Clinical Signs of a Dog Ear Yeast Infection

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As a part of your dog's routine physical exam, your veterinarian will look into their ear canal using a lighted tool called an otoscope. If your vet notices that your dog has any discomfort, redness in the ear canal or excessive debris, these are clues that an ear infection is lurking.

A dog ear yeast infection usually occurs when there's an excess of moisture in their ear. It typically begins in the outer ear canal (or the otitis externa) but can progress to involve the middle ear canal (otitis media) and inner ear (otitis interna) if left untreated. Let's explore some of the clinical signs of a dog ear yeast infection and the difference between dog ear mites versus yeast infection.

Clinical Signs of a Dog Ear Yeast Infection

When it comes to otitis, dogs can show both physical and behavioral signs. Ear infections don't resolve on their own and can worsen rapidly; therefore, if you notice any of the clinical signs from either list below, schedule a veterinary appointment right away.

Physical clinical signs include:

Basset Hound with red collar

  • Redness of the skin
  • Hair loss on the outer ear
  • Darkened skin color (hyperpigmentation)
  • Crusting visible on the ear flap
  • Erosions and sores
  • Discharge
  • Bleeding
  • Swollen or narrowed ear canal
  • Ears that are warm to the touch
  • Abnormal odor to ears or head

More behavioral clinical signs of otitis that pet parents should be aware of include:

  • Scratching at the head or ears
  • Shaking of the head
  • Rubbing the head on the floor, furniture or walls
  • Decreased appetite
  • Decreased energy
  • Tenderness when approached
  • Head shy
  • Grunting or yelping when scratching ears
  • Hearing loss
  • Balance issues*
  • Circling when walking*

*These signs aren't observed with the majority of ear infections, but they are often associated with an infection that involves the inner or middle ear.

Dog Ear Yeast Infection: Dogs Breeds at Risk

Because the dog's ear is a warm, humid environment, it's a natural breeding ground for yeast and bacteria. Any number of factors can lead to an imbalance of yeast or bacteria, regardless of sex, ear shape, history of exposure to water (swimming) or the amount of hair inside the ear canal. Dog breeds with droopy ears, such as basset hounds; oily coats, such as cocker spaniels; and breeds known for allergies, such as Labrador retrievers, are known to suffer from severe or recurring dog ear yeast infections. Allergens are believed to be a significant contributor to the inflammatory and infectious cycle of ear infections.

Head shot of two cute pedigree black Labradors sitting together

Dog ear mites are more common in puppies and dogs with weakened immune systems, but they may also occur in healthy adult dogs. Dogs of all ages can develop both bacterial and yeast-based ear infections.

While most dogs will experience an ear infection at least once in their lifetime, dog ear yeast infections are often the result of an underlying issue. According to the Canadian Veterinary Journal, some of these factors include:

  • Food allergies
  • Canine atopic dermatitis (environmental allergies)
  • Ear parasites, such as Otodectes cynotis, the common ear mite
  • Contact hypersensitivity
  • Hormonal disorders, such as low thyroid levels and adrenal gland disease
  • Foreign bodies, such as a grass awn
  • Growths in the ear canal, such as polyps or tumors

Dog Ear Mites Versus Yeast Infection Versus Bacterial Infection

If you see a moderate to large amount of dark brown or black ear discharge, ear mites may be involved, possibly with a concurrent bacterial or yeast infection. Typically, mite infections cause drier exudate than yeast or bacterial infections.

Your vet will need to do a test to determine which type of organism is causing the ear infection and associated inflammation. Using a clean swab, they'll smear the exudate from your dog's ear canal onto a microscope slide and stain it for examination under a microscope. If your vet suspects mites, the exudate will be mixed with mineral oil and examined under the microscope; this allows the mites to move about and be easily observed. These tests are examples of cytology, and they're the most informative diagnostic test for otitis cases. Ear swabs and cytology are also useful to monitor a dog's response to therapy. Occasionally, culturing a sample of the exudate or imaging studies are necessary, but this is the exception and typically reserved for severe chronic cases.

Dog Ear Yeast Infection Treatment and Prognosis

Based on the results of the ear swab and cytology, your vet will prescribe the appropriate medications. These include a combination of a topical ear cleaner, topical ear medications and potentially oral medications as well. Medications for itching, pain relief and inflammation will also be considered. Following your vet's instructions is necessary to eradicate infections quickly. Ear mite infections can also be treated with topical medications for fleas.

If your vet detects mild otitis of the outer ear early and you comply with your vet's recommendations, most dogs will quickly recover from ear infections. When cases have progressed to the middle or inner ear, treatment can be prolonged. Some cases of bacterial ear infections are difficult to treat and recur frequently. These dogs are at risk of permanent damage, including deafness. Surgery to open up the ear canal (total ear canal ablation) may be necessary in severe and chronic cases. Routinely cleaning your dog's ears after the infection is resolved can help prevent recurrence and keep your pup happy and healthy.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Laci Schaible

Dr. Laci Schaible

Dr. Laci Schaible is a small animal veterinarian turned telemedicine guru. She is a member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists and holds a Masters in Legal Studies from Wake Forest University School of Law, along with her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Texas A&M University. She lives in sunny Florida with her son, two toilet-trained cats, and-- unofficially-- the world's largest standard poodle.