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A guide to ear margin hyperkeratosis

The essentials

  • Dog ear margin hyperkeratosis is rarer than other keratinization disorders — Scaly, thickened skin lesions that look crusty are more likely to appear on your dog’s foot pads or nose.
  • Some dog breeds are more prone than others — Breeds with long-hanging ears, like hounds and spaniels, are more likely to have a genetic predisposition for dog ear hyperkeratosis than other breeds.
  • Your dog’s crusty ears could be caused by something else — There are conditions that mimic dog ear hyperkeratosis, like mange or ringworm.

Ear margin hyperkeratosis goes by several names, including ear margin dermatosis (EMD) and ear margin seborrhea  . This skin condition is typically limited to the outer edges of the pinna, which is the flap portion of your pooch’s ear. If your pup has ear margin hyperkeratosis, it may look like they’ve got crusty ears. Waxy, yellow, or gray lesions also form on the tips of the ears and can look and feel like thickened skin. Hyperkeratosis of the ears is less common than other keratinization disorders, like nasal hyperkeratosis and paw pad hyperkeratosis.

👉 If you notice discoloration or thickened skin on your pup’s ears, schedule an appointment with your vet. Ear problems can be painful for your dog and should be treated right away.

What are the signs of ear margin hyperkeratosis?

Ear margin hyperkeratosis generally appears as waxy, scaly gray, or yellow skin. The scaly skin sticks to the base of the hair shafts along the margins of your dog’s ears. Plugs of hair can easily be pulled out, leaving behind skin with a shiny surface. Severe cases cause the edges of the ears to swell and crack. Both ears are commonly affected, and the condition can spread from the tips of the ears to cover the entire pinna.

Although this condition can look uncomfortable, it usually doesn’t itch or hurt your dog. They may shake their head, though, especially if their ears become swollen and heavy.

What does ear margin hyperkeratosis in dogs look like?

In dogs with long, floppy ears, dog ear hyperkeratosis may be easy to miss if the condition is affecting the inside of the ear and not the pinna. For pointy-eared dogs, scaly, crusty lesions may be more noticeable. It’s important to pay attention to any changes to your dog’s ears to prevent a more serious case of ear margin seborrhea from forming.

Credit: Miami Veterinary Dermatology

Causes of ear margin hyperkeratosis in dogs

The crusty appearance of your dog’s ears may not have an identifiable cause. In most cases, ear margin hyperkeratosis is idiopathic, meaning the exact cause isn’t known. However, it’s thought that this condition is caused by a genetic abnormality of keratinization. 

This idea is supported by the fact that certain dog breeds, such as dachshunds, seem to be most commonly affected by hyperkeratosis, potentially because of a genetic defect.

Sometimes, though, ear margin hyperkeratosis is caused by an underlying medical problem. It may appear as a side effect of the following issues:

  • Hormonal or autoimmune diseases. Hyperkeratosis can appear on the ears of dogs with autoimmune diseases like hypothyroidism or pemphigus foliaceus (PF). Occasionally, dogs with Cushing’s disease can also be affected.
  • Allergies. Allergies are notorious for causing skin issues in dogs, particularly hair loss and scaly skin.
  • Parasites. Fleas, ticks, flies, and mites can cause areas of hair loss and crusty skin in dogs.
  • Yeast infections. Malassezia yeast can trigger a case of ear edge seborrhea, particularly in dachshunds and Yorkshire terriers.
  • Poor diet. A poor diet, particularly one lacking in adequate essential fatty acids, can cause coat and skin problems.
  • Environmental factors. It’s thought that ear margin hyperkeratosis can worsen with dry heat and low humidity since environmental factors such as these can damage your pup’s skin barrier.
  • Obesity. Weight gain goes paw-in-paw with hypothyroidism, so if your pup is packing on the pounds and suffering from hyperkeratosis, they may have an endocrine disorder.

Dog breeds most prone to ear margin hyperkeratosis

Ear margin hyperkeratosis is most likely to affect dogs with long-hanging ears, although it can occur in other types. Breeds most commonly affected include:

How is ear margin hyperkeratosis diagnosed?

To rule out other causes of crusty ears in your pup, your vet will likely recommend a series of diagnostic tests  . Similar conditions can be eliminated from the differential diagnoses list by performing the following tests:

  • Skin cytology. This refers to a microscopic evaluation of cells that are scraped off or removed from the site. A skin cytology Go to source will determine if inflammatory cells, yeast, or bacteria, or mange mites are present.
  • Skin biopsy. A skin biopsy is necessary to differentiate between keratinization abnormalities and more severe pinnal diseases.
  • Blood work. General blood work, like a complete blood count (CBC) and chemistry panel, may be recommended, along with blood tests to check for hormonal imbalances.
  • Fungal culture. A few strands of your dog’s fur can determine if their ear crusting is caused by ringworm.

Treatment and management of dog ear hyperkeratosis

When it comes to your four-legged friend’s health, understanding the management and treatment of ear hyperkeratosis is essential. This condition, characterized by crusty ears, can be a bit challenging. But don’t worry – with the right guidance from your veterinarian, it’s entirely manageable.

If your dog’s crusty ears result from an underlying condition, your vet will tackle this primary issue first, which should help clear up the ear problem. However, if no underlying condition is found, it’s crucial to understand that while there is no cure for ear margin hyperkeratosis, it can be managed effectively.

While generally a stable or slowly progressive condition that doesn’t cause pain to your dog, severe hyperkeratosis can become problematic and might even require advanced procedures like surgery.

But here’s the silver lining — dogs with ear margin hyperkeratosis respond well to certain treatments. Your vet may recommend a variety of options. To keep it straightforward, here’s a handy list of potential treatments:

  • Antiseborrheic shampoos, leave-on, and spray rinses, like Humilac® or Vetoquinol®
  • Keratolytic topical treatments, like Sulfodene
  • Retinoids containing vitamin A, typically ingested as retinyl esters from fish oils or animal livers
  • Oral cyclosporine , like Neoral®
  • Topical or oral corticosteroids
  • Pentoxifylline for severe inflammation, like Trental®
  • Omega-3 fatty acid supplements, like EFA caps®

It’s important to note that yeast and bacterial infections, like staph, are common in dogs with this condition and can complicate management. In such cases, antibiotics may be necessary to treat these secondary bacterial infections.

Tips for preventing canine ear margin hyperkeratosis

Although you may not be able to completely prevent ear margin hyperkeratosis in your dachshund, you may be able to keep it at bay. Try the following tips for prevention:

  • Keep up with monthly flea treatments Flea and tick treatments can also protect your pup from mange mites and other biting insects that can damage their ears.
  • Clean your pup’s ears regularlyCleaning your dog’s ears regularly with a vet-approved dog ear cleaner— but no more than two or three times a week — allows you to keep an eye on them for changes. It also removes keratin debris, wax, and other buildup from the ear canals that can lead to issues.
  • Ensure your pup has a healthy, balanced diet — Secondary seborrhea can be caused by obesity, so stick to a healthy diet for your pooch.
  • Protect your dog’s ears from the weather — When outside with your pup, avoid excessive exposure to harsh elements, like the sun or cold. The fragile skin on your dog’s ears can be easily damaged by extreme conditions.

Conditions that mimic dog ear hyperkeratosis

As noted above, ear margin hyperkeratosis is often brought on by an underlying medical condition or an unknown genetic condition. Diagnostic tests will help your vet get to the bottom of true dog ear hyperkeratosis, and hopefully get your dog on the road to recovery. However, there are a handful of conditions that can have similar symptoms to dog ear margin hyperkeratosis, including:

  • Ear edge vasculitis. In this condition, “punched out” lesions can appear in the pinna, resulting in alopecia and/or necrosis of the ear edges.
  • Sarcoptic mange. Sarcoptic mange mites can create keratinous crusts along the ear margins. Unlike hyperkeratosis, this form of mange causes pruritus or severe itching.
  • Pinnal alopecia. Hair loss, or alopecia, on the ear flaps can occur without cause, but it appears to be genetic.
  • Proliferative thrombovascular necrosis. Although this condition is rare, it can appear as scaly, thickened, hyperpigmented skin surrounding a necrotic ulcer.
  • Dermatophytosis. Ringworm is a fungal infection that can cause pinnal dermatitis, giving a pup’s ears a scaly appearance.
  • Frostbite. Frostbite typically affects the tips of the ears, causing crusting, ulceration, and necrosis.

If you notice your dog’s ears turning scaly or crusty, it’s crucial to consult with your vet immediately for an accurate diagnosis. While this condition can’t be cured if no underlying cause is found, it can be effectively managed with various treatments.

Overall, the outlook for dogs with this condition is generally positive, especially when the condition is identified early and managed effectively. Remember, your vet is there to guide you through this process. With their expertise and your dedicated care, your pup can continue to live a comfortable, happy life.

Frequently asked questions

How is ear margin hyperkeratosis treated?

If there is one, the underlying condition is addressed first, which generally clears up canine hyperkeratosis. If there is no cause identified, management can consist of omega-3 supplements, antiseborrheic shampoos, keratolytic products, vitamin A, and steroids.

Why are the edges of my dog’s ears crusty?

That’s a good question to ask your vet. Some causes of crusty ears include ear margin hyperkeratosis, sarcoptic mange, frostbite, ringworm, pinnal alopecia, vasculitis, and proliferative thrombovascular necrosis.

How can I treat my dog’s seborrhea at home?

Medicated shampoos designed to tackle oily skin generally work well for skin problems in dogs. You can also give omega-3 fatty acids to your pup, but always ask your vet before starting a supplement.

Can I put petroleum jelly on my dog’s ears?

Although petroleum jelly is considered safe as long as your dog can’t lick it off, it may not do much for your dog’s crusty ears. Use a medicated shampoo instead to help heal their dry, damaged skin.

What is hyperkeratosis in dogs?

When your dog has too much keratin in their body, they may develop dry, thick, and sometimes cracked skin on their nose, paws, and ears, known as hyperkeratosis.

What causes a vasculitis flare-up?

Ear margin hyperkeratosis is different from vasculitis, although the clinical signs can be similar. Vasculitis is a term used to describe a variety of skin diseases that are caused when inflammation targets the walls of the blood vessels.

How do you treat ear margin vasculitis in dogs?

After confirming a diagnosis of ear margin vasculitis, your vet will prescribe medications to control the inflammation and soothe your dog’s ears. These could be corticosteroids or other anti-inflammatory drugs, depending on what your vet thinks is best. It’s important to monitor your dog’s condition closely during the treatment period. Any changes, good or bad, should be reported to your vet promptly.