Dogs will sometimes scratch their ears, but excessive scratching isn’t normal. There are a variety of reasons why your dog has itchy ears and can’t stop scratching them.
Unfortunately for our pups, this is a common problem. Dr. Jodi Lynn Smith is a veterinarian at Animal Care Unlimited in Columbus, Ohio, and she says, “I see itchy ears multiple times a day, every day of the week, all year long across many species of animals.”
Understanding the signs and causes of itchy ears can help you give your dog what he needs to feel better.
Signs of Itchy Ears in Dogs
In addition to scratching at their ears more than usual, a dog who has itchy ears might exhibit other symptoms, such as head shaking. And, when examining your dog’s ears, you might notice redness or swelling of the ear canal, increased ear discharge, bloody discharge, or bumps on the surface of the ear.
According to Dr. Smith, obvious signs that something is wrong with your dog’s ears include “notable odor, redness, swelling, or discharge.” She also advises looking for symptoms like the following:
Rubbing his head on things. Your dog might rub his head on the furniture or floor, or he might excessively dig at the ear(s) with his paws.
Head tilt. Your dog’s head might tilt to one side. You might also notice that he’s sensitive to being touched on the painful side of his face.
Lethargy or inappetence. Your dog might not want to eat as much. Or, he might become lethargic, with a lack of interest in normal activities like playtime.
Vocalizing. Your dog might start to whine, cry, or yelp when his ear is touched.
Visible scabs. There might be scabs or hair loss on your dog’s ear flap, around the base of the ear, or on the side of the head.
Loss of balance. A loss of balance might occur or your dog might start circling, particularly if there’s a severe ear infection.
Loss of hearing. Your dog might experience hearing loss, which might be temporary or permanent.
It’s important to be on the lookout for these signs, and to get veterinary help as soon as possible if they occur. If your dog is constantly scratching at itchy ears, he’s uncomfortable and might even be in pain. Plus, taking action quickly can help ensure a problem won’t worsen.
Dog Itchy Ears: 5 Common Causes
Some of the causes of itchy ears in dogs include:
Dermatitis, Hot Spots, or Allergies
Dermatitis is a skin condition with multiple causes, and it can lead to symptoms that include itchiness. Also, hot spots can cause your dog to scratch his itchy ears in an attempt to get relief.
A variety of allergens could be to blame for itchy ears, too. Food allergies are one example. “Pets with sensitivity to pork, beef, chicken, or any other type of documented allergen typically will have notable to intense pruritus (itchiness) of both of their ears during a flare-up,” Dr. Smith says.
In addition to allergens in food, your pet might be allergic to things in the environment, such as mold, dust, or pollen. A dog might be exposed through direct contact with an allergen or by ingesting or inhaling it.
Bacterial, Fungal, or Yeast Infections
Infections due to bacteria, fungus, or yeast are a common cause of itchy ears in dogs. These types of ear infections can cause various symptoms, such as discharge, odor, redness, swelling, and hair loss. Because infections can become severe if not treated, and might even result in hearing loss, take action promptly.
If there’s an infection, your veterinarian can work on determining the cause, and will prescribe the appropriate treatment to clear it as quickly as possible. They might also give you advice on how and when to clean your dog’s ears.
According to Dr. Smith, some dog breeds, such as those with floppy ears — like Beagles and Dachshunds — and those with a lot of hair in the ear, might be more prone to infections. Simple steps like working with a groomer and keeping the ears clean and dry might help prevent problems.
Ear Mites or Fleas
Ear mites are parasites that can cause symptoms like itchiness, redness, irritation, head shaking, odor, and a dark discharge similar to coffee grounds. Fortunately, they are relatively uncommon in adult pet dogs. Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose an ear mite infection and provide medication to clear it up.
Also, fleas might cause itchy ears, so it’s wise to talk to your veterinarian about the best ways to get rid of fleas and keep them off your dog.
A Foreign Object in the Ear
If there’s a foreign object in your dog’s ear, he might try to get it out by scratching at it. Instead of attempting to remove the object on your own, consult your veterinarian to be sure your dog isn’t hurt in the process. A veterinary team will be able to safely remove it without causing additional harm.
Polyps or Tumors
If your dog is scratching at his ears a lot and you can’t figure out why, polyps or tumors might be the culprits. Your veterinarian can perform a thorough exam of the inside of the ear to figure out if there’s a serious problem.
How to Help Your Dog’s Itchy Ears
Whether your dog has itchy ears to the point that he can’t stop scratching, there’s discharge or redness in your dog’s ear, or your dog’s ears smell, call your veterinarian. That way, you can get an accurate diagnosis and provide targeted treatments to resolve the problem.
“Itchy ears are most commonly painful ears, so all possible ear infections should be addressed as soon as possible by your veterinarian before symptoms start to snowball and your pet suffers unnecessary discomfort,” Dr. Smith says. “The more time bacteria and fungi have to populate your dog’s ear, the more intense the burning, itching, pain, and suffering that your pet will have to experience.”
The solution will depend on the cause of the itchiness. For example, if there’s an infection or parasites, oral and/or topical medications may be prescribed. As another example, if a food allergy is causing your pet’s symptoms, your veterinarian may recommend changes to your dog’s diet. If your dog is scratching at their ears due to food, environmental, flea, or contact allergies, your veterinarian may prescribe an oral allergy medicine, such as Apoquel.
Vet-Approved Home Remedies to Help Itchy Dog Ears
Your veterinarian might direct you to over-the-counter remedies that can help relieve itching while you’re working on treating the underlying cause. These might include antihistamines, and ear cleansers or wipes that are safe for dogs.
Only use products that have been approved by your veterinarian, and follow the directions carefully to administer them correctly and safely. Even if you need to clean your dog’s ears, follow your veterinarian’s instructions, as you don’t want to overdo it.
“Never use rubbing alcohol, peroxide, or any kind of liquid/oil in your pet’s ears without veterinary guidance,” Dr. Smith warns. She also advises against using home remedies you might read about online, as the wrong products could cause more harm.
Remember, providing the right treatment is critical, whether the goal is killing ear mites in dogs or clearing a dog yeast infection. Otherwise, the problem could worsen.
How to Prevent Itchy Ears in Dogs
Once you know what caused your dog’s ears to become itchy and irritated, you can work with your veterinarian to prevent the problem from recurring. This might involve removing allergens from your pet’s food or home or treating your dog’s allergies with an allergy medicine like Apoquel (if your veterinarian prescribes it), as well as keeping your dog’s ears clean and dry.
Even if your pet has never experienced an ear problem, it’s a good idea to check his ears on a regular basis to make sure they look healthy and don’t have any strange odor or discharge. This is a basic way to find problems in their earliest stages before they become more difficult to treat.