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Ear infections in dogs and cats (Otitis)

Otitis, otherwise known as “inflammation of the ear”, is a common condition for dogs that is also occasionally seen in cats. It most commonly involves the external ear canal (otitis externa) but can also involve the earflap (pinna) and in more serious cases, the middle ear (otitis media).

What is Otitis? 

Depending on the cause, Otitis may affect one or both ears. There are various causes, including allergic dermatitis (food or environmental allergy), foreign bodies (grass seeds), parasites, tumours within the ear canal and some hormonal imbalances such as hypothyroidism.

Once inflammation is triggered, the wax producing glands within the ear canal responds by producing more wax (cerumen), which can cause redness and swelling to occur. This opens the window for secondary infection to occur. The warm, moist climate of the ear canal in conjunction with excessive wax provides the perfect environment for yeast (Malassezia) and/or bacteria to proliferate. 

These infections are itchy and painful for your pet, which prompts them to shake their head and paw at their ears. Severe, chronic ear infections can lead to thickening of the ear canal with eventual calcification (irreversible hardening of the ear canal), hearing loss and possible neurological damage. 

Haematomas (a localised area of bleeding) can occur when violent head shaking causes blood vessels within the earflap to break open and portions of the earflap fill with blood. This causes a swollen area in the earflap that often requires surgical correction. 

Who is affected?

Any breed of dog can be affected by Otitis. According to PetSure data from June 2019-June 2020, the following breeds are most commonly affected:

Italian Lagotto Romagnolo24.17%
Cocker Spaniel14.70%
Poodle (Standard)14.05%
English Springer Spaniel13.41%
West Highland White Terrier12.41%
Bull Terrier12.40%

Signs of Otitis

Head shaking, pawing at the ear, head tilt or rubbing the ear(s) along the floor are all indications that the ear is irritated. 

Ears that are red or have an odour or that exhibit obvious waxy discharge are suspicious for possible Otitis externa. 

Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose the infection/inflammation by examining the ear canal with an otoscope and evaluating the ear discharge for parasites, bacteria or yeast organisms by microscopic examination. 

It is important to address the underlying trigger of the ear infection to prevent recurrence. Once the underlying cause is identified, treating and preventing future infections will be much simpler.

Managing Otitis

Your veterinarian is the best person to develop a treatment plan for your pet’s ear infection

Treatment varies with the cause of the Otitis. Topical treatments may include ear cleaners to remove the excessive wax and debris and medicated eardrops or ointments to treat any infection or inflammation. 

Often systemic (most commonly oral) medication is also indicated, such as oral antibiotics or antifungals. This way any infection can be treated from the inside out as well as topically.

Scheduling a re-check with your vet after treating the infection is important to determine if all the infection has cleared, and to likely initiate a maintenance cleaning or treatment schedule.

Is Otitis covered by pet insurance?

Otitis is generally covered by Comprehensive Accidental Injury and Illness pet insurance policies administered by PetSure (check our brand partners at, unless related to a pre-existing condition or exclusion and subject to your policies terms and conditions. Refer to your policy documents and Product Disclosure Statement for more information. 

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