Any ear infection can be irritating, unpleasant, and downright painful for your pet, but a chronic infection can cause significant problems that can be difficult to manage. Pets with chronic ear infections routinely visit their primary care veterinarian for their latest flare-up, but some chronic ear infections require urgent treatment for the pet to get relief. Additionally, pets with chronic ear infections may need a veterinary dermatologist’s specialized care to successfully manage their condition. Read on, to learn how pets develop chronic ear infections, how you can spot your own pet’s signs, and how you can manage their condition effectively.

What causes chronic ear infections in pets?

In some pets, an ear infection can be a one-off incident, while other unlucky pets can suffer with a chronic condition. Dogs are much more likely than cats to develop chronic ear infections for many reasons, including:

  • Activities — If your dog enjoys swimming or requires frequent baths, water can become trapped in their ears, creating a moist breeding ground where bacteria and yeast can thrive.
  • Anatomy — Dogs with floppy ears, stenotic (i.e., narrowed) ear canals, or exceptionally hairy ears, are more likely to develop ear infections because debris is more easily trapped.
  • Allergies — Environmental or food allergies generally cause skin inflammation, including inside the ears. Inflamed ears are more prone to infection.
  • Ear mites — Although these tiny parasites are more commonly seen in cats than dogs, they are contagious between species, and can affect cats and dogs living in the same house. Ear mites cause intense itching and inflammation.
  • Endocrine disorders — Endocrine conditions such as hypothyroidism can predispose dogs to skin and ear issues.
  • Autoimmune diseases — Lupus, pemphigus, and vasculitis can attack a pet’s ears and cause recurring problems.
  • Polyps — While ear polyps are more common in cats than dogs, these tumors can grow quite large, blocking the ear canal, and trapping debris.

What are chronic ear infection signs in pets?

Pets with ear infections can show an impressive range of discomfort, from a few head shakes, to snapping and growling when their ear is touched. Ear infection signs in your pet may include:

  • Reddened, inflamed ears
  • Ear odor
  • Excessive scratching
  • Head shaking
  • Flinching when petted, vocalization, or irritable behavior, because of pain
  • Ear discharge
  • Head tilt

An ear infection may affect one or both ears, so both your pet’s ears should always be checked for infection.

How will I know if my pet needs urgent care for an ear infection?

While treatment for ear infections can sometimes wait a day or two, your primary care veterinarian should treat certain ear problems immediately. If your pet is incredibly painful, is tilting their head, or develops an ear hematoma (i.e., a bad bruise), we recommend urgent care. These signs indicate a serious problem that must be addressed quickly, rather than waiting for your regular veterinarian to be available. An untreated ear infection can travel to the middle or inner ear, causing systemic problems, and affecting your pet’s hearing and balance. Also, the longer an ear infection remains untreated, the higher the potential for lasting issues, such as scarring, ear canal stenosis (i.e., narrowing), and recurrent infections. 

How are chronic ear infections in pets diagnosed?

A one-off ear infection can easily be diagnosed and treated, but the underlying cause of a chronic condition must be determined for effective management. Some chronic ear infection cases may need a veterinary dermatologist to be successfully diagnosed and managed.

Diagnostic tests that may be necessary to identify the cause of your pet’s ear infection include:

  • Ear cytology — An ear cytology consists of swabbing the debris from your pet’s ear, staining the microscope slide that contains the debris, and then an evaluation for yeast, bacteria, or mites.
  • Culture and sensitivity testing — Chronic ear infections often become resistant to commonly used topical medications, so growing and identifying the specific bacteria causing the infection may be necessary. This test also determines which antibiotics will effectively eliminate the bacteria.
  • Blood tests — Blood tests that check for endocrine disorders, such as hypothyroidism, may be needed to diagnose an underlying cause.
  • Diagnostic imaging — Skull X-rays or more advanced imaging like a CT scan or MRI may be needed to assess severe or inner ear disease.
  • Allergy testing — Other chronic conditions, such as allergies, can cause chronic ear infections, so intradermal or blood testing for environmental allergens may be necessary. A dietary trial may help a pet with a suspected food allergy.

How are chronic ear infections in pets managed?

Identifying and managing the underlying cause of a pet’s chronic ear infections is vital to control the condition. Depending on the infection cause, your pet may require:

  • Allergy treatment, including oral medications, topical therapies, injections, or a prescription diet
  • Endocrine disease treatment, which typically consists of oral medication
  • Surgery to remove the diseased ear canal
  • Parasite control to eliminate ear mites

To effectively treat your pet’s ear infection, you may need to administer topical ear medications, and oral anti-inflammatories and antibiotics. If flare-ups continue to occur, more diagnostic testing may be necessary to determine whether your pet’s infection is bacterial, fungal, or a combination, so the appropriate treatment can be prescribed. 

If your pet’s chronic ear infection has flared again outside your primary care veterinarian’s normal business hours, don’t let them wait in discomfort. Contact our Southern Arizona Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center central location or east side location, and give them immediate relief.