Common Ear Problems in Cats and Dogs

A wide range of conditions can cause pain and discomfort in our pets’ ears, from allergies and injuries to ear mites and infection. It’s really important to take your cat or dog to the vet as soon as possible if you suspect an ear problem. They can develop quickly causing severe pain and sometimes long term damage if left untreated. In this blog, we’ll go through some of the common symptoms of ear problems in cats and dogs, as well as some of the most common causes. We’ll also take you through how to clean your dog or cat’s ears at home.

Signs Your Cat or Dog Has an Ear Problem

  • Excessive scratching or rubbing of the ears
  • Frequent head shaking
  • Head tilting
  • Holding the ears in an abnormal position (e.g. Labrador ears may usually sit forward, but with ear pain they may hold their ear back or more to the side)
  • Frequent ear flicking (especially cats)
  • Red or swollen ears
  • Avoiding being stroked due to pain around the ears
  • Smelly ears
  • Pus, blood or discharge leaking from the ears
  • Abnormal or increased amount of earwax
  • Some cats and dogs experience loss of balance

These symptoms can be indicative of a wide range of ear problems in cats and dogs. It’s important to see your vet as soon as possible if you notice any so that your vet can diagnose the issue and recommend the appropriate treatment plan.

Allergies

Cats and dogs can be allergic to a range of things in their environment, including flea saliva, pollen, and certain foods.

Allergies in dogs and cats cause their skin to itch, and this often includes the inner linings of the ears. They will likely become red, inflamed and itchy in the presence of the allergen.

Ear problems caused by allergies can take a little longer to identify and solve. Your vet may start by suggesting a change in diet to a sensitive skin recipe or a food elimination trial if they suspect a food allergy. They may also offer some immediate relief and/or treatment if your pet has caused damage to their skin through scratching.

Ear Mites in Cats and Dogs

Barely visible to the naked eye, ear mites are microscopic parasites that affect both cats and dogs, though they are most common in cats. They multiply very quickly.

Your cat or dog is likely to have caught ear mites from another pet, but they can also pick them up from the environment since ear mites can survive for a long time without a host.

Ear mites live in the ear canal, feeding off your pet’s ear wax and oils secreted by the skin. They cause intense itching, and can lead to ear infections.

How to Check for Ear Mites in Cats and Dogs

As with most ear problems, cats and dogs with ear mites will often excessively itch their ears, shake their head, or have red, inflamed-looking ears.

You might be able to see a dry, black-coloured discharge in their ears when you look inside. This can sometimes smell bad.

Because they are so small, it’s often not possible to see ear mites without a microscope, but they appear like tiny white dots to the naked eye.

Many flea treatments will also work against ear mites, so keeping on top of this will help to prevent your cat or dog getting them in the first place.

Treating Ear Mites in Cats and Dogs

Once your vet confirms that it is ear mites that your cat or dog is suffering from, they will usually prescribe either a spot-on treatment or tablets to kill the ear mites.

Sometimes your vet will also prescribe ear drops if needed to soothe any pain or inflammation in your pet’s ears. Always complete the full course of drops even if your pet seems better.

Your vet will probably also prescribe an ear cleaner to help remove the buildup of excess wax and discharge from your cat or dog’s ears.

If you have more than one pet in the household, you’ll need to treat all of them for ear mites, even if only one is showing symptoms. This is because ear mites spread very easily, so it’s likely that all your pets will have them.

You’ll also need to treat your home with a household flea spray that is also effective against ear mites, as they can survive in the environment for several months.

Foreign Body in the Ear Canal

Sometimes small things can get stuck in our pet’s ears and cause lots of problems. Dogs in particular are prone to getting grass seeds stuck in their ears, and other plant matter such as burrs can also get stuck.

This can lead to ear infections and even hearing loss if left untreated, so it’s important to get it removed swiftly by your vet. Don’t attempt to remove anything from inside your cat or dog’s ear yourself.

Ear Infections in Cats and Dogs

Not only are ear infections often very painful, but they can sometimes lead to long term changes in the ear canal.

Usually ear infections occur in cats and dogs as a result of another underlying ear problem, such as ear mites, skin allergies, or something becoming lodged in the ear, as we’ve discussed above.

When ear infections progress and spread into the middle and inner ear, they can lead to additional symptoms to those listed at the start of this article. These include:

  • A head tilt
  • Loss of balance
  • Vomiting
  • Partial deafness

Dogs with floppy, hairy ears are more likely to develop ear infections. Other predisposing factors to ear infections include high humidity and ineffective cleaning of the ears. However, these factors won’t cause a problem on their own.

Treating Ear Infections in Cats and Dogs

Since ear infections in dogs and cats are usually caused by another issue in the ear, it’s crucial to treat this underlying cause. Ear mites can be addressed with parasite control, while a suspected allergy will need to be diagnosed so that the allergen can be avoided or treated. If your cat or dog has something lodged in their ear that has caused the infection, this will need to be removed.

As well as treating the underlying cause of an ear infection, your vet will likely also prescribe ear drops. These will usually contain antibiotics, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory ingredients, which will help to get rid of the infection as well as reduce swelling. In the case of severe infections, some cats and dogs might also need antibiotic tablets or an injection in addition to their ear drops.

When treating ear infections, it’s very important to use the right antibiotics. Using the wrong kind of antibiotics can promote antibiotic resistance, making future infections more likely and making the problem even harder to treat. This means first finding out what is causing the infection.

To do this, your vet will take a small sample of discharge from your pet’s ear using a cotton bud, and take a look at it under a microscope. This process is known as cytology. Special stains are applied to make bacteria and yeasts visible and the category of bacteria causing the infection can be identified.

In some cases, like when there are recurrent infections, or a special type of bacteria called rods are identified, it’s recommended that a sample is sent off for culture and sensitivity testing. This is where specialists grow the bacteria to determine exactly which species they are, and test them against several antibiotics to find out which ones they are sensitive to.

Since ear infections can be very painful, your vet will often prescribe anti-inflammatory pain relief too. This is usually administered orally.

Finally, an ear cleaner will help to remove any excess wax, pus and discharge that has built up. See below for advice on how to clean your cat or dog’s ears.

Can You Treat a Dog Ear Infection Without a Vet?

It might be tempting to try home remedies to treat your pet’s ear infection, but this is not a good idea.

Home remedies like vinegar solutions should be avoided as they cause swelling of the lining of the ear canal and increase secretions from glands in the ears. This actually increases the risk of bacterial and yeast infections developing.

Even substances that would normally not irritate your cat or dog’s ear canals when healthy can cause a lot of irritation in their already-inflamed ears.

Always treat your pet’s ears with the medication prescribed by your vet, following their instructions precisely.

If you have old medication or ear cleaner that you were prescribed for a previous ear infection, you might be tempted to use that. However, you should never do this. Firstly, ear cleaners and treatments are not recommended in cases where the eardrum is ruptured as this may cause the cleaner to reach areas further inside the ear. This is why your vet will examine your cat or dog’s ears before prescribing any treatment, to check that the eardrum is still intact.

Secondly, when the nozzle of a bottle of ear treatment is inserted into the ear, it will sometimes suck up debris from the ear canal once you’ve finished squeezing – particularly if you insert it too far. This debris can then sit within the container. Using the treatment again after some time could expel some of this old debris from the previous infection back into your pet’s ear.

You should always dispose of a treatment after use, even if there is some left. This may feel a little wasteful, but for your pet’s safety due to the reasons outlined above, it’s always best to get a new one, and on your vet’s recommendation.

Other Common Ear Problems in Cats and Dogs

As well as those detailed above, some other common ear issues include:

  • Injuries to the ear For example, a wound from a bite or cut.
  • Ear polyps – These are non-cancerous growths inside the ear canal.
  • Ear cancer – Tumours in the ear canal are more likely to be benign (harmless) than malignant (cancerous), and it is rare for those that are malignant to spread beyond the local area.
  • Vestibular disease – This is a problem with the inner ear that affects a cat or dog’s balance.

Sometimes cats and dogs can develop something called an ‘aural haematoma’. This is a blister full of blood that forms when a blood vessel bursts inside the ear flap. Aural haematomas can develop if a cat or dog repeatedly scratches their ear or shakes their head, which many will do as a result of an infection. Cats and dogs with an aural haematoma may need to have it drained or operated on as part of their treatment.

How to Look After Your Cat or Dog’s Ears

Particularly for cats and dogs who suffer from recurring ear infections, it’s very important to keep on top of their ear care. Here are some top tips for how to do this:

Become familiar with how your pet’s ears usually look and smell. One of the most obvious signs that an ear infection has taken hold is the change in smell from your cat or dog’s ears. Being able to detect that change will help you catch infections early. You can also monitor what your cat or dog’s ears look like, checking to see if they are red, inflamed or more waxy than normal.

Regularly clean your dog’s ears. Ask your vet for advice on how frequently you should be cleaning your pet’s ears, as it will vary from pet to pet depending on breed, lifestyle and medical history. Cats don’t usually require regular ear cleaning. See below for how to clean your pet’s ears effectively.

Clean and dry your dog’s ears after swimming. Dogs with long, furry ears are particularly at risk of picking up an infection after swimming as the humid environment is ideal for bacteria. If your dog likes to swim, be sure to clean and thoroughly dry their ears afterwards.

Look after your pet’s skin health. The ears are lined with skin, so having a healthy skin barrier is really important for avoiding infections. Skin supplements like YuMOVE Skin & Coat Care Boost can help to maintain healthy skin, coat and nails in your dog.

How to Clean Your Dog or Cat’s Ears

If your cat or dog’s ears seem sore, red or inflamed, don’t try to clean them. Instead take them to a vet as they may need medication before they can be comfortably cleansed without causing pain.

Always check with your vet how frequently you should be cleaning your pet’s ears. Cats don’t usually require regular cleaning, but if they are prone to infection or need their ears cleaned as part of their treatment, your vet might recommend you do it at home. Dogs with floppy, hairy ears usually benefit from routine ear cleaning.

Ideally, you should get your cat or dog used to you handling their ears from a young age, making sure they associate it with an enjoyable experience. You can do this by regularly handling their ears in a calm way and offering them treats and praise. This will make it much easier for you to clean their ears down the line.

Here is our step-by-step guide to cleaning your cat or dog’s ears:

  1. Check the instructions on your bottle of ear cleaner before use. Make sure to follow them.
  2. Ideally ask a second person to gently hold your cat still on a non-slip surface like a bath mat. Some dogs might also benefit from a second person helping.
  3. For dogs with floppy ears, gently hold up the ear.
  4. With gloves on, place the nozzle of your bottle of ear cleaner into your pet’s ear, taking care not to insert it too far, and squeeze some in.
  5. Next, massage the base of the ear. Cats and dogs have an L shaped ear canal, so massaging the area will disperse the ear cleaner as well as help to loosen ear wax and dirt and bring it to the surface.
  6. Allow your cat or dog to shake their head – watch out for ear cleaner flying out!
  7. Use a wad of cotton wool to wipe away the ear wax that has been brought to the surface. Never use a cotton bud as you can push dirt further in, or you could go too far into the ear canal and cause damage, especially if your cat or dog suddenly moves.

Wrapping Up

Most ear infections and ear mites will require medication to treat, and allergies will need to be identified and either avoided or treated. However, as part of your dog’s routine ear care, cleansers such as Douxo Care Ear Cleaner can help to keep future infections at bay. Always make an appointment with your vet if you notice symptoms of ear problems in your pet, as failure to address ear problems can lead to repeated episodes and long-term changes in the ear.

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Animed Veterinary Nurse, Beth Walker