Itchy Ears? Why Your Dog Can’t Stop (and how to treat them)

There is little more annoying than having itchy ears that never seem to settle (for you or your dog!). If your dog is shaking their head or scratching their ears all the time than you need to get to the bottom of the problem.

It’s seldom the result of a simple infection. Understanding the underlying causes of your dog’s itchy ears will help you stop them scratching and preventing the problem in the future.

itchy ear causes and treatment

6 months ago my dog started scratching her right ear constantly. I noticed a tar build up and cleaned her ear with natural products but she is still scratching and the build up is still happening so we are cleaning weekly. The vet said it’s not infected but to keep her ear hairs trimmed and not to pull the hairs out but months later and she’s still scratching constantly. Sometimes if we touch that area she will yelp. Her ears have a slight smell but they are not red.

Right so the next question is sent in by Maisie asking all about the causes and treatment options for a dog with itchy ears.

Causes of itchy ears in dogs

  • Parasites

  • Allergies

  • Local ear problems

  • Masses

  • Infection

Well, we need to first think about why the dog is scratching and getting a wax build-up and there can be a number of causes of itching and that can include parasites to start with. So that could be fleas, but it could also be mites, so ear mites in particular.

We could get allergic skin disease, so again that can be a flea allergic dermatitis so an allergy to fleas. It can be an allergy to pollens and other things within the environment, which is something that we call atopy and we can also get a food allergy that causes itchy skin.

And then we can also get local ear problems so that can be just ears that have had chronic long-term infection that's caused a narrowing of the actual ear canals, which makes a subsequent infection more likely. Hairy ears can certainly increase the risk of infection, the big flappy ears dogs like Spaniels have. Water in the ears is another potential cause, so a dog who likes to swim.

And also any masses as well. If there's a mass within the ear canal, or a foreign body link a foxtail or grass seed, then that can make an irritation much more likely.

All of these causes can end up resulting in a nasty, painful infection developing.

How to stop a dog scratching their ears

Address the underlying cause

So when we're thinking about treating itchy ears, more ear disease in general, we need to address the underlying causes. So it shouldn't simply be a case of popping ear medication down there and leaving it at that and doing nothing else, especially if we've got a repeat problem and it’s something that keeps flaring up or is poorly controlled with that initial treatment.

So as I already said, long-term ear inflammation can cause scarring, which makes future problems more likely and we also need to address the underlying cause because at the end of the day being itchy all the time is absolutely miserable for a dog. I liken it to being in constant pain all the time and being itchy has the same effect on quality of life, it's just miserable.

Get a proper diagnosis

So there's a number of things we can do to try and diagnose the problem. So we can take samples from within the ear. We can do ear smears looking at whether there's yeast or bacterial infection, whether there's any resistant infection. So we can send off a culture and sensitivity as well, take a swab and send that off to the lab.

We might also want to be taking X-rays to look at the middle ear. If we suspect that there is a middle ear infection or a mass in the middle ear that's underlying all of these problems.

trial treatments

We might want to do a trial treatment. So give an anti-allergy medication for example, something like Apoquel. We might want to do a diet trial, so change to a skin diet or an exclusion diet to try and rule out a food allergy.

Preventing itchy ears

And then once we've done all of those treatments really it’s going to depend on the underlying cause and controlling this if at all possible.

How to clean waxy ears

So we might be using a cleaner to help mobilize wax and create an environment that doesn't favor the growth of bugs. And there are some great cleaners out there that do just that. They're not antibiotics but they're antibacterial. They dry the ear and they help reduce the build-up of debris within the ear and provide an environment that isn't favorable for the bacteria or for the yeast to grow in.

When we're cleaning the ears as well we don't want to actually poke a Q-tip or a cotton bud down the ear to clean them because that can just push the wax deeper and compact it down making the problem much worse. We want to be using the cleaner to mobilize that wax and then we just want to be taking a cloth or a tissue and wiping the outside surface of the canal that we can see. So just removing the wax and debris that way.

Don’t give up!

And then something to mention and I say to the vast majority of my clients who have pets with skin problems is that skin conditions and that includes ear disease, they can be incredibly frustrating and they can take some time to settle and to decide on the best treatment and prevention strategy for each individual.

So it's often a case of working through a little bit of a process, seeing what works, seeing what the pet doesn't seem to respond to and coming up with a tailored individual treatment plan. So it's not a one size fits all strategy that will be appropriate for every individual dog but we need to be thinking about tackling any infection that's present, addressing any underlying causes and then managing the condition ongoing.

The above is a transcript taken from “The Dr Alex Answers Show”.

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