Mar Vista Animal Medical Center

3850 Grand View Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90066



(original graphic by

Dogs seem to get ear infections with a surprising frequency and some dogs have to deal with ear infections nearly constantly. When one considers that human ear infections seem few and far between, one wonders how man's best friend came to be so unlucky. It turns out there are a couple of factors at work: the shape of the ear canal and the common frequency of conditions leading to excess ear wax.

The first problem for the dog's ear is structural. As demonstrated by the above illustration, the dog's ear canal has both a vertical and a horizontal component, unlike the human ear canal which goes straight in. This "J" shape of the dog's ear creates a predisposition to ear infections as debris must work its way upward rather than straight out. If ear wax cannot get out, it accumulates. Accumulation of ear wax, skin oil, and other debris feed the bacteria and fungi that live in the normal ear canal leading them to proliferate. Soon an infection results.

Anything that facilitates ear wax accumulation, sets the stage for ear infection. It might be the narrowed ear opening of the Shar pei further hampering ear drainage, irritation from water in the ear canal after a bath, or actual disease causing over-production of ear wax. Allergic skin disease affecting the ears is the most common cause for recurring increased ear wax production/ear infection; other causes of ear infections include ear mites, and foreign bodies in the ear (such as grass awns or foxtails), or hair growth deep in the canal (common in poodles and schnauzers especially). The moisture of the wax promotes bacterial growth, yeast proliferation, and perhaps even pus development.

The Gram negative ear infection is a special situation because Gram negative bacteria (so named because they do not take up Gram stain when viewed under the microscope), tend to have unpredictable antibiotic profiles. This means we cannot simply pick a general ear product off the shelf; we will need to culture the ear in order to get the right antibiotic. Worse still, Gram negative bacteria are especially talented at changing their antibiotic sensitivity so every time we guess wrong on the antibiotic, Gram negative bacteria become resistant to multiple additional antibiotics. This is how the "superbugs" we periodically read about in the news come to be.

It isn’t long before the pet is seen scratching at his or her ears, shaking his or her head or holding one ear slightly dropped. Discharge and odor may be noticeable to the owner.  



Gram negative rods appear pink after Gram staining and, as mentioned, they tend to be more resistant to antibiotics than Gram positive (blue-staining) bacteria. There is a particularly heinous bacterial species that is almost always resistant to most conventional antibiotics from the beginning and it deserves special mention: Pseudomonas aeruginosa. When ear cytology samples reveal a Gram negative infection, culture is recommended as treatment for Pseudomonas but must be definitive. Pseudomonas should be identified as soon as possible.

One might wonder how such a difficult bacterium comes to be present in a given ear. Sometimes a dog is just unlucky but often Pseudomonas infection happens in ears that have been treated repeatedly for ear infections in the past. The unfortunate tendency is for normal ear bacteria to be killed off with each treatment course leaving only the most resistant bacteria to colonize the ear canal. Pseudomonas readily grows and prospers where less resistant bacteria have been cleared.

Gram negative bacteria such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa
shown above, look like tiny pink dots under the microscope.
(Photo credit: CDC Public Image Library)

If one is lucky, a culture of the ear discharge will reveal that the Pseudomonas is still sensitive to a quinolone antibiotics such as enrofloxacin, marbofloxacin, or orbifloxacin. It should be noted that especially high doses of this type of antibiotic are needed to treat Pseudomonas in the ear and that inadequate dosing will just make Pseudomonas even more resistant. Therapy must be decisive.
Oral therapy is generally combined with some kind of topical treatment of the ear. This may involve a commercial product, combination of products, or even a concoction your veterinarian must mix up.




When a dog with uncomfortable ears shakes and scratches vigorously, a blood vessel in the earflap may rupture. This leads to bleeding into the tissues of the pinna (see above illustration). The usual recommendation is to have the blood clots removed and the ear bandaged and cleaned under anesthesia. If the hematoma is not so big as to occlude the ear canal (thus preventing medication of the ear canal), the option to forgo surgery exists; but without surgery, the ear may scar down into an abnormal appearance.

(For more specific information on this condition in the "The Surgery Suite," click here)

Aural hematoma in a dog's earflap.
(original graphic by



A routine ear infection is uncomfortable enough but if the infection persists, it can become an even bigger problem. The infection can lead to proliferation and scarring in the canal which makes the infection especially difficult (and potentially impossible) to clear up. The ear canal may mineralize and the middle ear may come to be involved, leading to nerve damage. Affected animals may have a head tilt, a lack of balance, and unusual back-and-forth eye movements (called “nystagmus.”) These symptoms are called “vestibular signs” and represent a special complication of middle ear infection. Middle ear infections can also cause paralysis of the facial nerve, leading to a slack-jawed appearance on that side of the face.

Severe cases may require surgical intervention to remove the vertical portion of the ear canal (lateral ear resection) or even remove and seal the ear canal (ear canal ablation). It is important to control ear infections before they reach this stage if at all possible.



Most ear infections are cleared up simply with professional cleaning followed by medication at home. If only mild debris is present in the ear canals, simple disinfection and washing of the ear is adequate; however, in many cases, a full ear flush is needed to even examine the eardrum. For patient comfort, we recommend sedation for this procedure as the ears are sore and the instruments can be damaging if the pet jumps at the wrong time. A sample of ear discharge is commonly examined under the microscope so as to assist in selecting medications for home use. After a couple of weeks of home treatment, the ear canals are rechecked to be sure the infection is gone. In most cases this completes treatment but for stubborn cases, we must proceed to the next step.


Some dogs have chronic ear problems (the infection is not controlled by general medication or returns when general medication is discontinued). In these cases, the ear discharge should be cultured so that the precise organism can be pinpointed and treated specifically. Regular treatment at home with disinfecting ear washes should become part of the pet's grooming routine.

Further testing may be in order to determine why the infection continues to recur. Allergy is the most common reason for recurrent ear problems but hormone imbalances can also be underlying causes.


Some ear infections simply cannot be controlled with the above steps. These cases have transcended medical management and must proceed to surgical management. What this entails will depend on the state of the ear canal. Your veterinarian will make recommendations accordingly.

Chronic inflammation has lead to proliferation of ear tissue.
Bacteria and discharge can hide in all the nooks and crannies.
The vertical canal has
been opened so as to facilitate cleaning.
(Photocredit: Veterinary Information Network and Dr. Erin Marley)

 Ear infections are common and can be challenging. Fortunately, most cases are simple and easily cleared up. Be sure to recheck the ears as your veterinarian recommends as premature discontinuance of treatment can lead to a continuing infection.

Gram negative ear infections do not have the same kind of leeway that other ear infections do. It is crucial that recheck appointments are not skipped because Gram negatives will simply get harder to clear if treatment is incomplete. Your veterinarian will need to confirm that the infection is resolved fully before medication can be withdrawn.

Page last updated: 2/20/2020