your veterinarian will look closely inside your pet’s ears for infection signs. To identify the offending organism and prescribe the most effective antibiotic treatment, your veterinarian may collect an ear debris sample for culture and sensitivity testing. In some cases, your veterinarian will order blood work and allergy testing to determine the underlying cause of your pet’s ear infection. 

How are chronic ear infections in pets treated?

After identifying the ear infection’s cause, your veterinarian will determine the appropriate treatment for your pet, which may include:

  • Allergy treatment, including corticosteroids, hydrolyzed diet, Apoquel, Cytopoint, or immunotherapy
  • Ear flushing to expel foreign material
  • Antiparasitic medications for mites
  • Surgery to remove a polyp or mass
  • Antimicrobial and/or antifungal medications

Once your pet’s infection has been treated, you can help maintain a healthy ear environment through regular cleaning and checkups. 

Is your pet scratching their ears and shaking their head more often than normal? Do their ears appear red and inflamed, or smell unpleasant? If so, schedule an appointment with our Town & Country Animal Hospital PC team, to find the cause of your pet’s ear issues, and ease their discomfort.