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How to Treat Dog Ear Infection Without Vet: Home Remedies and When to Seek Professional Help

There are a number of dog ear infection treatment options. For dogs with chronic ear infections, finding the right solution may take some trial and error.

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This pet health content was written by veterinarians, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMDDr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS; and Dr. Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ. It was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Elliott and was last updated on June 13, 2024.

If you have questions or concerns, call your vet, who is best equipped to ensure the health and well-being of your pet. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. See additional information.

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Allergies are a common cause of dog ear infections. Photo: d_m_felstead_66

How to Treat Dog Ear Infection Without Vet: Understanding the Basics

If your dog has a sticky, smelly ear, it likely has an ear infection (otitis externa). This condition, marked by inflammation of the external ear canal, can be painful and often misunderstood.

Key Points:

  • Symptoms: Sticky, smelly ears.
  • Causes: Often driven by underlying factors.
  • Treatment: Typically involves antibiotics, but addressing the root cause is crucial.

In this guide, we’ll discuss how to treat dog ear infection without vet visits, including home remedies and when to see a vet.

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Swimming may be a factor in a dog who develops an ear infection. Read more to find out how to treat dog ear infection without vet. Photo: mom320

What You Need to Know About Dog Ear Infections

Dog ear infections can cause yearlong and lifelong problems, especially worse and more common in the summer. Factors like summer allergies, heat, and swimming contribute to these issues.

Seasonal Allergies: A Big Underlying Cause of Dog Ear Infections

  • Misconceptions: Many think swimming causes ear infections, but it’s often allergic disease (atopy).
  • Seasonal Allergies: More common in spring and summer, leading to allergic otitis.
  • Inflammation: Allergies cause skin inflammation, and heat/humidity promote yeast growth.

Symptoms of Dog Ear Infections

A normal dog’s ear canal should be clean and free of debris. Symptoms of a dog ear infection include:

  • Odor from the ears
  • Redness
  • Brown/blackish debris
  • Itching their ears

Identifying Ear Infections

  • Drop-eared dogs like Beagles often have a distinctive smell.
  • Inflamed, reddened skin around the ear canal.
  • Thickened skin if the infection is advanced.
  • Possible discharge, either purulent or thick and waxy.

When to Seek Veterinary Advice

Ear infections are painful and can cause your dog to tilt their head, shake, or scratch the ear. Severe cases may lead to a loss of appetite and becoming “head shy.” If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s essential to seek veterinary advice.

For more on keeping dogs safe in hot weather, read about keeping dogs safe in hot weather. Allergic disease is a significant factor, as discussed in allergies in pets. Regular maintenance, including cleaning their dog’s ears, is crucial for preventing infections.

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Check with the vet before giving over-the-counter medicines to your dog for an ear infection. Photo: ashleycoombsphotography

Diagnosing Dog Ear Infections

Your vet makes a diagnosis after a physical exam of the ears. This includes looking down inside the long L-shaped ear canal with an otoscope. However, dogs who need their ears examined are often too sore and painful to allow it. In such cases, the vet may suggest either:

  • Sedating the animal for a thorough look without distress.
  • Starting a course of anti-inflammatories and oral antibiotics to reduce swelling and soreness ahead of the next exam.

Cytology is helpful for identifying what exactly is in the ear canal. This involves smearing some discharge onto a slide and examining it under a microscope. This helps the vet decide if a culture is necessary and which antibiotic is most effective.

Dog Ear Infections Can Stick Around

Veterinarians often hear, “You must have given me the wrong ear medicine, Doc! My dog still has an ear infection.” The underlying cause, often allergic skin disease (atopic dermatitis), might not have been addressed.

  • Common Causes:
    • Allergic skin disease (atopic dermatitis).
    • Bad food reaction.
  • Systemic Approach:
    • Ear drops alone are not sufficient.
    • Addressing atopy is crucial.
  • Indications:
    • Year-round ear problems may indicate a bad food reaction.
    • If dogs show symptoms in January, a food trial is recommended.

For more information on allergic skin disease and food trials for allergies.

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Dog ear infections are painful, so your vet may have to sedate your pet in order to get a good look at the infected ear. Photo: psycho-pics

Treatment for Dog Ear Infections

Topical treatment in the ears, if done correctly, certainly helps. However, a heavy discharge in the ear acts as a barrier to the penetration of a topical medication. For this reason, most vets prescribe both an ear cleaner and a medication for the ears.

Treatment steps:

  • Ear Cleaning: Debulking the pus or wax is crucial. The vet may then use topical medicated drops.
  • Severe Infections: Sedation to flush the ear clean, along with oral antibiotics, may be needed.
  • Recurring Infections: Investigate underlying causes such as hypoallergenic diets, blood tests for thyroid function, and possible allergies.

It’s important to understand that ears are just an extension of the skin. If excessive hair is a contributing factor, learning how to pluck hair or having a groomer do it is important. Not all ear cleaners are the same, so get advice from your vet before purchasing over-the-counter products.

For more on professional grooming and why not all ear cleaners are the same.

This video gives more dog ear infection treatment advice from a veterinarian:

YouTube player

Follow Up and Follow Through

Many people leave the vet’s office thinking they know what to do after watching the vet clean and medicate the ears. However, it’s crucial to ensure you fully understand the home care needed.

Tips:

  • Ask the technician to spend extra time explaining home care.
  • Follow up on first or early infections to save money in the long run.
  • Rechecks are vital. Ensure your vet rechecks the ears after the 2-week treatment period.

Ignoring these steps can result in chronic changes in the ear, leading to continual treatment failure. Follow the advice and seek early treatment. With ears, an ounce of prevention is truly worth it.

Ear infections can be caused by a variety of trigger factors, including ear mites. Photo: mon_elevage

How We Treat Recurrent Dog Ear Infections

Does your dog get regular ear infections? You’re not alone — it’s estimated up to 20% of all dogs will suffer at least one ear infection during their lifetime. Some unlucky dogs face recurrent infections. But why is this, and what can you do about it?

A One-Off Ear Infection

our dog scratches their ear, and you find an angry red ear with a smelly discharge. A visit to the vet reveals potential trigger factors such as:

  • Swimming: Water in the ear canal softens the skin, making it more vulnerable to infection.
  • Anatomical Factors: Hairy ear canals, excessive wax production, or heavy, pendulous ears can decrease air circulation.
  • Foreign Body: Grass or other objects stuck in the ear canal cause pain and irritation.
  • Ear Mites: A common parasite causing intense itchiness (more about ear mites).
  • General Itchiness: Caused by parasites or allergies leading to scratching and infection.

If this is the dog’s first ear infection with no obvious cause, the dog ear infection treatment is straightforward as discussed in Part 1. Hopefully, the infection clears up and doesn’t return. But what if it does?

Treating a Recurrent Dog Ear Infection

If the ear infection returns quickly, further investigation is needed, involving:

  • Culture and Sensitivity: Swabbing ear discharge to identify bugs and the best antibiotic (the best antibiotic for treatment).
  • Cytology: Examining a sample from the ear canal under a microscope to identify cell types, bacteria, yeasts, or parasites (a colony of ear mites).
  • Examine Under Sedation: Sedation allows a thorough examination and cleaning of the deepest part of the ear canal.
  • Long Course of Treatment: Ensures the problem is completely cleared.
  • Repeat Culture: To check if the infection is gone at the end of treatment.

By taking these steps, the vet can better target treatment and increase the chances of successfully managing recurrent dog ear infections.

A recurring ear infection in a dog may be a sign of an allergy. Photo: katja

Regular Ear Infections

Sometimes, even when following all the right protocols, a dog still gets repeated ear infections. This strongly indicates an underlying issue that makes the ear poor at fighting off infection. One possible explanation is a food allergy.

For some reason, dogs with food allergies often get recurrent ear infections. The solution might be a food trial and putting the dog on a hypoallergenic diet. When the allergen triggering the allergic reaction is removed from the diet, the ear infections can be significantly reduced or eliminated.

The Dog Still Gets Flare-Ups

If the dog still experiences flare-ups despite a dietary trial, it may be time for further investigation or referral to a specialist. Here are the next steps:

  • Repeat Culture: Determines if infection is present or if it’s a sterile form of inflammation.
  • Cytology: Checks if the ear is free from bacteria.

If the ear inflammation is sterile (no bacteria present), the issue could be with the dog’s overreactive immune system. The next step involves suppressing the immune system with steroid ear drops or medications that suppress inflammation. Prednisolone is a common, economical option, but there are more sophisticated (and more expensive) alternatives with fewer side effects.

For more information on the use of steroids.

By this stage, many problem ear infections can be brought under control. However, if the issue persists, further specialized treatment may be necessary.

Ear infections can lead to surgery. By: Elsie esq.
Ear infections in dogs sometimes lead to surgery. Photo: Elsie esq.

When an Ear Infection Turns Into Ear Surgery

When all other treatment options have been exhausted, and the dog is still in constant discomfort, surgery becomes the best option. The most common operation is a total ear canal ablation (TECA), which involves removing the ear canal. While this will result in deafness on the affected side, it significantly improves the quality of life for dogs plagued by chronic ear infections.

When Surgery Becomes an Option

When usual treatments fail, the only option may be surgery. By this point, the ear canal is a swollen, painful, smelly mess, and the lining is so thickened that medications cannot reach the source of the problem at the very bottom of the ear canal.

  • Total Ear Canal Ablation (TECA): This involves removing the entire ear canal. TECA is the only surgery that allows for a lateral bulla osteotomy, which cleans the bulla – a “bony bubble” at the bottom of the ear canal. Pus and debris accumulate inside the bulla once the eardrum ruptures, and cleaning it up is essential to avoid delayed infection (learn more about TECA).

Failing to clean the bulla leads to surgery failure and a nasty, delayed infection (what is a bulla).

Prognosis With Total Ear Canal Ablation Surgery

Despite the invasiveness of TECA, results are typically excellent, and the prognosis is better than with less invasive surgery options. TECA addresses both the ear canal and bulla, eliminating the need for future ear medications.

Choosing the Right Surgeon

Given the potential complications, it is crucial to choose an experienced veterinarian or veterinary surgeon for the procedure. While complications can occur even with the best surgeons, an experienced, board-certified surgeon who performs ear surgery regularly is ideal (find an experienced veterinarian).

Final Thoughts

If your dog gets regular ear infections, work with your vet to identify the root cause. Dog ear infections are complex and can be difficult to treat, requiring time and patience. For those looking to understand how to treat dog ear infection without vet intervention, it’s essential to address underlying issues like allergies and to maintain proper ear hygiene to prevent infections from recurring.

For more detailed information, consider resources like total ear canal ablation (TECA), bulla, and experienced veterinarians.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How to treat dog ear infection without vet?

Clean the ear gently with a vet-approved ear cleaner, apply over-the-counter ear drops, and monitor for improvement.

How to treat dog ear infection?

Treat dog ear infections by cleaning the ear, using prescribed ear drops or medication, and addressing any underlying conditions.

How to tell if dog has ear infection?

Signs of a dog ear infection include odor, redness, discharge, and your dog scratching or shaking their head frequently.

References

  • Woody & Fox. “Otitis externa — seeing past the signs to discover the underlying cause.” Vet Med Small Anim Clin87: 616.
  • Wilson. “A practitioner’s approach to complete ear care.” (1985). Dermatology Reports, 4.