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Ear Infections in Dogs, aka, Why do My Dog’s Ears Smell Bad?

I don’t want to be gross, but as a former groomer at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts, I could smell a…

I don’t want to be gross, but as a former groomer at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts, I could smell a dog’s ear infection from a mile away. Whether it be a mild yeast infection, to a more serious bacterial infection, each had its own scent and was very recognizable. Truthfully, it was fairly common for a grooming guest to have anything from a simple build-up of ear wax to a severe, sometimes chronic infection of the ear.

It is not that the owners of these dogs were being negligent. Ear infections can sneak up or even “hide” for a time, without the owner even realizing there is a problem. All dogs scratch at their ears, right? So, unless it is excessive, owners may not pay much attention if their dog is scratching their ears and shaking their head, both symptoms a dog might exhibit when they have an ear infection. Often, it is not until there is discharge, swelling of the ear, a highly offensive odor, or the dog begins to whine that an owner will realize a problem exists.

Why are ear infections so prevalent in dogs?

It is reported that ear infection in dogs is the most frequent condition that Veterinarians see. In fact, dogs are prone to ear infections because of the shape of their ear canal. Unlike humans, the canal is L-shaped, positioned vertically, so it’s easy for fluids and other “stuff” to become trapped.

Dogs that have long hair covering their ears, and dogs with floppy ears, are more susceptible to ear infections. Long ears capture and hold moisture, bacteria, and dirt, as well as parasites and other foreign objects. Cocker Spaniels, Basset Hounds, Afghan Hounds, Cavalier King Charles, and Springer Spaniels are a few long, floppy-eared dogs that are more prone to ear infections.

All dogs have some hair growing in their ears, but some breeds have a lot of hair growing inside their ears. These dogs often get infections because their hair prevents the ear canal from having good airflow.  This, paired with the hair itself trapping debris, and moisture inside the ear, creates the perfect environment for microbial growth. A few popular breeds that tend to have more hair in their ears are the Schnauzers, Shih Tzus, Poodles, and Lhasa Apsos… like my Jesse.

What happens when an ear infection is left untreated?

Jesse, our Lhasa Apso came to us with chronic ear infections. It was so bad. Jesse’s groomer said his ears looked like they had never been cleaned. He was 8 years old and must have suffered terribly over the years. Once Jesse was diagnosed and given a treatment plan, he has done well, although we believe he may have endured some hearing loss over time. We consider ourselves lucky. If Jesse’s infection had spread to the inner ear and been ignored, he could have suffered more than just hearing loss, but rather a ruptured eardrum, paralysis of some of his adorable facial features, eye structure issues, or even vestibular disease (loss of balance).

Ongoing inflammation, regardless of whether it is in the ears or elsewhere, can lead to recurrent chronic infections. The longer the infection exists, the harder it is to get rid of. Sometimes surgery is necessary to correct long ignored damage to the ear.

There is also the possibility of a dog developing what is called cauliflower ear. It is when an aural hematoma forms as a result of an ear infection. Hematomas are when the blood vessels in the flap of the ear break causing swollen, blood-filled pockets. They are very painful for a dog. The damage happens when a dog repeatedly shakes its head in response to the discomfort in its ear. The intense shaking is what causes the blood vessels to break and the blood to pool. When the hematoma is allowed to remain, it hardens and thickens, causing permanent deformity of the ear.

How many kinds of dog ear infections are there?

There are several different types of ear infections in dogs. To put it in simple terms, an ear infection can occur on the external part of the ear, the middle ear, or the inner ear. Infection often begins on the external ear canal. The further the infection enters the ear, the more harm it can do.

An external ear infection is the least serious kind of infection. Often it is just an irritation to the skin cells lining the outer ear. It is easy to get to, so it is easy to treat.

Infection of the middle and inner ear is more serious. The middle ear is located just behind the dog’s eardrum. If you look at a diagram of the dog’s ear, it is easy to see why the middle ear would be difficult to treat as it forms a handy little pocket to contain whatever nastiness is introduced.

Even worse is an infection in the inner ear. Severe infection to the inner ear is miserable for a dog and can cause vomiting, nausea, pain, perhaps drooling, eye discomfort, and facial paralysis. Inner ear infections can have long-term effects such as loss of hearing or poor balance. The goal is to prevent an ear infection from ever getting to this point.

What causes ear infections in dogs?

There are many reasons a dog can develop ear infections. Believe it or not, the most common reason is allergies. That is Jesse’s problem… bless his heart, he is allergic to nearly everything outside our front door! Besides environmental allergies, food, flea, and contact allergies can also be to blame. The allergy triggers inflammation in the ear. Inflammation causes normal yeast and bacteria to go crazy, creating the perfect storm for infection.

Parasites are sometimes a reason for infection in a dog’s ears. Ticks, demodectic mange, and ear mites take up residence in the ears and basically feed on the dog’s wax and oils.

Ear mites in dogs are easy to recognize as they resemble coffee grounds inside the ear. I know… yuck. Unlike other ear infections, ear mites are also contagious. If your dog has been diagnosed with ear mites and you have other pets in the house, it would be prudent to have them examined as well.

Many years ago, we had two Beagle puppies. They had a nice, comfy pen in our garage, and basically lived there and in our fenced-in yard. They were rarely allowed inside. Outdoor dogs were common back then. I say all that to defend myself for not realizing the pups had been scratching at their ears. One morning I went out to find that one of the pup’s rear legs was completely paralyzed. After crying all the way to the veterinary clinic (me, not the puppy!), the vet concluded that the temporary paralysis was caused by ear mites. Sure enough, once treated, Andi was able to walk again. It scared me to death. After that time, BTW, Andi and Ann came inside the house to live where I could keep a closer eye on them.

Dogs that swim often fall victim to ear infections. Water gets trapped in that “L-shaped” canal that we talked about. Bacteria love that moist, warm environment in which to flourish. It is important to clean your dog’s ears and dry them well after swimming. Your veterinarian can advise you as to the best dog ear cleaner and cleaning method.

Keep in mind that warmer, more humid weather causes higher bacteria levels in natural bodies of water, like rivers and lakes. If your dog frequents the James River for swimming, good cleaning and drying are of utmost importance.

There are other more obscure reasons for ear infections: polyps and tumors, disorders of the endocrine system, skin, and glands, and autoimmune disorders. An infection could start with something as simple as something getting stuck in the dog’s ear – I’m thinking sand, dirt, grass, grass seed, maybe even a bug.

My dog’s ears smell “yeasty”

A mildly pungent smell in the ears is not always an infection, but it could indicate the beginning of one. Or it may just be time for a good ear cleaning. Some dogs just have more wax in their ears than other dogs and it will have a slight smell. If your dog tends to have overly waxy ears, talk to your veterinarian about how often you should be cleaning their ears.

Yeast is always present in the ears and skin. It’s natural. An infection happens when there is an excess of yeast, triggered by some of the reasons we outlined above. However, if you detect a smell of any kind, keep tabs on it…Your dog’s ears should not have an offensive odor.

What will the veterinarian do to treat my dog’s ear infection?

First of all, your dog’s ears will be examined, and a sample collected (“a scraping”), to obtain and identify the type of yeast or bacteria that is present. In addition to a thorough cleaning, a prescribed treatment will probably involve some type of antifungal or antibacterial drug, as well as an antibiotic. These will come in the form of internal or topical medications. Your dog may also be given something for pain and inflammation.

Secondly, if ear infections are recurring, further testing will be needed to find the root of the problem. For a successful remission of chronic infections, that problem will also have to be addressed and remedied.

How can I prevent ear infections in my dog?

  1. As we discussed, always clean and dry your dog’s ears after swimming.
  2. During cuddle time, inspect their ears. Take note of any signs of ear infection – redness, swelling, discoloration, odor, or discharge – and report your findings to your veterinarian.
  3. Always check your dog’s ears if you notice a “more than usual” scratching or shaking of the head.
  4. Avoid getting water in your dog’s ears when bathing.
  5. If your dog has allergies, work with your vet to find the best treatment. Once the allergies are under control, the ear infections should – and hopefully – abate.
  6. If it appears your dog has an overabundance of hair in its ears, work with your dog’s groomer to remove the hair around and just inside the ear.

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