Donna partners with Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a retired veterinarian, to create informative pet health articles.
What to Do If You Think Your Dog Has an Ear Infection
You have recently noticed your usually happy-go-lucky dog has started shaking his head, scratching at his ears or moaning with pain. Your first thought might be an ear infection, and you could be right.
However, only the vet can tell you if that ear infection is a sign of something hidden—such as food allergies—going on with your dog's health.
Dr. Cathy Alinovi, pet parent and veterinarian, discusses the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatments for ear infections as well as why it is important to determine the root cause of the infection.
Q1: What Causes Ear Infections in Dogs?
Dr. Cathy: The short answer is bacteria or yeast (as in ear mites in puppies from puppy mills- see image below). However, that answer does not explain the real issues.
For most dogs, ear infections come from food allergies. Allergies to food cause inflammation in the intestines, which leads to bacterial and/or yeast overgrowth in the intestines, which then spreads to the whole body, including the ears.
Therefore, the first time a dog has an ear infection, a question should already start to form: “I wonder if she’s allergic to something in her food?” If she gets another ear infection, the vet must start looking for the source.
Really curing the problem means first treating the symptoms, second figuring out what your dog is allergic to and getting rid of it, and third treating the systemic problems resulting from the food allergy, which is very often whole body yeast infections.
Q2: How Will I Know If My Dog Has an Ear Infection?
Dr. Cathy: If your dog has any of the following common signs of ear infection (see table below), have your vet peek in those ears and evaluate whether your dog has an infection.
Swollen earflap or ear canal
One ear lower than the other
Odor of either pus or wet dog
Q3: What Dog Breeds Are Predisposed to Frequent Ear Infections?
Dr. Cathy: In the past, the rule of thumb was always that floppy-eared dogs are most likely to get ear infections because floppy ears hold in moisture. The actual reality is ear infections are caused by the environment or how dogs live (eat), and not so much by their genetics.
While certain breeds are at higher risk for ear infections such as Cocker Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, Poodles, and Schnauzers, ear infections can be avoided through great nutrition for 95 percent of dogs.
Dogs Predisposed to Ear Problems
- Cocker Spaniels
- Golden Retrievers
Q4: Will Swimming Put My Dog at Risk for Ear Infections?
Dr. Cathy: Any dog with healthy ears should have no problem with swimming. It is the dogs with unhealthy ears (which are swollen, a bit red, and basically inflamed) that have more problems with swimming.
The swollen ears hold in the moisture and make the infections worse.
Q5: What Is the Process for Diagnosis?
Dr. Cathy: Your veterinarian will look in your dog’s ear with a scope, which will allow him or her to see the entire ear canal.
Usually, your vet will take a swab of the ear discharge and look at it under the microscope to determine if there are mites, yeast, bacteria, or a combination of all of these in the canal.
Occasionally, your vet will need to take a sample from the ear to send to the laboratory to identify the bacteria and determine what medication will best treat the infection.
Q6: What Treatment Options Are Available?
Dr. Cathy: Most commonly, veterinarians treat the symptoms, so they give antibiotics, or perhaps antifungals, and anti-inflammatories to treat the symptoms.
These medications can be topical, oral, or both. Some dogs' ears are so infected they need to be flushed (washed) under anesthesia.
There are some extreme measures for dogs with seemingly incurable ear infections. One example is ear canal ablation, where the ear canal is surgically removed. The problem with all of these methods is the vet is only treating the symptoms, not the root cause.
When you trace the infections back to the source, it almost always goes back to food. Sure, you have to treat the symptoms, so your dog does not suffer, but when you fix the cause (the food allergy), the ear infections do not come back.
Q7: What Are the Treatment Side Effects?
Dr. Cathy: Resistance is the biggest one. This happens when the bacteria in the ear are no longer killed by medication, and that is usually due to a medication not being used at the right strength or for the right amount of time.
Certainly, any dog can be allergic to the medication, especially if your vet prescribes oral medications rather than just topical medications. The steroids often given to treat ear infections cause horrible long-term side effects to the patients. Oral antibiotics can cause vomiting. Ear canal ablation—wow!! That’s a severe step to take to fight off an infection: cut it out! I guess that’s not my preferred method.
Q8: Are There Natural Remedies?
Dr. Cathy: For mild ear infections, you can clean your dog’s ears at home. Mix one drop of dish detergent in 16 ounces of water. Fill the ear canal, massage the mixture in, and let your dog fling his head.
To dry the ears and make a slightly acidic environment in there, mix one part of apple cider vinegar with three parts of water, and then fill the ear and let your dog fling his head.
If the infection needs a bit more than cleaning, garlic soaked in vitamin E can help because garlic is antibacterial, while vitamin E promotes healing.
Be careful about using an over-the-counter ear cleaner that may contain alcohol, which can burn your dog's ears. There are also ear cleaners available for purchase that are already made with natural ingredients.
Some ears take a bit more work but still can be treated naturally.
Olive leaf, rosemary extract, oregano oil, neem oil, and noni are all examples of herbal medications that can help treat yeast and bacterial infections.
The thing to remember is this: if the ears are bad, there is usually stuff going on with the whole skin, so treat the whole body with these herbal medications and soothe the ears as the body heals.
Q9: Should I Worry If My Dog Has Frequent Ear Infections?
Dr. Cathy: Absolutely! Recurrent ear infections are the major clue of a food allergy. Get to the source, treat the food allergy, and stop going back for symptomatic control.
Q10: Are There Ways to Prevent Ear Infections?
Dr. Cathy: Yes, start with great nutrition from puppyhood (or at least from the day you first bring home your dog if you adopt an adult). While my preference is to feed balanced real food, it can be a challenge to provide enough calories and calcium for the growing dog. Raw or cooked foods work great for some families and are the only way to guarantee you know what is truly in your dog’s food.
However, there are some very good, commercially prepared, premium diets with named meats as the primary source of nutrition, and these foods do not contain dyes, corn, or by-products.
For some dogs, it is this simple. Some dogs need a grain-free diet to prevent ear infections. Some dogs need to avoid chicken or beef, potatoes, lamb, or rice, and so on.
If you start with great food as soon as you can, your dog’s risk of ear infections will be less. But, if the ear infections still come, follow the tips above to get to the root of your dog’s problems. Ear infections can be beaten.
A Note About This Interview
This veterinary medical information is based on information provided during a telephone interview with a professional, qualified, retired veterinarian. However, it is provided for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own veterinarian. Always seek your veterinarian’s advice about your pet’s health.
While this information is periodically researched and updated (under the guidance of veterinary input) in the attempt to be timely and factual, no guarantee is given the information is correct, complete, and/or up-to-date.
Recommendations as to therapeutics, diagnostics, and best standards of practice in the veterinary industry and/or opinions between professionals may differ or change as technologies and information change. You should not use this article as your sole source of information on any matter of veterinary health or attempt to self-diagnose or treat your pets as the information herein may not be appropriate for your pet. The safest option for you and your pet is to rely on the advice of your veterinarian to diagnose and recommend the best treatment options.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is there a dog food you can suggest?
Answer: Dr. Cathy Alinovi, the veterinarian referenced in this article, is certified in food therapy. Her book, "Dinner PAWsible," might be a good source for suggestions on creating a healthy diet for your pet. As mentioned in the article, this information is provided for educational purposes only. It should not be used to replace the advice of your own veterinarian. It's best to seek your vet's advice about your pet’s health.
Question: What dog food is good for ear infections?
Answer: Your best choice option is to consult your veterinarian for advice on the proper diet to combat an infection. He or she is familiar with your pet and its health history so they can offer specific advice.
Question: Will a ear infection make the dog not want to eat?
Answer: It's hard to say what might be causing a loss of appetite for your pet. Consulting your veterinarian, who is familiar with your pet, should provide you with some answers and advice.
© 2014 Donna Cosmato
Share Your Experience
Theresa on June 05, 2018:
I just switched my dog who is 14 month cane corso to a new food n 2 weeks into the food she has a ear infection, could it be the food ? Thanks
Mick on March 24, 2018:
Our corgi cross 'Goldie', when he was younger had a reaction to dry dog food. It affected his ears rather badly and the day we swapped him to another diet was the day he stopped shaking his head like a lunatic.
Clearly there was something in dry dog food that caused this reaction, we'll never know.
However since the vet suggested this rather quickly then I'd have to assume its a rather common thing.
Angie W on January 05, 2018:
My service dog is a poodle and he was diagnosed as allergic to chicken after I moved and changed vets. But it wasn't just chicken, it ended up being all meats. I have him on a total vegetarian diet. The pet shop was awesome (Pet Value) as they took back any food he couldn't eat and replaced it with something different at no cost. After 6 kinds we found the right one ... vegetarian. He tried lamb, buffallo and just about everything. As long as I can keep him from stealing cat treats he is fine now.
Sarah b on October 16, 2017:
What is the best dog food to buy ?