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Ear Infections in Dogs and Cats

By Dr. Kait Link, DVM
published: May 5, 2017 - updated: February 23, 2022 • 4 min. read

Last updated March 23, 2020.

Key Takeaways

  • Ear infections can be caused by ear mites (more often for cats), rashes and allergies, bacterial infection, or even cancer or cysts.
  • Scratching at or around their ear could be an early sign of an infection. Other symptoms include odor from the ear, discharge, shaking, redness, and swelling.
  • Treatment may include ear cleaners and washes and oral medications.

Ear infections: painful when you’re a kid, annoying when you’re an adult, and dangerous for your pets. Both dogs and cats can be affected by ear infections, but it is a more common problem for dogs. There are three levels of ear infections, depending on the part of the ear afflicted: Otitis externa, Otitis Media, and Otitis Interna. Outer ear infections can be painful and annoying, but if they persist to the inner ear, neurological damage and deafness can occur.

What causes ear infections in dogs and cats?

There are many different reasons why your pup or kitty can come down with an ear infection. From ear mites (more often for cats), to rashes and allergies, bacterial infection, or even cancer or cysts. Since some conditions are far more serious than others, it’s best to check with your veterinarian to determine the cause of the ear infection before choosing a treatment plan.


If your pet starts scratching at or around their ear, this could be an early sign of an infection. Other things to look out for are:

  • Brownish discharge
  • Odor in the ear
  • Hair loss around the ear (due to scratching)
  • Crust or scabs
  • Redness and swelling
  • Rubbing
  • Shaking
  • Head tilt
  • Unusual eye movements
  • Walking in circles
  • Hearing loss
  • Disorientation and loss of balance.

There are some factors that can predispose your pet to ear infections. Floppy-eared dogs are much more likely to develop infections. Excessive moisture (from swimming or bathing) can create an atmosphere where bacteria thrive. But be careful trying to absorb excess moisture; damage can also be caused by cotton swabs irritating the ear canal or pushing debris further back into the ear.

How do veterinarians’ diagnose ear infections?

Your veterinarian will diagnose an ear infection by observing clinical signs and performing diagnostic tests. They will use a tool called an otoscope, which allows them to see into the ear canal and look for changes and signs of damage to the eardrum. This can be uncomfortable for your dog, so they might be sedated.

Your veterinarian may then take a swab of the ear canal to look for bacteria, yeast, and signs of mites under a microscope.

A complete neurological examination may be needed for inner ear infections. Also, your veterinarian may recommend laboratory tests for bacterial diseases, a deep ear flush, radiographic imaging, and an MRI.

Once the ear infection is diagnosed, your veterinarian will start looking for the cause of the infection. Finding the source is crucial as the infection is likely to return if the underlying cause is not addressed. Depending on your dog’s condition, this may include blood work, skin scrapings, allergy testing, and biopsies.


Each pet has different ears and different symptoms, so be sure to consult with your veterinarian for the best form of treatment for your cat or dog. To treat the infection, a variety of ear cleaners and washes may be prescribed in conjunction with oral medications. Be sure to follow the full course of medication prescribed, to make sure you kick that pesky ear infection for good.

BNT Treatments for ear infections have been around a long time, but have generally meant applying ointment two times per day for up to two weeks. Thanks to medical advancements, a new formula is available that will clear up an ear infection with just a single application. A BNT treatment will run you about $45 a tube, and for reference, the total cost to treat ear infections is between $100 and $250 with a vet visit.

Learn more about how the Healthy Paws dog insurance plan pays on your actual veterinary bill and covers injuries, illnesses, emergencies, genetic conditions and much more.

Helping to prevent ear infections

Dogs and cats with allergies are more prone to ear infections, as well as those with fur that grows into the ear canal. To prevent infections in the future, be sure to have your pet’s ears cleaned regularly. Check with your vet on how to clean your pet’s ears (very gently) at home. If your dog goes swimming or has a bath, remember to dry completely.

The best ear cleaners for dogs and cats

You will need a few items to clean your pet’s ears: pet ear wash solution, cotton balls or pads, Q-tips and, don’t forget the treats.

There are many products on the market that are designed to clean your dog’s ears. Puplife Today reviewed dozens of ear cleaners to come up with their top recommendations for dogs. Here are their top five:

Similarly, reviewed ear cleaners for cats and had these recommendations:

Dr. Kait Link, DVM, is a clinical research veterinarian in San Francisco, Calif., and a board member of International Veterinary Outreach.

Does the Healthy Paws plan cover ear infections?

Veterinary care for an ear infection is eligible for coverage by the Healthy Paws plan as long as the condition is not pre-existing to policy coverage. Learn more about pre-existing conditions.

How much does it cost to treat ear infections in dogs and cats?

Depending on each individual case, the cost to treat a dog or cat ear infection will vary greatly, but can initially cost anywhere from $50 to $300.

The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical diagnosis, condition, or treatment options.

kait link
By Dr. Kait Link, DVM

Dr. Kait Link, DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine), is a veterinarian and co-founder of Treat, an innovative vet practice in operation from 2015-2016. She served as the Chair of External Affairs Committee for International Veterinary Outreach from 2018-2020. Dr. Link works as a clinical research veterinarian in San Francisco, Calif. She graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College in 2014.

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