If your dog paws at their ears, repeatedly shakes their head, or has a foul odor or discharge in their ears, they could have an ear infection.
Chronic ear infections are one of the most common reasons dogs see the vet, says Ira Roth, DVM, a veterinarian and director of the Community Practice Clinic at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. Roth also calls ear infections "one of the most frustrating conditions to manage," because the causes are often unclear.
Breeds with floppy ears or hairy ear canals -- we're looking at you, cocker spaniels, golden retrievers, and poodles -- are more prone to ear infections because the shape and texture of their ears block airflow. Tumors and foreign bodies lodged in the ear can also cause infections and might be to blame if your dog has an infection in only one ear.
If your vet suspects an ear infection, they will use a cotton swab to collect a sample and view it under a microscope for signs of common microbes, ticks, or ear mites that could trigger the painful condition, says Roth. Medication to treat the parasites will clear up the infection.
Bacterial infections are harder to manage. (One study found that bacteria caused almost half of ear infections in dogs.) Roth says medications will clear up the infections, but they are likely to recur if the main cause isn't addressed. Yeast (fungal) infections are also a common culprit.
Issues ranging from allergies to food sensitivities can also trigger ear infections. Keeping a symptom diary to tell if ear infections are worse during certain times of the year can help identify potential allergens; a strict hypoallergenic diet can help with food sensitivities.
In both cases, Roth says, "Figuring out what's causing the problem can help avoid the need for drug therapies that can cause side effects and keep your dog from having chronic, painful ear infections."
Should I clean my dog's ears? You might be tempted to remove any gunk in the ears with a cotton swab, but Roth cautions against it. "You could do more damage," he says, "especially if something is lodged in their ear." Leave the treatment to the vet.
Do I need to see a specialist? A veterinary dermatologist can help identify the causes of chronic ear infections and come up with a tailored treatment plan, says Roth.
Are ear infections contagious? In a word, no, but Roth warns that parasites and ear mites can jump from one dog to another and may cause a reaction that leads to an ear infection. Keeping your dog on preventive parasite treatments can help.
Can cats get ear infections? "Ear infections are not as common in cats," Roth says. If your cat has pain, swelling, or discharge in the ears, make an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out
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