How to Tell if Your Pet Has an Ear Infection (and What to Do About it!)

By: Trupanion Staff | Updated Sep 16, 2023


Cat ears poking up out of a basket.


Dogs and cats can get ear infections just like humans can. Naturally, however, it can be difficult to tell when your pet's ears are bothering them, especially if the infection is mild. While you should always reach out to your pet's veterinarian if you suspect something is wrong, it is a good idea to become well-versed in common dog and cat health conditions like ear infections. It's also a good idea to make sure your pal is protected from unexpected conditions ahead of time with pet health insurance.

This article is not a substitute for veterinary advice specific to your pet. Instead, let this be your guide to general information about ear infections in cats and dogs and most importantly, how to tell if your pet may need medical attention.

What causes ear infections in dogs and cats?

There are many causes of ear infections in pets. While they can happen to any dog or cat, it's important to realize that some breeds are more prone to developing ear infections than others. Here are some of the most widespread causes of ear infections:

  • Parasites, such as ticks and ear mites, which can cause irritation and lead to inflammation and infection
  • Allergies (the most common cause of ear infections), including environmental allergies (such as mold or dust mites) and food allergies
  • Excessive hair growth inside the ear, which can restrict the air flow and trap moisture
  • Foreign bodies, such as seeds or plant material, which can become lodged in the ear canal
  • Growths, tumors or abscesses

While ear infections in cats and dogs are fairly common, they can cause a lot of pain and discomfort if not identified and treated early. Dr. Jason Nicholas, The Preventive Vet, explains some of the most common causes of ear infections, and offers advice around treatment and prevention, as well as a step-by-step guide to safely cleaning your pet’s ears.



Signs of ear infections in pets

Dogs and cats can't describe their symptoms to us, so it's up to humans to look for physical and behavioral cues that may indicate something is wrong. You can perform a visual check on your pal at home just while petting them and gently looking over their ears. Regular examinations like this will help you easily recognize any changes in your pet's ears and spot any signs of abnormality.

According to Nicholas, your pet may exhibit the following signs if they are suffering from an ear infection:

  • Head shaking
  • Scratching ears
  • Blood on the outside of the ear
  • Dragging head on carpet or furniture
  • Abnormal discharge or odor from the ear
  • Tilting head
  • Abnormal movement of eyes
  • Loss of balance
  • Hearing loss (your pet is not as responsive to sounds as usual)
  • Hair loss around the ear
  • Inflammation

Getting a veterinary diagnosis

Even if you're pretty certain your pet is suffering from an ear infection, it's crucial to get an official diagnosis from your veterinarian. They will be able to confirm the ear infection or make a different assessment. There are certain conditions that can mimic the signs of an ear infection in pets, so it's always important to get a correct diagnosis. Furthermore, ear infection vary in severity, so your pet's treatment will depend on the extent of the condition.

To diagnose the cause of the infection, your veterinarian may take a swab from the affected ear to identify whether any bacteria and/or yeast are present. They will likely also check the ear for wounds, swellings or parasites to help determine the underlying cause.


Female pet owner holding out her dog's ears on a beach


Treating pet ear infections

Ear infections are often treated with ear cleaning and a course of topical drugs. It’s important to visit your veterinarian around two weeks after your pet has completed their treatment to ensure the infection has fully cleared up.

If the ear infection is the result of an allergy, lifelong treatment will be necessary to help limit reoccurrence and your veterinarian can advise you on the best treatment options for your pet.

The dangers of treating without diagnosis

While you may be tempted to use medication left over from a past ear infection or obtain a medication from over the counter, it’s important to recognize the dangers of self-prescribing treatment for your pet’s condition. The wrong treatment may be ineffective or could even cause the infection to worsen. In some cases, it could lead to deafness or other kinds of lasting damage.



How to clean your pet's ears

It’s important to pay attention to the health of your pet’s ears, and sometimes regular ear cleaning can be an important part of management/prevention of ear infections. Remember, excessive washing may cause damage to the ear canal, so it’s important to discuss with your veterinarian the best course of action for your pet when it comes to adopting a regular ear cleaning regime. Likewise, do not use Q-tips (cotton swabs) in your pet's ears. Not only are they designed for human use rather than animal ears, but it can be easy to push too deep and cause damage.

Here’s Nicholas’ step-by-step guide to cleaning your pet’s ears safely:

  • Choose a location where you don’t mind getting messy, preferably somewhere outside.
  • For the comfort of your pet, ensure the cleaner is at room temperature or briefly soak it in warm water before use.
  • Hold up the ear flap and squirt a good amount of cleaner into the ear. Massage vigorously at the base of the ear where you can feel the bulb of cartilage. This helps drive the cleaner deeper into the ear and breaks up any debris or wax.
  • Step aside as your pet shakes their head to get the bulk of the cleaner out of their ear.
  • Wrap a cotton ball or tissue around your finger and wipe around the ear canal to remove any excess dirt and liquid.
  • Wait around 15 minutes for the remaining cleaner to dry before administering any other medication prescribed by your veterinarian.



If your dog has excessive hair growth inside their ear canal, it’s a good idea to discuss with your veterinarian whether the hair needs to be removed, and if so, can advise how to remove the hair safely. Ensuring your pet’s ears are clean and dry after swimming, bathing or grooming will also help prevent ear infections.

Stay on top of your pet's health by learning what veterinarians really say about chocolate's effects on dogs and cats.



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