If you’re a dog owner, witnessing your dog scratch their ears is nothing new. It’s normal for dogs to scratch their ears a few times per day. But if the scratching gets excessive, there might be something larger at play, like an ear infection or fleas. In fact, nearly 20% of all dogs have some sort of ear disease. So, if you notice your dog itching incessantly, it may mean a trip to the vet.
Causes of itchy ears
Although any dog can develop these diseases, some dogs are more susceptible. For example, pets with floppy ears or allergies can be predisposed to infections. Dogs with lots of hair in the ears can also develop ear problems more easily. Here are some other common causes:
Ear mites and other parasites
Ear mites are very common and can be found in the ears of many pets. They can infect the inner and outer canal, or cause skin infections if left untreated. Ear mites are highly contagious and are passed easily between pets. Symptoms of ear mites include:
- Head shaking
- Strong odor
- Dark black or brown waxy secretion
- Inflammation in and around the ear
- Excessive rubbing or scratching
Excessive scratching can cause your dog to rupture the blood vessels in the ear, which can make it swollen and painful and could require surgery to correct. Dogs of all ages can be affected, and all pets in the household will require treatment as they are so contagious.
Along with ear mites, there are other parasites that can affect your dog’s ears:
Scabies. Caused by a highly contagious skin parasite, scabies tend to burrow in your dog’s skin which can result in scabs and hair loss. Scabies causes severe itching which can lead to intense and prolonged scratching.
Ticks. These are found in grassy or wooded areas and can attach themselves to you and your pet as you pass by. They have a tendency to find tender skin to bury in, like around the ears and under the legs, and can lead your dog to scratch at them. Although a tick’s bite does not itself pose a direct threat to your dog’s health, it can transmit serious (and sometimes fatal) diseases such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain fever.
Fleas. Fleas can make any dog’s life miserable (and their family’s)! These small, blood-sucking insects like to feed on your dog, causing them to itch and scratch. Not only can fleabites cause discomfort, itchiness and severe skin reactions, they can potentially transmit tapeworms if accidentally ingested by your dog.
Anything that is in the ears that do not belong can cause discomfort and lead to pawing, itching and head shaking. This can include anything from foxtails and other weeds, cotton swabs, or twigs. The symptoms can be similar to those of an ear infection, such as itching or rubbing the ear, tilting their head, or walking in circles. Your dog’s scratching can lead to infections, and they can also experience a loss of hair at the base or tatters on the ear tips.
An infection in the external ear canal (otitis externa) is one of the most common types of infections seen in dogs. Breeds known to have large, floppy ears, such as Cocker Spaniels, Basset Hounds, or Labradors, tend to be more prone to ear infections, but ear infections can occur in any breed.
Yeast. Yeast infections are known to be extremely itchy. Besides rubbing and itching, other signs of yeast infection includes scabbing around the opening of the year and a waxy residue. Yeast infections are usually associated with allergies, ruptured eardrums, a trapped object, a tumor or polyp in the ear or a bacterial infection. They can be painful and in some cases can lead to deafness if not treated. These infections are usually caused by trapped water or debris in the ear canal.
Mold, dust, feathers, pollen, cigarette smoke, certain foods, cleaning products, and other allergens can also lead to infections. If your dog has a yeast infection, you may notice yellow, brown or bloody discharge as well as redness or swelling, an odor, head tilting or shaking, hair loss around the ear, scabs on the ear flap, unusual behavior such as strange eye movements or walking in circles, and a loss of hearing or balance.
Bacterial. In most cases, bacterial infections will develop as the result of another problem. Many of the other reasons listed above, such as allergic skin disease, foreign bodies or aural masses, can also be accompanied by bacterial infections.
Like the diseases previously mentioned, signs of bacterial infections include redness and swelling, shaking of the head and itching or rubbing of the ear. Ear mites are the most common cause of bacterial infections in younger dogs, and older pets may develop them due to yeast or bacteria.
Allergens and ear infections.
Did you know that many dogs with chronic or recurrent ear infections may have allergies or low thyroid function (hypothyroidism)? Ear infections can often be a secondary symptom of underlying allergies, especially allergies to dust mites, pollens, and certain proteins in dog foods. If an underlying disease like this is suspected, it must be treated or your dog will continue to experience chronic ear issues.
How to diagnose an ear infection
If your dog is showing any of the common signs of ear infections, it’s important to visit your veterinarian as soon as possible. Quick treatment is necessary not only for your dog’s comfort (these conditions can be painful!), but also to prevent the spread of infection farther into the ear.
When in the exam, your vet will use a magnifying ear cone to examine your pup’s ear. Your vet may also want to look at an ear discharge sample to determine the type of infection. If your vet suspects bacterial infection in the sample, a sample may get sent to a laboratory to determine the exact type of bacteria that is present and causing the infection.
Tumors, polyps, or any other aural masses can act just like foreign bodies and be uncomfortable for your dog. Ear polyps are a type of tumor that grow in an abnormal place, like the ear canal, and spiral out of control. They can be fairly common in pets with frequent infections. If left untreated, they can cause infections and wax buildup, which can interfere with the function of the ear, such as balance and hearing.
How to treat itchy ears
Once the reason behind your pup’s itchy ears has been diagnosed, your veterinarian will prescribe the proper treatment.
- To remove a foreign object from your dog’s ear, get them to shake their head by cleaning their ear with a cleaning liquid.
- Ear polyps can usually be diagnosed with an otoscope, but some cases that are far back in the ear canal may require sedation and an MRI or CT scan. The most effective way to treat aural masses is to remove it surgically.
- For ear infections, your veterinarian may want to take an ear discharge sample to search for bacteria, parasites or yeast. They will give your dog a thorough ear cleaning using a medicated cleaning solution. Your vet may also prescribe an ear cleaner, ear drops, or a topical medication for you to use at home. In severe cases, your vet may prescribe oral antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications.
- Most uncomplicated ear infections resolve within one to two weeks, once appropriate treatment begins. But severe infections or those due to underlying conditions may take months to resolve, or may become chronic problems.
- In cases of severe chronic disease where other treatments have failed, your veterinarian may recommend surgery such as a Total Ear Canal Ablation (TECA). A TECA surgery removes the ear canal, thus removing the diseased tissue and preventing the recurrence of infection.
- It’s important to follow your veterinarian’s instructions closely and return for any recommended recheck appointments.
👉 Lapses in your dog’s treatment may lead to the recurrence of the infection.
While it’s recommended to see a vet to treat possible ear infections, cleaning your dog’s ears at home can help prevent the development of ear infections and other general itchiness. There are also a variety of products on the market that can aid in keeping your dog’s ears clean and healthy. These are some of our favorites.
Our vet-recommended ear cleaners can help with itchiness.
Vet's Best Ear Relief Wash + Dry Combo
An all-natural formula
Antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral
Zymox Otic Pet Ear Treatment with Hydrocortisone
Affordable and holistic
Zymox Otic Pet Ear Treatment without Hydrocortisone
Can you prevent itchy ears?
As with most diseases, prevention is always best. Excess moisture is a common cause of ear infections, so be sure to thoroughly dry your dog’s ears after swimming and bathing. If your dog is prone to chronic or recurrent ear infections, identifying and managing any underlying causes, such as allergies, can help prevent new infections from occurring. Cleaning your dog’s ears regularly at home can also help prevent ear infections.