Cat & Dog Ear Infections: Everything You Need to Know [Vet-Approved]

A cat scratching their ears, one of the common symptoms of cat ear infections as well as dog ear infections

Have you observed symptoms such as persistent head shaking, ear scratching, or unusual ear discharge from your pet's ears? These could be signs of a dog ear infection or cat ear infection. Ear infections in pets tend to be uncomfortable, irritating, and painful for pets.

Prompt treatment is highly recommended as most cases of pet ear infections don’t go away on their own. There are also a few preventive measures a pet parent can take to help lessen the chances of a dog or cat developing ear infections. 

This complete guide goes into everything a pet parent needs to know about dog ear infection and cat ear infection.

What’s in This Guide? 

What is a Cat or Dog Ear Infection?

A cat or dog ear infection, or otitis, is a common medical condition affecting pets. These infections typically target the auditory system of a pet's body, causing inflammation and discomfort within the ear canal. They can affect both the outer (externa), middle (media), and inner (interna) ear regions, leading to a range of uncomfortable symptoms. 

Cause of Dog or Cat Ear Infection

Risk factors for ear infections in dogs and cats include ear structures that trap moisture (i.e. floppy or hairy ears), allergies, swimming, and socializing with strange dogs or cats. Here are the reasons why these are risk factors for dog or cat ear infections:  

  • Trapped moisture makes the dog’s or cat’s ears the perfect environment for infection-causing bacteria, yeast, and ear mites.. 
  • Allergies in pets are also risk factors because both food-related and seasonal allergies (e.g. spring allergies in pets, fall allergies in pets) can lead to increased production of ear wax, contributing to the ear’s moisture. 
  • Lastly, activities like swimming can cause ear infections due to exposure to potential pathogens, especially if the pet’s ears are not appropriately cleaned afterward. Exposure can also come from frequently socializing or having direct contact with strange dogs and cats who may be infected. 

Of course, the above risk factors alone do not mean that dog or cat ear infections will occur or recur. What triggers the ear infection is when the following pathogens and parasites take hold: 

  1. Bacteria - Bacterial ear infections are most commonly caused by Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, and Pseudomonas species. Bacteria can come from the soil, water, or the pet’s own ‘skin flora.’ Increased moisture in the ears could allow for these bacteria to overgrow.
  2. Yeast (fungi)Malassezia pachydermatis is a yeast commonly associated with dog or cat ear infections. Malassezia is also present in the pet’s own ‘skin flora.’ However, similar to bacteria, Malassezia yeast can overgrow when high levels of moisture are in the dog or cat’s ears.  
  3. Ear mites - Also known as Otodectes cynotis, these are microscopic parasites that are a significant cause of dog or cat ear infections.  Unlike the above, ear mites are NOT part of the usual ‘skin flora’, ear mites come from infected animals or can survive for a short time on contaminated litter, bedding, blankets, soil, and other shared surfaces

Note:Skin flora’ refers to the normal microbiota on the skin which are typically harmless in healthy dogs and cats. (Humans and other animals also have skin flora.) However, when imbalances occur in the body (i.e. excessive ear moisture and ear wax), skin flora can overgrow where they’re not supposed to (i.e. in the ear canal). 

Symptoms of Cat or Dog Ear Infection

The most common signs of dog or cat ear infection include the following:

  • Constant itching or excessive scratching on the ears - common to all types of cat or dog ear infection
  • Head shaking or head tilting due to pain or discomfort - common to all types of cat or dog ear infection
  • Reluctance to chew or open the mouth - not always present, but any source of ear infection can potentially cause pain in the ears 
  • Visible redness or inflammation on the ears - will show up if the infection is on the outer ear canal, may not be present if the infection is further inside.
  • Dark crumbly debris on the ears  - a common symptom in a dog or cat ear mite infection
  • Yelllow or greenish ear discharge, foul-smelling - a common symptom in bacterial cat or dog ear infections
  • Reddish or brown discharge, sweet or pungent odor - a common symptom in a dog or cat ear infection caused by yeast
A puppy scratching their ear because of an ear infection; this is one of the common symptoms of cat or dog  ear infections

How Do I Know My Dog’s or Cat’s Ear is Infected?

Ear infections in dogs and cats can cause significant discomfort, pain, and potential complications. Proper and early diagnosis is the first step to getting effective treatment — which not only alleviates the suffering but also prevents more severe issues.

1. Checkup & Otoscopy

A veterinarian will use an otoscope to examine the ear canal's internal structures and look for signs of infection and inflammation.

2. Microscopic Examination

In some cases, a swab of the ear discharge may be analyzed under a microscope to identify the type of microorganism causing the infection.

3. Bacterial or Fungi Culture

For stubborn or recurring ear infections, a culture of the ear discharge can be grown in a lab to identify the specific bacteria or yeast involved and determine the most effective treatment.

Note: Though symptoms can give clues as to whether or not dogs or cats have an ear infection, only a qualified veterinarian can make a conclusive diagnosis using the techniques mentioned in this section. In some cases, one type of ear infection can cause a secondary ear infection which makes relying on symptoms alone confusing. 

Close up of a bacterial culture plate being examined, representing one of the ways to diagnose bacterial or fungal cat or dog ear infections

Cat & Dog Ear Infection Treatment

Cat and dog ear infection treatment typically involves steps to manage pain, clean the ears, medications to eliminate the parasite or pathogen, and recommendations to prevent recurrence. 

1. Pain Medication & Anti-Inflammatory Medication

Veterinarians may prescribe pain-relief medications to keep your pet comfortable during ear infection treatment. Anti-inflammatory drugs, such as corticosteroids, may also be recommended to reduce swelling and discomfort. 

2. Ear Lavage

An ear lavage for dogs and cats is a process of cleaning the ear canal to remove debris, discharge, and wax. Veterinarians often perform ear lavage during the initial examination to prepare the ear for treatment. This is also a crucial step as it helps to improve the delivery of medication to the affected area.

3. Antibacterial, Anti-Yeast, or Anti-Mite Medication

Veterinarians will also prescribe medications based on the confirmed cause or causes of ear infection. Antibacterial medications are either oral or topical — while anti-yeast and anti-mite medications are typically administered topically. 

It is important to administer prescribed medications consistently, even if a dog’s or cat’s condition has seemed to have improved. Completing the prescribed medication timeframe will ensure thorough treatment and prevent the recurrence of dog and cat ear infections. 

4. Recommendations to Prevent Recurrence of Dog or Cat Ear Infection

Veterinarians will also give recommendations to help prevent the recurrence of cat or dog ear infections. Recommendations can involve allergy management (a risk factor for ear infections) as well as ear cleaning instructions that are suitable for a pet’s lifestyle. 

How to Prevent Cat or Dog Ear Infection

Here are helpful tips on preventing ear infections in dogs and cats

1. Regular Ear Cleaning

Regular ear cleaning is a valuable preventive measure, particularly for breeds prone to ear issues. Consult our veterinarians for guidance on safe and effective ear-cleaning techniques and suitable cleaning solutions.

Note: While regular cleaning is important, avoid overcleaning your pet's ears, as excessive cleaning can disrupt the ear's natural defenses.

In addition, make sure to minimize the moisture in your furry friend’s ears after baths or swimming in dog pools and dog beaches. Gently dry their ears with a clean, dry cloth and use a vet-recommended ear-drying solution after they've been exposed to water.

2. Test & Manage Allergies

Allergies are a risk factor for recurring ear infections. As such, our veterinarians may recommend allergy testing, which is one of the services we offer at Sploot. After identifying your pet’s allergies, we can give recommendations on how to manage allergies with dietary changes, lifestyle changes, and/or medication.

A veterinarian at Sploot Veterinary Care checking a cat’s ear for signs of cat ear infection

Are Ear Infections Painful for Dogs & Cats?

Depending on the severity and cause of a dog or cat ear infection, the dog or cat can experience discomfort, itchiness, or pain in the ears. 

Can a Cat or Dog’s Ear Infection Heal on Its Own?

Typically, dog or cat ear infections do not resolve on their own. It’s also possible for ear infections to move further into the ear (e.g. from otitis externa to otitis media) or become more severe

In addition, most ear infections in dogs or cats are contagious via direct contact with other pets in the household or pet-friendly establishments, which further necessitates prompt treatment from a qualified veterinarian

Final Thoughts About Cat or Dog Ear Infection

We trust that you found this comprehensive guide on dog and cat ear infections useful. As a reminder, make sure to have your dog or cat tested for allergies; food and seasonal allergies put pets at greater risk of developing ear infections. Therefore, managing allergies in dogs and cats will help prevent the recurrence of this condition.

Do you have further questions about dog ear infections, cat ear infections, or allergies in pets?  Sploot is at your service!

Sploot Vets is a primary and urgent care veterinary clinic that revolutionizes the veterinary experience. Our experienced team is here to help fur babies feel their best. Schedule a visit or come on in for a same-day appointment. All of our vet clinics are open for extended hours, 365 days a year.

Till next time, we’re with you every pounce of the way!