6 Common Ear Problems in Dogs [+Signs, Causes & Prevention]

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vet checking labradors ears

Approximately 7-16% of cases veterinarians see in their clinics involve ear conditions. Various factors can cause ear problems in dogs, so it’s best to consult with your veterinarian when your dog develops any of the issues we’ll discuss below. 

The most common ear problems in dogs include:

  • Infections
  • Aural hematomas
  • Ear mites
  • Deafness
  • Foreign bodies
  • Vestibular disease

In this article, we’ll look at the ear conditions above and describe symptoms, prevention, and treatment. After that, I’ll explain which conditions might appear in each stage of your dog’s life cycle. Finally, I’ll share a list of signs to watch out for and provide some tips to help you care for your special pal.

Common Ear Problems

Ear problems are fairly common in dogs. Knowing about the most common conditions can help you identify trouble in your pooch so you can seek early treatment.


When normally occurring yeast or bacteria overgrow in your dog’s ear, it causes inflammation and infection. The condition can affect the structures of the outer(otitis externa) or middle ear(otitis media).

Based on a 2016 survey of ear infection cases in the United Kingdom, the average age for dogs to develop otitis externa was between 4 and 5 years. 

Signs of ear infections in your dog include:

  • Red, swollen ears
  • Yelping or pulling away when the ears are touched
  • Increased scratching or rubbing of the ear
  • Head shaking
  • Buildup of debris
  • Foul odor
  • Head tilting

Anything that triggers excessive microbial growth can cause ear infections in your dog. Some common contributing factors include ear mites, allergies, trapped moisture, autoimmune diseases, and metabolic diseases that compromise the immune system. Certain breeds, including Basset Hounds, Shar Peis, Labradoodles, Beagles, Golden Retrievers, and Cockapoos are predisposed to ear infections.

If left untreated, ear infections in dogs can grow more severe and travel down the ear canal to the inner ear. Long-term results may include ear damage, hearing loss, and systemic infections.

Preventative measures for ear infections in your dog include promptly treating underlying conditions like allergies and mites, regularly cleaning your dog’s ears, and thoroughly drying your dog after swimming or bathing.

To effectively treat ear infections in your dog, your veterinarian will prescribe oral or topical medications to reduce pain and inflammation and to kill the bacteria or yeast. Severe chronic cases may require surgery. 

Aural hematomas

Ear hematomas are sacs of accumulated blood fluid in a dog’s ear flap. They occur when a small vessel ruptures in the ear flap and blood seeps into the area between the skin and cartilage.

The condition can occur at any age.

Symptoms of aural hematomas include:

  • Swelling/ballooning of all or part of the earflap
  • Redness
  • The ear is warm to the touch
  • Head shaking
  • Head tilting

Aural hematomas are usually caused by scratching or head shaking in response to an ear infection, ear mites, a foreign body, or allergies. Rough play can also cause blood clots in the ear.

Leaving ear hematomas untreated can cause your dog unneeded pain and cause ear disfiguration. Although they can resolve without intervention, some may grow larger and block the ear canal. 

To prevent hematomas in your dog’s ear, promptly seek treatment if he develops an ear infection or mite infestation. Monitor your dog for any signs of ear irritation and contact your vet if you notice any issues.

Some ear hematomas are medically treatable with steroids, antibiotics, and pain relievers. If the clot is extensive, surgical drainage is the treatment of choice. Your veterinarian will also treat any underlying causes.

Ear mites

Mites are tiny parasites that normally live on your dog’s skin. When something causes the critters to multiply rapidly, they can cause irritation and infections.

Although any age dog can have ear mites, the condition is more common in puppies.

Signs of ear mites include:

  • Coffee-ground debris in the ear
  • Intense itching
  • Frequent head shaking
  • Red, inflamed ears

The arachnid, Otodectes cynotis, is the primary ear mite affecting dogs. The parasites are infectious meaning they can pass from one pup to another.

Leaving ear mites untreated can set your dog up for ear infections. Because the parasite is transmissible, other dogs or cats in your household may become infected.

To treat ear mites in your dog, your veterinarian will clean debris and wax buildup from the ear canal and prescribe ear drops, a topical treatment, or oral medications to kill the mites. 


Dogs can be born deaf or develop hearing loss during their lifetime.

Congenital deafness is present from birth and noticeable when your dog is a puppy. Usually, adult or senior dogs will suffer from hearing loss or acquired deafness 

Common signs of deafness in dogs include:

  • Not responding to sound
  • Unusual barking – louder, more frequent, or different sound
  • Tilting or head shaking
  • Hyperactivity
  • Sleeping more

Causes of deafness in dogs include genetics, aging, infections, or trauma. Dogs with white coats or blue eyes such as Dalmatians, Australian Heelers, Bull Terriers, English Cocker Spaniels, and Boston Terriers are prone to congenital deafness.

There is no way to treat deafness.

Congenital deafness cannot be prevented. However, you may be able to prevent acquired deafness by protecting your pooch from excessively loud sounds and treating ear infections promptly.

Deafness is not treatable, but you can make your furbaby’s life more comfortable by providing specialized training and adjusting your home routine.

Foreign bodies

Due to their inquisitive natures, dogs are prone to having foreign materials like twigs, insects, or other objects lodged in their ears. 

Foreign bodies can get stuck in dog ears at any age.

Signs of a foreign body in the ear include head shaking, pawing at the ear, head tilting, sensitivity to touch, and visible objects in the ear.

Various objects may lodge in your dog’s ear including grass awns, seeds, twigs, insects, and pebbles.

While some foreign bodies may dislodge without help, it’s best to seek treatment. The materials can also travel down the ear canal and potentially puncture the eardrum.

Prevention of foreign bodies is tricky, but you can inspect your dog’s ears regularly for evidence of debris or other materials. If your pup’s activities or environment increase his risk of picking up foreign materials, consider protective ear coverings.

Dogs with foreign bodies should see a veterinarian. Attempting to remove materials at home can lead to ear damage or other complications. Your vet will use specialized tools to gently extract the foreign body.

Vestibular disease

Vestibular disease is a condition of the middle ear that leads to loss of coordination and balance.

Idiopathic(no known cause) vestibular disease usually affects senior dogs. 

Symptoms of vestibular disease include:

  • Head tilt
  • Loss of coordination
  • Circling
  • Stumbling
  • Nystagmus
  • Drooling or vomiting

Vestibular disease may be caused by ear infections, ruptured eardrums, ear tumors/polyps, or hypothyroidism.

Unless there’s an underlying condition, vestibular disease usually won’t get worse after the first 48 hours or so. Rather, the disease tends to improve over 2-3 weeks. However, leaving it untreated can cause your dog nausea and discomfort and affect his quality of life.

Vestibular disease is difficult to prevent, but you can regularly inspect and clean your dog’s ears to avoid ear infections or catch other potential causes of vestibular disease early.

Treatment of vestibular disease in dogs begins with the treatment of underlying conditions. Additionally, your veterinarian may prescribe anti-nausea medications and sedatives as supportive care. IV fluids may also be administered if your dog’s vomiting leads to dehydration. 

Ear Health Problems across the lifecycle

Dogs can experience different ear issues at various stages in their life. For example, congenital deafness appears in puppies while idiopathic vestibular disease usually afflicts senior dogs.

Ear Health Problems in Puppies

Certain ear health problems commonly surface during the puppy stage. Congenital deafness is present from birth and appears in puppies. While ear mites can affect any dog, they’re most common in puppies due to an immature immune system.

Ear Health Problems in Adult Dogs

Many of the common ear conditions can affect dogs at any age but are more prevalent in adult dogs. The average age for dogs to present with ear infections is between 4 and 5 years. Because infections can trigger aural hematomas, you’re more likely to find the blood clots in adult dogs. Naturally, adult dogs are more likely to explore outdoors and pick up foreign bodies in their ears than puppies or seniors.

Ear Health Problems in Senior Dogs

The most common ear health problems in senior dogs are acquired deafness and idiopathic vestibular disease.

Ear Problem Signs Dog Parents Should Beware of

Identifying and treating ear problems early in your dog can often improve his prognosis and recovery time. Below are the top signs of common ear issues in dogs.

  • Red, swollen ears
  • Yelping or pulling away when the ears are touched
  • Increased scratching or rubbing of the ear
  • Head shaking
  • Ballooning of all or part of the earflap
  • Coffee-ground debris in the ear
  • Intense itching
  • Not responding to sound
  • Unusual barking – louder, more frequent, or different sound
  • Head tilting
  • Pawing at ear
  • Objects in the ear
  • Loss of coordination
  • Circling/stumbling
  • Nystagmus
  • Drooling or vomiting

Common causes of Ear problems

Various factors can cause ear problems in your dog.

  • Genetics
  • Allergies
  • Metabolic disease
  • Trapped moisture
  • Immune-mediated disease
  • Parasites
  • Aging 
  • Trauma
  • Ear tumors/polyps

Ear Health Care Tips and Problem Prevention

Taking care of your dog’s ears can help them stay healthy and prevent disease. Let’s look at some healthcare and prevention tips.

  • Purchase your puppy from a reputable breeder that won’t use stock that has genetically linked ear conditions
  • Regularly clean your dog’s ears 
  • Inspect your dog’s ears for debris, signs of inflammation, or foreign bodies
  • Schedule annual checkups for your pooch that include aural exams
  • Feed a balanced diet 
  • Minimize exposure to loud noises
  • Dry your dog’s ears after bathing or swimming

The Final Woof

Ear conditions including infections, hematomas, deafness, and vestibular disease occur commonly in dogs. Some problems can be present in puppies while other diseases affect seniors. Understanding common ear issues in dogs can help you identify problems and seek treatment early. 

Photo of author
Dr. Libby Guise earned her DVM from the University of Minnesota in 1994. After working in private practice in Wisconsin for two years, she joined the USDA as a Veterinary Medical Officer. In 2011, Libby came home to focus on raising and teaching her adoptive daughter. She lives in Wisconsin with her daughter, husband, and two furbabies: Charis, a lab-mix rescue pup, and Chesed, a Springer Spaniel.

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