Discharge From a Dog's Ear: Causes and Treatments

Ear discharge in dogs isn't really a specific condition; it's actually a symptom of an underlying issue, like mites or an ear infection.

Because problems like these can be extremely painful, there's no reason to let your dog suffer needlessly. Know the signs and symptoms of dog ear problems, how to prevent them, and what you can do when they happen.

Dog Ear Discharge: Common Causes and Treatments

Along with ear discharge, if your dog's ears seem painful when they're touched, if your dog is tilting its head to one side, stumbling or circling to one side, pawing or scratching its ears, shaking its head, if the ear or ears seem inflamed, or if there's ear odor, it could be a sign of these common dog ear problems:

Ear mites. Though extremely tiny, ear mites can be a big problem for dogs, especially younger ones. One sign your dog may have mites is a crusty, blackish-brown ear discharge, which often looks like dried shoe polish. Other signs include scratching and head shaking.

There are several treatments for ear mites; some options only kill the adult mites but newer products also eliminate the eggs and the immature forms. Treatment with these products is much easier, so talk to your vet to find the best choice for your dog.

Outer ear infection (otitis externa). A waxy, yellow, or reddish-brown ear discharge can also be a sign your dog has an ear infection, which can be a result of allergies, mites, polyps, overproduction of ear wax, excessive bathing or swimming (which can leave too much moisture in the ears), or other problems. Additional signs your dog might have an ear infection are a bad or fruity odor from the ears; pain; hot or inflamed ears; scratching; or head shaking.

A problem like this requires prompt attention from your veterinarian. Treating an external ear infection may require an antibiotic as well as an antifungal lotion, oral medication, an ear-cleaning solution, or an ear-drying solution. Chronic issues sometimes need surgery.

Inner ear infection (otitis interna) or middle ear infection (otitis media). An untreated external ear infection can easily lead to a very painful middle or inner ear infection, both of which have similar signs to otitis externa, along with reluctance to open the mouth or problems with balance. Some dogs may walk in circles or become nauseous.

Treatment for middle or inner ear infections may require antibiotics, flushing the ear by your vet, or surgery if the infection is serious.

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Ear Discharge in Dogs: Why You Should Talk to Your Vet

Gently pull back your dog's ears and have a quick look inside. What you should see is a clean, pink ear canal. If you notice discharge, redness, swelling, or odor, it's time to talk to the vet. Left untreated, ear problems in dogs can result in severe pain, hematomas (the ear flap fills up with blood), balance problems, and even deafness.

Because ear discharge in dogs can be the result of several causes and can have all kinds of smells, colors, and consistencies, don't try to guess what's causing your dog's ear discharge. Find out by making an appointment with your vet, who can diagnose the cause of your dog's ear discharge and prescribe the best treatment.

3 Steps for Applying Your Dog's Ear Medication

If your vet prescribes ear drops to clear up your dog's ear discharge, you may need to apply them for several weeks. These quick tips make that a little easier:

Make sure you have the ear drops close by. Then, hold your dog's head still, thumb between eyes and nose, fingers wrapped under your dog's jaw. Lift your dog's ear and clean away easy-to-reach wax with a cotton ball and ear cleaning solution. Don't dig deep and don't use cotton swabs, which can damage the ear canal or pack wax or debris against the eardrum.

Keeping your grip steady, place the nozzle of the ear drops at the opening of your dog's ear canal, angled toward their nose. Squirt in the prescribed number of drops.

Keep hold of your dog's head so it can't shake out the medication, then spread the drops by folding your dog's ear down and gently massaging the cartilage at the base of the ear for 30 seconds.

Make sure you follow the veterinarian’s directions: Cleaning the ear canal may not optimize certain medications, and others may require more frequent dosing.

Preventing Ear Problems in Dogs

Dogs with drooping ears -- basset hounds, Irish setters, spaniels -- are more prone to ear problems, but any dog can have ear mites, develop an infection, or get an irritant like burrs or seeds stuck in their ears.

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Preventing ear problems before they start can help your dog have a full and happy noisy life. Each time your dog's ears get inflamed, the wax glands inside become bigger and more active, while the ear canal scars and narrows, making it more likely to have problems in the future. Help your dog's ears stay healthy by taking these steps:

Inspect your dog's ears every two weeks, checking for dirt, odor, and foreign bodies.

Keep the inside of your dog's ears clean. You can remove visible dirt with a cotton ball soaked with a canine ear cleaning solution (don't insert the cotton ball into the ear canal), or by wrapping a damp cloth around your finger and gently cleaning the outer ear.

If your dog swims a lot or tends to get ear infections, ask your vet about products that dry out the ear canal and prevent the growth of bacteria and yeast.

WebMD Veterinary Reference Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on April 21, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Fogle, B. Caring for Your Dog: The Complete Canine Home Reference, DK Publishing, Inc. 2002.

Gerstenfeld, S. ASPCA Complete Guide to Dogs: Everything You Need to Know About Choosing and Caring for Your Pet. Chronicle Books, 1999.

The Complete Dog Book, American Kennel Club, Ballantine Books, 2006.

Veterinary Partner: "Now Ear This."

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