Why Does My Dog's Ear Infection Keep Coming Back?

Ear infections in dogs are so common that about 16% of dogs that go into the vet are dealing with this problem. Many are swabbed, diagnosed, get better with treatment, then come right back. Why does this happen again and again, and what can you do to prevent this?

Heavy and floppy ears can lead to chronic ear infections.
Heavy and floppy ears can lead to chronic ear infections. | Source

Symptoms and why they keep coming back

Is your dog a victim of ear infections that keep coming back?

Almost all dog owners have dealt with ear infections at some time. They are painful but are usually easily treated in just a few days. The symptoms are easy to notice, especially if you have a dog that has suffered from this problem over and over—recurrent otitis externa.

Symptoms of an ear infection

• Foul odor from the ears
• Shaking head excessively
• Rubbing head against the wall, furniture, or carpet
• Scratching at the ears
• Head tilt
• Drainage from the ears

Ear infections can keep coming back for several reasons:

  1. If you have a Cocker Spaniel, Springer Spaniel, Labrador, Shar Pei, Basset Hound, or one of the other dogs with abnormal ears, this problem is a pretty common one. Some breeds suffer from long and heavy ears that keep the ear closed all of the time, others have narrow canals (stenotic canals, like those of Shar peis and English bulldogs) that do not leave the ear open, and others, like the Poodle, have ear canals full of hair.
  2. If your dog is not one of the breeds anatomically predisposed to problems, but still has recurrent ear infections, he may be suffering from food or inhalant allergies. An ear infection may be the only sign present in some dogs with a food allergy.
  3. If your dog swims often, especially if she has ears those floppy ears that do not get much air, she is more likely to get a new ear infection as soon as the other one is cleared up.
  4. A dog with a foreign body (like a foxtail) that was never removed will keep having ear infections despite treatment.
  5. If your dog´s infection (bacteria, yeast, or even mites) is never really taken care of, it will seem to go away but will be back.

Cleaning the ears can be easy with vinegar, water, and a paper towel.
Cleaning the ears can be easy with vinegar, water, and a paper towel.

Cleaning the ears and treating the infection

The first time your dog has symptoms of an infection the treatment is pretty straightforward. When you notice the symptoms I describe in the section above, have your dog´s ears examined by your veterinarian and make sure that the ear drum is intact.

How to clean your dog´s ears:

  • Fill the ear with a cleaning solution. I recommend a homemade solution of white vinegar—a mixture of 1/3 vinegar to 2/3 water.
  • Fill the ear with the cleaning solution. The amount will vary by the size of the dog, but add enough that it is overflowing.
  • Massage the ears, especially the base of the canals all the way down to the head. You should hear the liquid as you move it around in there.
  • Stand back—your dog is going to shake her head and the wax and other gunk in the ear canals are going to be loosened by the vinegar and will go everywhere.
  • If your dog does not make a mess, even with an ear infection, you might need to repeat this. Make sure to give the ear canals a deep massage.

Vinegar will make the ear acidic and if it is a mild ear infection that change may be enough to take care of the problem. To take care of it as quickly as possible, be sure to purchase the antibiotics or yeast medication that your vet recommends.

(If your dog has been pawing at her ears and they are already scratched up DO NOT use the vinegar until the scratches are healed up. You can apply aloe vera gel to wounds to decrease the swelling and help them heal.

The dose of medication your vet recommends will vary so follow the directions. Some medications will contain antibiotics, others a medication to combat yeast, and others will contain a steroid to decrease itching and swelling.

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If your dog likes to swim the ears will look clean but water may be trapped deep in the canal.If your dog has scratches or abrasions do not clean the ear with vinegar.
If your dog likes to swim the ears will look clean but water may be trapped deep in the canal.
If your dog likes to swim the ears will look clean but water may be trapped deep in the canal.
If your dog has scratches or abrasions do not clean the ear with vinegar.
If your dog has scratches or abrasions do not clean the ear with vinegar.

Keeping the ear infection from coming back

There is a lot of controversy on what works best to prevent this happening again and again. The reason for all of the controversy is that there are no simple answers.

For a healthy dog, ear cleanings are not necessary, but if your dog is prone to infections, I would recommend that you clean the ears every week. If you take your dog swimming, it is a good idea to put some of the ear cleaner in before you even bring the dog home.

Some vets recommend that you do not mess with the ears since the cleaning might provoke an infection. Frequent plucking of hair (as in Poodles or some other breeds that do not shed) may also provoke recurrent ear infections.

As far as a medication to use in a chronic situation, I cannot recommend one that works every time. If you use a medication prescribed by your conventional vet (an antibiotic/antifungal/steroid combination) your dog may end up with a resistant infection and calcified ear canals.

Fill the ear canal with the vinegar-water solution.
Fill the ear canal with the vinegar-water solution.
Massage your dogs ear canals to loosen up the wax and debris.
Massage your dogs ear canals to loosen up the wax and debris.
Dry out the inner ear with a paper towel.
Dry out the inner ear with a paper towel.

What if is comes back anyway?

Okay, you follow the instructions, treat your dog, but a few weeks later she starts shaking her head.

The ear infection is back.

If this problem comes back as soon as it is cleared up, especially if the dog is not one of those breeds that suffer from recurrent ear infections, there are several possibilities:

  • Food allergy
  • Inhalant allergy
  • Parasite or foreign body that was not taken care of the first time
  • Excessive grooming

Take her in for another exam to rule out a foreign body, and have the ears swabbed for mite infestation.

If it is a simple infection, I recommend that you try an elimination diet. An elimination diet is designed to help you decide what your dog is allergic to. Start out with just one new protein source, feed it for a month or so, and if the ear problems clear up introduce another source. If the ear problems come back, stop feeding the new protein source.

If the ear infection only happens in the spring or summer, it is possible that it will clear up with a new diet but then come back next spring. There is nothing you can do but wait and see. When your dog starts licking her paws, scratching, and then develops an ear infection, you can try atopy injections (for inhalant allergies) or alternative holistic therapies.

Dogs with cropped and open ears rarely have problems.
Dogs with cropped and open ears rarely have problems.

Surgical repair--the last step

If the ears develop infections no matter what you try, the only alternative is a surgical change. Many holistic veterinarians are against this procedure but for dogs with polyps or chronically swollen ears this might be your only answer.

The ear canals are totally removed and your dog is left with his ear drum exposed.

This is a last-chance procedure.

If your dog has recurrent otitis externa, how often do you clean the ears?

  • Never
  • When I take her swimming
  • Once a week
  • Only when they start dripping
  • Something else? Please leave a comment below.
See results without voting

Is there an answer for all dogs?

For all dogs, I recommend keeping the ears clean and dry. This is the best chance of keeping your dog from getting ear infections over and over.

I would also recommend trying a grain free diet. The carbohydrates in grains might make the condition worse, so whether you want to use one of the commercial foods or a homemade raw diet I would do this immediately. This may or may not work, depending on the cause of her problem.

I wish I could tell you that one medication is always going to work in all cases. Traditional vets will prescribe an antibiotic like gentamycin or an antifungal medication, as well as using a steroid against the inflammation and swelling. Holistic vets might try garlic, witch hazel, or probiotic yogurt.

Why are there so many different treatments? It is because nothing works all of the time.

No matter who does the prescribing, treating ear infections that keep coming back is just a hit and miss procedure. If you have an experienced vet available, follow his or her recommendations.

And be sure to keep the ears clean and dry as described above.

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Comments 15 comments

DrMark1961 profile image

DrMark1961 8 months ago from The Beach of Brazil Author

Thanks for that update. What led you to try Kombucha tea? Do you make it yourself or is it the commercial product? I would really like to hear your further thoughts on this.

theraggededge profile image

theraggededge 8 months ago from Wales

Dr Mark, just wanted to update you on our Lab bitch. We have finally conquered the ear infections by giving her home brewed Kombucha tea. I only clean her ears once a week now instead of twice a day. She hasn't done the head shaking thing since starting the tea two months ago. I add about a cup (a generous slosh) to each meal. It is a probiotic, which indicates that the problem was a bacterial imbalance rather than mites.

DrMark1961 profile image

DrMark1961 8 months ago from The Beach of Brazil Author

Larae, not sure the food is going to help since that breed is prone to recurrent infections if the ears are not totally dry after a swim.

You can try making your own diet at home since it is a lot cheaper that the SD product. Just use one protein source and keep him on it for at least six weeks. This does mean no treats, nothing else, including nothing from the kids. If that is not going to work do not even bother.

The best bet for your Springer is to keep the ears dry, especially after a swim. If his ears still seem moist after the vinegar rinsing you might try a commercial drying product. The expense will be a lot less that if he suffers from recurrent infections.

He is really miserable with these infections, so I wish you the best of luck finding a solution.

Larae Combe 8 months ago

I have a 15 month old Springer Spaniel. I got him because we have a pool at home, and go boating all summer long. Now I feel like these two things are causing him so much pain with constant ear infections. My vet has recommended me Hill Science Diet food for him for food allergies to see if that's what's causing it, but it's so expensive and he's a vaccum to the food that falls from my 3 kids so I feel like it's almost a waste of money. I don't know what to do for my sweet dog that is always in pain it breaks my heart. A local dog food store has suggested Venicine instead of Chicken or Beef type foods.

sgbrown profile image

sgbrown 12 months ago from Southern Oklahoma

Our husky seems to get ear infections often, especially now that she is older. We took her to the vet who gave her some antibiotics and ear drops. The ear drops caused her to temporarily go almost completely deaf. Once she got her hear back, I have started cleaning her ears with a q-tip dipped in alcohol. Of course, I can't deep clean with that. I will try your suggestion. Thank you for a very informative hub!

theraggededge profile image

theraggededge 12 months ago from Wales

Thanks so much, Dr Mark. I'll sort out a sock bandage and get some white vinegar as well. At the moment, I clean her ears as soon as the head shaking starts so it never goes on for more than a minute or two. I love your hubs, they are my new go-to source of doggy info.

Thank you also from MableAble, Chloe, Mitzi, Daisy & Delilah.

DrMark1961 profile image

DrMark1961 12 months ago from The Beach of Brazil Author

Hi Bev I am sorry you are having so much trouble with that Lab´s ear. There are only two things I can suggest in that case: the first would be very difficult but is probably the best. The ear needs a lot more ventilation, so if the flap can be held back and kept that way (maybe by putting a sock bandage on the head to hold it in place), that would help. It really depends on the dogs personality though, as a 2 year old Lab is probabably not going to be calm enough to put up with a bandage on all of the time.

The second thing is a little more practical but not as good. Instead of cleaning with mineral oil, use a dilute vinegar solution, which is more acidic and may clear up the infection without resorting to antibiotics or antiinflammatories like prednisone or betamethasone.

If neither method works, however, you really need to resort to something else before your dog starts shaking excessively and develops an aural hematoma (a pool of blood in the tip of the ear).

I hope things clear up for him.

theraggededge profile image

theraggededge 12 months ago from Wales

We have a 2-yr old Lab whose ears I clean daily. I wipe them with a cotton swab and mineral oil followed by ear drops. It seems as though it clears up and then a day or so later she's shaking her head again. The problem is only in one ear. We have four other floppy-eared dogs, including another Lab, who have never got ear infections, mites or otherwise.

All dogs are on a raw food diet: minced chicken, beef bones and vegetables are the staples. Plus they have a couple of raw eggs a week, a little garlic and sometimes a tablespoon of plain yogurt.

I am trying to avoid steroids and antibiotics but am at my wits end with her. Help!

Sandy Sawyer 14 months ago

Thank you for all your advise. Living in Uganda it isn't easy to get special food for our to dogs who are both suffering from yeast ears (this I have gleened from your article. Our rottweiler has been on antibiotics and ivomec for 2 months now and his ear infection keeps reoccurring. I will try your advise. Our wire hair terrier had been chewing her paws and scratched her neck raw. Same thing ..The vet but her on antibiotics and ivomec. I clean bit of their ears out with ear cleaner and put candiderm on the effected areas.

Kevin Goodwin 14 months ago

I had a golden retriever and she use to swing her head so violently that she busted her ear drum because of a ear infection.

DrMark1961 profile image

DrMark1961 15 months ago from The Beach of Brazil Author

Thanks for reading Bob. Believe it or not, I discussed puppy care with a new client the other day, and since he complained about not having time to spend taking care of his new dog, I recommended a good commercial diet. Raw is not for everyone, and a dog owner that is not willing to find the right ingredients and blend them is better off buying a feed at the store. And, as you mentioned, staying away from junk, but that is always a battle here, as everywhere.

Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob Bamberg 15 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

Another good, useful hub, Doc. Owners can save time and money if they follow a regimen of regular ear care, and your step-by-step instructions light the way.

I also noticed what Vic did...and maybe that's why I get fewer page views. I automatically write headlines for eye appeal (old habits die hard). But, I notice that no matter how I word a Google search, it pretty much knows what I meant and takes me to the right sites.

I'll bet that, all the way from the Beach of Brazil, you could see my wide-eyed expression when I read your suggestion that a grain free diet might help. See? We're not totally at odds over commercial foods.

I've had a lot of people come up to me at stores I appear at and tell me they took my advice about grain-free (or at least wheat and soy free) and it worked, or helped. Of course, most of these people were feeding brands that contained wheat and soy and making matters worse by giving wheat based treats, plus stuff like pizza crust, toast, bagels, etc.

Changing the food helped, but eliminating all the other stuff was probably a bigger factor.

Voted up, useful and interesting.

DrMark1961 profile image

DrMark1961 15 months ago from The Beach of Brazil Author

Hi Dressage Husband, it was probably Panalog and you are fortunate that it worked for you. I have seen some Labs that like to swim with chronic otitis and a lot of scar tissue in the ear canals. That is also a very expensive medication here in Brazil, but when it works it is well worth it.

Thanks for reading so closely, Vic Dillinger. I have noticed that if you write out the exact way someone types into the search engine, it produces better results. I really wanted to write "Best method of avoiding recurring otitis externa" but do not think I would have many page views with that title!

Vic Dillinger profile image

Vic Dillinger 15 months ago

Your title should read: "Why Does My Dog's Ear Infection Keep Coming Back?"

Dressage Husband profile image

Dressage Husband 15 months ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

I found this interesting as we had a Lab that would get ear infections periodically. Fortunately this only happened a couple of times. I suspect that the vinegar solution would have done the trick. However our vet prescribed some fairly expensive ear drops., they did work however and the problem only recurred a couple of times.

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