Understanding the 3 Types of Ear Infections in Dogs

A Jack Russell terrier receives ear treatment at a veterinary clinic
© Viktoriia Hnatiuk/Shutterstock.com

Written by Katelynn Sobus

Published: February 21, 2023

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It can be so difficult to see our fur babies sick! Whether you’re seeking more information after your dog was diagnosed with an ear infection or want to know how to prevent them from getting one, you’ve come to the right place.

Dogs have three types of ear infections: Otitis Externa, Media, and Interna. These are outer, middle, and inner ear infections, respectively. Inner ear infections are the most severe, while outer ear infections are common and typically very simple to treat.

In this article, we’ll talk about all three types of ear infections in dogs, symptoms to watch for, and how they’re treated.

Ear Infections in Dogs

A dog suffering from ear mites

The outer ear is typically where the infection starts, but if left untreated, it can spread into the middle or inner ear.


Otitis Externa (Outer Ear Infection)

Outer ear infections are the most common in dogs. The outer ear is typically where the infection starts, but if left untreated, it can spread into the middle or inner ear.

Otitis Externa is also the easiest ear infection for a veterinarian to treat.

Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection)

Otitis media is when the middle ear becomes infected. Most commonly, this happens when an outer ear infection spreads.

This is more difficult to treat than a simple outer ear infection but not as tricky as an infection that’s spread to the inner ear or further.

Otitis Interna (Inner Ear Infection)

An inner ear infection is the hardest to treat and, luckily, also the rarest. Most times, if your dog has an inner ear infection, it’s because the infection has gone untreated and spread.

However, it can also be caused by a polyp in the ear, or a small object like a seed lodged deep into the ear canal.

Symptoms of Ear Infections in Dogs

You’ll often notice your dog has an ear infection because of itchiness, redness, or odor. These common symptoms are easy to identify.

If you’re not sure if your dog has an ear infection, here’s a fuller list of symptoms to watch out for:

  • Shaking their head
  • Itching their ears
  • Dark discharge or excessive amounts of earwax
  • Odor (often described as sweet and fruity or yeasty)
  • Redness
  • Inflammation
  • Pain
  • Crusting or scabs
  • Difficulty or pain while chewing
  • Head tilt
  • Loss of balance, incoordination
  • Hearing loss

Ear infections can sometimes be mistaken for other things, like ear mites or injuries. Either way, it’s important to see a vet if you notice symptoms — especially because these can also cause ear infections.

How to Treat Ear Infections in Dogs

A rough collie receives an ear examination at a veterinary clinic

Seeing a veterinarian as soon as possible is vital if you suspect your dog has an ear infection.


First, it’s important to note that no home remedies will work to treat your dog’s ear infection. Most of them, like hydrogen peroxide or vinegar, can worsen an infection.

Even natural remedies that don’t worsen the infection can lead to it going untreated longer, which can cause it to spread.

So, seeing a veterinarian as soon as possible is vital if you suspect your dog has an ear infection.

For outer ear infections, vets will likely use some or all of the following treatments:

  • Cleaning the ears and sending you home with an ear-cleaning solution to keep them clean going forward
  • A medicated topical treatment that goes in the ear
  • Oral antibiotics
  • Anti-inflammatory medication

If the ear infection doesn’t clear up, which happens only rarely, your vet might suggest surgical removal of the ear canal.

They might also prescribe other treatments to address the root cause of the ear infection. For instance, they may prescribe a parasite-prevention medication to kill ear mites.

Most ear infections clear up in 1-2 weeks, but sometimes it takes months to heal fully. And, as we talked about above, some dogs’ ear infections don’t heal and need more aggressive treatment.

An untreated ear infection can lead to deafness, blindness, nerve damage, and the infection spreading to other parts of the body, such as the brain.

Causes of Ear Infections in Dogs

According to the American Kennel Club, dog ear infections can have many root causes, including:

  • Moisture or water in the ear
  • A build-up of wax
  • Cleaning the ear too frequently
  • An item, such as a seed, getting stuck inside the ear
  • Ear injuries
  • Allergies, either to food or environmental
  • Endocrine disorders
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Ear polyps
  • Tumors in the ear

Most commonly, ear infections are caused by allergies, water in the ear, or wax build-up. If you’re unsure why your dog has an ear infection, your veterinarian may be able to provide answers. 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions during your dog’s appointment so that you can understand their health and, hopefully, prevent them from developing more ear infections in the future.

This is especially important if your dog is continually developing ear infections, as the only way to prevent them is to know why they’re occurring in the first place.

How to Prevent Ear Infections in Dogs

why do dogs drag their butts

If your dog gets ear infections, often they should have their ears cleaned more than usual.


Luckily, there are many ways to prevent ear infections in dogs. They include the following methods:

Keep Them Dry

It’s essential to keep the ears dry. This means drying them off after your dog has a bath or plays in the water and trying your best not to get water in their ears. For instance, if you’re playing with the hose, don’t aim it at your dog’s ears.

Avoid using home remedies for ear infections like vinegar or hydrogen peroxide because these have significant water content. If water gets trapped in the ear, it’s likely to cause or worsen an infection.

Clean them Regularly

If your dog gets ear infections, often they should have their ears cleaned more than usual. Most dogs should have their ears cleaned at least once a month, but my vet suggested once weekly when my dog was getting frequent infections.

This can be done by using an ear-cleaning solution to rinse the ear or by wiping the outer ear with the same cleaning solution on a cotton pad. Remember not to stick anything into the ear canal, which can cause pain, wax build-up, or even damage your dog’s ear.

Treat Underlying Health Conditions

Other preventatives include managing underlying conditions like allergies, thyroid disease, or autoimmune disorders. If these ailments are causing ear infections, they might continue to reoccur until you get them under control.

Prevent Ear Injuries

Lastly, try your best to prevent injuries to your dog’s ears. Limit interactions with other dogs to those you know get along with yours, avoid places with large groups of dogs like dog parks where dog fights are most common, and never try to brush through tangles or mats on your dog’s ears as this can rip the sensitive skin.

If your dog’s ear is injured, keep the wound clean and see a veterinarian for treatment if needed, including if you notice signs of infection or the damage is slow to heal.

Bacterial vs. Yeast Ear Infections

Ear infections can be caused by a variety of things, including:

  • Bacteria
  • Yeast
  • Mites
  • Fungus
  • Tumors
  • Polyps

Bacterial and yeast ear infections are the most common. All of the above ear infections have the same symptoms, but veterinarians can tell the difference if they take a swab or culture of the ear and look at it under a microscope.

We hope this has helped you to learn more about ear infections in dogs, the three types of ear infections, and how veterinarians treat them.

Remember to see a vet as soon as you can after noticing symptoms of an ear infection, as this isn’t something you can treat at home. Your dog’s condition can worsen the longer you wait, so acting quickly is essential.

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About the Author

Katelynn Sobus is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on pets including dogs, cats, and exotics. She has been writing about pet care for over five years. Katelynn currently lives in Michigan with her seven senior rescue cats.

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