Dogs scratch at their ears and shake their heads at times. If you’ve noticed your dog shaking their head more than usual, you may wonder if there is something wrong. Are their ears itchy? Irritated? Leaking strange fluid? Ear discharge in dogs can be a surprising, and scary, symptom, with multiple causes behind it. Learn what ear discharge means and what to do to help your dog feel better.
What Is Ear Discharge in Dogs?
Ear discharge is fluid that leaks from the ear canal. However, it can also refer to discharge from cuts or scrapes on the ear flap, known as the pinna. Discharge can be made up of a number of fluids. It may be clear, cloudy, yellow or greenish, or even brown. The thickness and color of the discharge can help to indicate what may be occurring. This can indicate allergies, normal earwax, mites, or infection. You may also notice common symptoms with any type of ear discharge, such as head shaking, pawing at the ears, pain, or redness.
Causes of Ear Discharge in Dogs
Here are some of the most common reasons you may see discharge from your dog’s ears, and what to do:
A common cause of ear discharge in dogs, allergies can cause a wide range of reactions. You may notice that the discharge is clear or cloudy. There may be irritation around the ear canal or ear flap. In addition, your dog may shake their head, paw at their ear, or attempt to rub it on objects. Allergies can also present with full-body symptoms such as a rash or itchiness, but in many cases is confined to only the ear if the ear is affected.
An exam of the ear is a good first step in determining if allergies are the cause. Your vet may wish to take a sample of any discharge to check for other issues such as mites or foreign bodies, and can then prescribe medications to help. For allergies, over the counter and prescription oral allergy medications are the most commonly used. In more stubborn cases, a steroid or topical steroid cream can also help. Your vet may also recommend treating any secondary issues such as infections, especially if your dog has scratched at their ears excessively.
Allergies can be hard to prevent. If your dog has a history of allergic reactions, baby or pet wipes are useful. You can use them to gently clean the ear flap and outer ear canal to remove any dust or pollen that may get stuck and cause irritation.
Foreign Bodies in the Ear
If you’ve ever let your dog run through tall grass, you may have noticed small seeds and other debris getting stuck to their fur. The same can happen to your dog’s ears. This can lead to a foreign body that embeds itself under the skin of the ear flap, or deeper into the ear canal. You may notice your dog shaking their head, whining in discomfort, or pawing at their ears. In addition, a small bump may form around the foreign body. If embedded fully under the skin, the foreign body can lead to swelling and discharge.
If you suspect your dog has a foreign body in their ear, seek veterinary care right away. Do not attempt to remove the item yourself, especially if it is in the ear canal, as you may accidentally lodge it deeper. Your veterinarian can safely sedate your dog to remove anything in the ear canal with special tools. Or, they can surgically remove foreign bodies embedded under the skin. Your vet may recommend pain medications or antibiotics if the foreign body caused a secondary infection or excessive pain.
The best way to prevent foreign bodies is to examine your dog’s ears after visiting brushy or grassy areas. Gently remove any seeds or other items and look for bumps or scratches that may indicate something present under the skin.
Ear Mites and Parasites
Ear mites and other ear parasites are more common in pets such as cats, but can occur in dogs as well. The microscopic parasites are hard to spot, but there are several signs that can indicate your dog is affected. These include the usual scratching and pawing of the ears, redness, and ear discharge. However, the discharge is often “dirty” in appearance, looking brown or speckled, rather than clear or yellow as with allergies or an infection.
A sample of the ear discharge can be looked at under a microscope to identify ear mites. From there, your vet will recommend medicated ear drops used to treat the mites, along with daily cleaning to help remove discharge and debris. Daily ear cleaning is important to allow the medicated drops to better penetrate and kill off the mites. Ear mites can be very contagious. Keep your dog separated from other pets while under treatment to prevent their spread.
If you’ve noticed a strange “corn chip” smell coming from your dog’s ears, your dog may have a yeast infection. Yeast organisms love moist places, and ear flaps and ear canals are the ideal environment. While droopy-eared dogs are most commonly affected, any dog can experience a yeast infection. You may also notice cloudy, smelly discharge, redness around the ear flap or canal, and irritation or itchiness along with the strange smell.
A sample of the discharge can be sent to a lab for cytology. It can also be monitored with a culture that checks for any growth. If a yeast infection is found, your vet will likely prescribe an oral medication such as ketoconazole along with a recommendation to clean your dog’s ears daily. Your vet may also prescribe a medicated ear cream to treat the infection at the source. If your dog is prone to yeast infections in the ears, daily cleaning and drying of the ears, especially any flaps or moist spots, can help prevent further issues.
Otitis Externa (Outer Ear Inflammation)
When you think of an ear infection, otitis externa is likely what you’re thinking of. This inflammation of the outer ear canal can be caused by a number of issues, including bacterial or yeast infections, chronic inflammatory conditions, or injury to the ear. This condition is one of the most common reasons why dogs are brought to the vet.
You’ll likely notice your dog’s ears smell badly as the first sign of something wrong, along with ear discharge. In addition, your dog may repeatedly shake or paw at their ears, refuse to let their ears be handled, or may have visible sores or inflammation appear on the inside of the ear flap.
Visual inspection of the ear canal is the best way to spot problems. Dogs with severe inflammation may need sedatives to allow the ear to be examined and cleaned. Samples of ear discharge or any sores can also be taken to rule out other conditions. From there, treatment generally involves daily cleaning of debris from the ear, medicated drops, and monitoring. In severe cases, a sedated cleaning of the ears and oral medications may be needed to reduce the overall swelling before daily care can occur.
If your dog has an underlying condition, such as allergies, treating that can reduce the chances of secondary ear inflammation. Some dogs, such as droopy-ear breeds, are more predisposed to ear canal inflammation. Keeping the ears clean and dry and regularly monitoring for signs of a problem before it worsens can help prevent chronic cases.
Otitis Media and Interna (Middle and Inner Ear Inflammation)
Inflammation and infection of the middle or inner ear of dogs is uncommon, but can occur. Chronic head shaking, outer ear canal infections, conditions such as Horner’s syndrome, and damage to the facial nerves can all increase the chances of inner ear inflammation. In addition to discharge, you may notice that your dog shakes their head, tilts their head to the side of the affected ear, or circles in one direction. Your dog may also yelp in pain when attempting to open their mouth or have changes to their eyes including dry eye, nystagmus, or chronic tearing or discharge from the eye.
An MRI, CT scan, and neurologic exam are recommended. These rule out more serious issues such as tumors of the brain, damage to the inner ear, and neurologically-caused balance disorders. Once more serious conditions have been ruled out, your vet can offer a variety of treatments. Treatment options include systemic antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, steroids, and anti-nausea medications to help treat the underlying condition. If the inflammation is caused by a primary health issue, getting that under control can help prevent further irritation.
Lupus, Pemphigus Erythematosus, Pemphigus Foliaceus, and other immune-related diseases can all cause various skin conditions. In some cases, they may directly affect the ear, leading to inflammation of the ear flap or canal. In addition, other symptoms such as sores or wounds on the ear flap, discharge from the ear canal, or pain around the ears and face may be seen.
Ruling out other common causes of ear discharge such as yeast and bacteria is the first step. If your dog has a known history of immune-related conditions, your vet may attempt treatment options first, and then further testing if treatment doesn’t help. This includes anti-inflammatory medications, steroids such as prednisone, and medicated creams to treat secondary irritation of the ear. Often, treating the systemic issue will resolve the inflammation in the ears.
Ear Margin Seborrhea
While this condition is most common in breeds such as Dachshunds, any long-eared breed can be affected by ear margin seborrhea. This condition causes waxy scales and lesions that appear at the base of the hair follicle along the outer edge of the ear. The lesions may dry up and flake off. Or, they can crust along the ear edge, lead to hair loss along the ears, or cause redness and irritation. Discharge can also be present. This is usually a milky, waxy, and yellowish discharge that is slightly different from what is seen in infections.
Taking a sample of the affected area can also rule out similar conditions such as mange, parasites, yeast infections, and burns to the ear edge. While the cause behind the seborrhea is unknown, treatment includes medicated shampoos to reduce irritation and crusting, or medicated creams. Some owners have also seen success with supplementation of Vitamin A and omega fatty acids to improve skin health.
Ear Canal Tumors
Less common in dogs, tumors can still occur anywhere on the ear canal or pinnae. While anecdotal, there is some evidence that chronic ear infections and ear inflammation can increase the chances of a tumor developing later in your dog’s life. As the tumor obstructs the ear canal, it can lead to abnormal drainage of the ear, similar in appearance to the drainage seen from an infection. The drainage will also generally only be on the side of the affected ear. Additionally, you may see your dog shake their head more often, or tilt their head to the side of the affected ear.
Most ear tumors in dogs are benign. However, they can be any number of types, including fibrosarcoma, lipomas, carcinomas, and more. This is why it is important to have your vet take a sample of the growth. A fine needle aspirate can be used on tumors deeper in the ear canal. A punch biopsy can be used on growths on the outer ear flap. From there, your vet can determine if treatment is needed. Treatment options include removal of the growth, referral to a veterinary oncologist, or supportive treatment to reduce pain and inflammation.
Ear discharge in dogs can be caused by a wide number of conditions, ranging from less serious allergies to conditions requiring immediate treatment such as injury or foreign bodies. By monitoring your dog’s symptoms and quickly addressing any problems, you can help prevent severe or chronic ear issues.