Why Does My Dog Have Itchy Ears? (And What To Do About It)


No matter how hard I try to keep my dog’s ears clean and healthy, every now and then one of my dogs suffers from itchy ears. If you’ve ever scratched your head while your dog scratched away, wondering what you need to do to prevent and treat itchy ears, this article has the answers you are looking for. In this article, I answer the question, “Why does my dog have itchy ears?” and provide some suggestions as to what you should do about it. 

How common are itchy ears?

Does it feel like an awful lot of pets you know seem to come down with itchy ears? Whether it’s your own household full of scratching pups or it’s the group you’re chatting with at the dog park or the groomer, it seems like everyone’s dealing with a dog whose ears are itchy.  In fact, itchy ears might be even more common than you realize. Ear infections were the most common reason for dogs to see a veterinarian in 2004 and the second most common in 2005, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. The AKC states that as many as 20% of dogs have ear disease of some kind. Clearly, this is a prevalent problem for our pets, and thus a problem for us as well. 

Reasons for itchy ears

Ear mites

Ear mites are tiny creatures that infest your dog’s ear and cause your dog to scratch at their ears and shake their heads. You’ll also find a black discharge in the ear. While ear mites are most common in puppies, adult dogs can get them too, especially from infected puppies. Ear mites create an environment in the ear that will often result in a secondary ear infection, as well as cause irritation and itching. 

Ear infections

An ear infection is by far the most common cause of itchy ears in dogs. There are three kinds of ear infections that a dog may suffer from.
  • Otitis externa causes inflammation in the external portion of the ear. This is the most common kind of ear infection.
  • Otitis media involves an inflammation of the middle of the ear canal.
  • Otitis interna means that the inner ear canal is suffering from inflammation. 
Ear infections in any of these areas may be caused by bacteria or yeast.  Several kinds of bacteria and one fungus – yeast – may be responsible. Your dog may have several types of bacteria or bacteria and yeast at the same time. Your dog’s veterinarian can find out what is going on in your dog’s ear and prescribe the correct antibiotic or antifungal medication to treat it.  

Symptoms of ear infections

Itchy ears are the most common symptom of ear infections. Dogs may scratch at their ears with their paws or rub their ears against things. They may also shake the head from side to side as though trying to get something out of their ears. Dogs suffering from ear infections might “ask” you to rub their ears by pushing their ears against your hands, but then yelp in discomfort when you try to rub the ear. When you look closer, you’ll notice redness and swelling in the ear canal. There may be scabs or crusty places from where your dog has been scratching and even open cuts. There will be a very distinct odor as well. If your dog has sharp nails or their ears itch a lot, they can hurt and scratch up their ears quite badly trying to itch them. 

Why do dogs have ear infections?

More prevalent in floppy ears

The long, droopy ears of basset hounds or cocker spaniels are absolutely irresistible, but unfortunately, this ear type is also predisposed to ear infections and other ear issues. The long flap of the ear traps moisture more easily, creating conditions that lead to ear infections. 

A moist environment

If your dog likes to wallow in the mud like a pig or can’t go a day without a dip in the pond outside your home, they may be setting themselves up for an ear infection. This is also true of dogs that spend time in the water for other reasons, like retrievers fetching waterfowl in marshes and lakes or dogs that compete in dock diving or other water-related sports. Dogs kept outside in humid climates also face a higher chance of getting an ear infection.

Heat

Dogs are more likely to suffer from ear infections during warmer months. During these times, 10% to 15% of all patients brought to veterinary hospitals come in with ear infections. If you live in a hot, moist climate, ear infections are even more likely for your dog, especially if they have droopy ears.

Dirty ears

If you don’t clean your dog’s ears often enough, wax buildup and foreign bodies like dirt and debris can lead to an ear infection. You are also less likely to notice the infection in the beginning stages, which means it will get worse more quickly.

Excessively clean ears

By the same token, ears that are cleaned too often may not be able to maintain a natural balance of good and bad bacteria, which can result in ear infections. Ears that are dried by harsh ear cleaning products may become infected more easily. Frequent cleaning can also make damaging the ear canal more likely, which can result in an ear infection. 

Allergies

If your dog has itchy skin as well as itchy ears, there is a very good chance that they are suffering from allergies. Allergies are usually due to environmental factors like pollen. A little less than 20% of dogs who suffer from allergies have food allergies. Some dogs inherit a susceptibility to allergies known as atopic dermatitis. Certain breeds are especially prone to this genetic condition, including most Terriers, Lhasa Apsos, Dalmatians, Bulldogs, Labrador Retrievers, and Shar-Peis. 

How serious are ear infections?

Infections found more deeply in the ear are usually caused by a spread from the external part of the ear. Internal ear infections and infections of the middle part of the ear canal can be very serious. Your dog may become deaf, have facial paralysis, or suffer vestibular symptoms, along with significant pain.  Since ear infections often point to another problem, such as allergies, it is very important to take them seriously and ask your vet to check your dog for other indications of allergies. You might also look into tests for hypothyroidism.  An ear infection should not be treated at home. Your veterinarian needs to determine exactly what is going on in your dog’s ear and what is the best way to fix it, as well as whether there are other concerns connected to the ear infection that need to be treated, like allergies.  In extremely severe cases, your dog may even require surgery to remove the vertical part of the ear canal and hopefully prevent recurrent ear infections.

How to prevent ear infections

Ear infections are serious, so you want to do your best to prevent them in your dog if at all possible. Here are some things that you can do to make it less likely that your faithful friend will suffer from a painful ear infection.

Clean properly

It isn’t just cleaning your dog’s ears that is important but cleaning correctly and at the right times. Cleaning your dog’s ears too often can actually result in more ear infections, not fewer, so be careful not to overdo it. Most dogs should have their ears cleaned about once a month or more often if they are very prone to ear problems.  To clean your dog’s ears correctly, fill the canal with cleaning solution and massage the vertical ear canal. By rubbing up and out, you can help to bring out debris that may cause infections. Thoroughly dry the ear canal with absorbent gauze, not paper towels or cotton, which may leave irritating fibers. 

Check frequently for problems

It may seem strange to regularly sniff your dog’s ears, but this is an important routine for preventing ear infections. You should know how your dog’s ears smell when they’re healthy so you can identify the distinct smell of an ear infection when it is just getting started. 

Treat underlying problems

If your dog has allergies to their environment or food, eliminate allergens from the diet or use medication to prevent allergies from being symptomatic. If your dog suffers from hypothyroidism or another condition that may result in ear infections, ask your veterinarian what you can do to change your dog’s diet. Additionally, use supplements and medication to treat the problem. 

How ear infections are treated

Hopefully, your dog will never suffer from itchy ears resulting from an ear infection. If your dog does have an ear infection, don’t panic. Your veterinarian can suggest the best way to clear up your dog’s itchy ears.  First, your veterinarian will examine your dog’s ears with an otoscope, which provides both light and magnification. This allows the veterinarian to determine whether there is any foreign material in the canal and whether the infection is severe enough to have damaged the eardrum. If your dog is in too much pain to allow for this examination, they may need to be sedated or anesthetized. Next, your vet will take a sample of the material in the ear canal and examine it under the microscope to find out what is causing the infection.  Culture and susceptibility tests may also be used to find out which medication will be efficient in treating what’s going wrong with your dog’s ear. Multiple medications or broad-spectrum medication may be used for dogs that have multiple types of bacteria or fungus.

Treating underlying causes.

Many dogs that suffer from ear infections, especially chronic and recurrent ear infections, are suffering from allergies. They may also be suffering from a thyroid that isn’t functioning properly, known as hypothyroidism. If there is an underlying cause, your veterinarian will try to address and treat it as well.

How to apply medication

Your veterinarian will prescribe medication that you need to put in your dog’s ear or ears once or twice a day (or more often, as needed). It is important to do this properly, as you need the medication to get into the lower part of the horizontal ear canal in order to treat the infection. Here are some tips for applying medication to your dog’s ears.
  1. Hold the ear up and tilted slightly back so that the ear canal opens up.
  2. With the other hand, apply the medication into the ear canal.
  3. Hold the ear up long enough for the medication to run down into the canal.
  4. With your finger and thumb gently grasped around the ear, massage the base of the ear gently to work the medication around.
  5. You should hear a squishing sound that tells you the medication is being thoroughly worked into the ear.
  6. Step away and let your dog shake their head. Most medications are waxy and stick inside your dog’s ear, so they won’t be able to shake it all out, but debris may be dissolved and allowed to leave your dog’s ear as they shake.
  7. Wait between medications. Often, more than one medication will need to be applied. Be sure to wait as long as the veterinarian specifies, usually at least 15 or 30 minutes, between medications.
  8. Make sure you apply the medications in the correct order if your dog has been prescribed more than one. 

Summary

Itchy ears are very common in American dogs. If your dog has itchy ears, an ear infection is almost certainly the culprit; however, it is possible that your dog has ear mites as well. If your dog’s ears have a funky smell, your dog has been in warm, moist conditions, or if your dog has long, droopy ears, the answer to the question, “Why does my dog have itchy ears?” is even more likely to be an ear infection. Thankfully, your vet can help you treat your dog’s itchy ears and get back to normal in no time. 

Coral Dawn Drake

My fiance, Justin, and I live with our two little dogs, Sofie and Lisa, and three chickens in Gainesville, Florida. Justin and I are homebodies who occasionally enjoy a good adventure. I love living in Gainesville, and I love Florida. I can’t imagine anywhere more beautiful or strange than this hot, marshy place where people are guaranteed to be nothing other than themselves. Justin is always reminding me to relax. Relaxing doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m always busy. Making art or editing photos, digging in the yard or trying to grow some new moss or plant. There never seems to be enough time to do everything that I want to do. Life is so, so full and I want to plunge into every second of it.

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