Can an ear infection be contagious in dogs and cats? There are multiple causes of ear infections, and some caused by ear mites can spread from pet to pet.
Morris Animal Foundation recently reported on ear infections in dogs, noting that 7-10% of dogs seen by general vet practices complain of ear issues. That’s a lot of scratching and head shaking misery! That’s one reason they’re funding new research into assessing treatments, so check out the story for more information. Here’s how ear issues have affected my dogs.
Treating Dog Ear Infection
A couple of years ago, Bravo-Dawg began scratching his ear, and yelping if bumped on that side—even tilting his head that direction. I suspected he had a painful dog ear infection. Magic had his share of ear infections, so I knew this was something that needed veterinary care sooner rather than later.
Dogs (and cats) are prone to ear infections because of the conformation of the ear itself. Human ear canals are straight, unlike the L-shaped pet’s ear canal. Debris and moisture can become trapped in the foot of that L, creating a perfect percolating environment for nasty agents to set up housekeeping. Some dogs invite you to rub their itchy ears with moans and groans.
Dog ear infections just like canine hot spots, also often develop because of allergies. Light colored pets can get sunburned ears that cause problems. If your dog has seasonal allergies, you’ll need to be extra vigilant. When dogs enjoy hot water games like hose tag, getting water inside the ears can predispose to earache and dog ear infection.
KEEPING DOG EARS HEALTHY
Now, you can offer home treatments and first aid for general cleaning of the ear infection. Drop-eared dogs that love the water (Labradors come to mind) may benefit from “Swimmer’s Solution” to help keep ears healthy.
Mix 1 cup plain water with 2 cups vinegar and 1 tablespoon of rubbing alcohol. The vinegar creates an acidic environment to prevent yeast and bacteria overgrowth, while the dash of alcohol helps cut through and dissolve wax (never use straight alcohol, that’d be way too harsh!). Swimmer’s Solution sprayed on the outside of the ear canal once or twice a week (or after swims or baths) can help with these dogs. But it won’t cure an active ear infection.
It can help to “air out” the ears of drop-ear breeds. A clothespin or binder clip that grasps the long fur on ear tips behind the head can help. Or use a soft elastic hairband to hold them wrapped around the back of the head. A half-hour period once a week may be all that’s needed to keep them healthy and prevent ear infections.
COMMON DOG EAR INFECTIONS
Be alert for smelly ears, or any discharge that’s light brown, yellowish or dark and bloody. Tenderness and especially head tilt should send you to the vet asap. Very serious infections can smell like chocolate or fermenting fruit.
A dark brown to black waxy runny material that smells rancid often is a yeast overgrowth, and quite common in dogs. Yeast overgrowth happens when the normal acidic pH of your pet’s ear is out of balance, perhaps as a result of getting water inside from swimming or a bath.
Crumbly brown or black material inside the ear is more typical of ear mite infestation. These tiny spider relatives make ears itchy and sore when they crawl around inside the canal and bite to suck lymph from the tissues. Ouch!
Different Ear Infections Require Different Ear Treatments
Canine ear infections can be aggravating, painful, and hard to cure because there are so any different organisms that may be involved, either alone or individually. Treating with the wrong medication won’t be effective and could even make matters worse. Besides, when the dog’s ears are so sore and painful, dogs often won’t allow even a beloved owner to touch them.
Magic was such a good boy, he did let me look in his sore ears, and even gently wipe out what I could see with a cotton ball soaked with warm water. Honestly, I didn’t want to do much beyond that, because potentially it could mess up whatever diagnostics the vet would run.
My pets never do things halfway. I’m grateful that my dogs adore their veterinarian, and Bravo didn’t require sedation for the culture. Basically, the vet collects a sample of the “goop” to examine under the microscope.
A few years earlier, my aging dog Magical-Dawg also developed an ear infection that contained no less than three nasty agents doing the hula deep inside his ear canal. Yeast, staph and a huge bucket-load of bacteria called pseudomonas aeruginosa. No wonder my poor doggy suffered such pain!
Pseudomonas easily becomes antibiotic-resistant, and can to live on soap and other antiseptics. Magic’s ear infection was at the tipping point for needing serious intervention (wow, that happened quickly!), so the veterinarian recommended bringing out the “big guns.” He prescribed a new ear medication designed to attack both fungal and bacterial infections (POSATEX ™ Otic Suspension) that contains Orbifloxacin, Mometasone, Furoate Monohydrate, and Posaconazole. After the first two days of treatment, Magic already felt better. He stopped crying and flinching when we touched his ear.
Unfortunately, pseudomonas infection improves with treatment even if not all the bacteria is killed, stopping treatment usually means a resurgence of infection—this time, the bacteria is resistant to the treatment. The ear medication was given daily for at least two weeks, and at his checkup, that had taken care of Magic’s ear infection.
BRAVO’S EAR INFECTION TREATMENT
Bravo’s infection wasn’t nearly so involved, thank doG. His ears were flushed, and medication infused deep into the ear canal. A wonderful benefit of modern treatments is that no follow-up drops were needed. This one-time infusion knocked out the hokey-pokey dance deep inside his ears.
To me, Magic’s gorgeous “prick” ears are one of his most striking features. Bravo’s “drop” ears are equally endearing. But aside from good looks, keeping my “baby-dog” feeling fine is priority one. Hopefully the new studies launched at Morris Animal Foundation reported in their May 18, 2023 blog will find ever better ways to diagnosis, treat, and prevent ear problems.
Cats Have Ear Challenges, Too!
Not to be outdone, Karma-Kat also had an ear issue, and developed an aural hematoma. That’s when the ear flap fills with blood from bruising, most often the result of scratching at an itch caused by infection. But Karma’s came from something else–read about Karma’s hematoma here!
Has your dog (or cat) ever suffered from an ear infection? How did you know? What treatment helped your pet? Do you have a routine ear maintenance routine? Do tell!
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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!