Why are my dogs’ ears itching? (And what to do about it)

Why are my dogs’ ears itching? (And what to do about it)

Itchy ears are a common problem with dogs and often a sign of ear infections and underlying conditions. Read on if your dog is scratching their ears excessively. 

If your dog is scratching their ears excessively, you may be wondering why their ears are so itchy. The occasional scratch is perfectly normal, and we all know most dogs adore getting their ears rubbed. But excessively itchy ears is a condition known as pruritus, and it signals several potential health problems, most notably the dread canine ear infection (otitis).

So why might your dog’s ears be itching? Let’s have a look.

The Top Reasons Dogs Have Itchy Ears

Ear Infections (otitis)

Generally, the breeds most prone to ear infections have long, floppy ears, particularly with a lot of hair in the canal. This includes Cocker Spaniels, Brittany Spaniels, Labrador Retrievers, Poodles, and “Doodle” mixed breeds, Beagles, Bassets, Bichon Frises, and Shar Peis. In addition, some breeds are prone to hereditary problems in the ear that can cause chronic inflammation problems; these include:

  • German Shepherds, 
  • Beagles,
  • Doberman Pinschers, 
  • Cocker Spaniels.

However, ear infections are a common problem in the majority of dogs. It is vital to keep your dog’s ears clean and dry. Dog Ear Wipes is essential to cleanse the area without damaging the natural protective layers. If your dog is prone to ear infections and shows other common symptoms such as excessive head shaking, you may need to clean their ears daily.

When dogs have ear infections, they are most often caused by yeast or bacterial infections. Yeast infections from candida or Malassezia spp are particularly annoying and itchy. A dog will need topical ear treatments from their vet to battle it. 

Bacterial infections from rod-shaped bacteria such as P. aeruginosa can be particularly difficult to treat, as they are often drug-resistant. Your vet may need several courses of aggressive antibiotics for this kind of ear infection, so it’s important not to wait if you see pus-like discharge from your dog’s ear.

Other common bacterial ear infections include cocci infections. These usually lead to a lot of earwax and discharge and are also associated with stenosis or swelling in the ear canal that can make it hard to insert ointment.

Underlying Medical Conditions

Several underlying medical conditions can cause secondary yeast infections in the ears or cause crusts and scabs in the ear or facial area that can sometimes lead to scratching. 

If your dog has lesions, crusts, hair loss around the ears, as well as pruritus, be sure to check for conditions such as:

  • Hypothyroidism
  • Zinc-responsive dermatosis
  • Hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s Disease)
  • Fatty Acid Deficiencies
  • Tumors or polyps in the ear.

By looking for related health issues that may be causing itchy ears, you can treat the root of the problem and keep your dog more comfortable. Dogs with diabetes may also need a different treatment regime for ear infections, so a full check-up when you encounter itchy ears can go a long way to maintaining your dog’s overall health.

Allergic & Contact Dermatitis

Allergies are perhaps the most common cause of itchy ears in dogs. This can include food allergies, seasonal allergies, or contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is the most common and typically happens when dogs come into contact with something irritating such as lawn fertilizer or dust mites in the air. 

Dogs can also be allergic to common human allergens such as pollen which may eventually cause itchy ears. Food allergies only make up about 10% of all canine allergies, and grains are not usually the culprit, despite what many say. In fact, dogs are most likely allergic to common proteins such as chicken, beef, and lamb. However, allergies to wheat, pea protein, and soy proteins are also fairly typical.

If you suspect an allergy, it’s important to request ELISA testing from your vet to try to identify the allergen and remove it from your dog’s food or environment. Remember, “hypoallergenic” dog foods are often extremely restrictive and can cause deficiencies in the long term. So only use them as long as it takes to identify what is causing the itchy ears, and then remove that food ingredient from your dog’s diet. 

If the allergy or irritant comes from your dog’s environment, it is equally important to find the cause and remove it. For instance, a dehumidifier and air purifier can help remove dust mites that often cause itchy skin and ears. You may also need to avoid certain areas in the spring if your dog is allergic to pollen.

Scabies (sarcoptic mange) And Ear Mites

Scabies is a common skin parasite that causes itchy skin in the ears. A traditional way to check if your dog has scabies is to rub their ear flaps (pinnae) gently. This should cause their back leg to start thumping, called the pinna-pedal reflex. This reflex happens because dogs with scabies tend to have highly itchy ear flaps.

On the other hand, ear mites usually infest the ear canal, causing inflammation and itchy ears.

Your vet needs to decide on the best treatment for scabies and ear mites since not all treatments can be used for every breed of dog. Unfortunately, sarcoptic mites, as well as normal ear mites, need full veterinary treatment. Do not rely on home remedies.

Foreign objects

Sometimes our dogs may scratch their ears or rub them against furniture in a manner that looks like scratching but is indicative of something uncomfortable. They are trying to dislodge grass awns or a parasite. If you examine your dog’s ears and can’t find any signs of infection, use a flashlight to look for a foreign object. However, a vet may need to fish it out if the grass awn has traveled deeper into the ear.

Ruptured eardrums and injuries

A punctured eardrum can also cause dogs to scratch their ears because of the ringing sound they may hear or sometimes because it genuinely causes an itch. Dogs with damaged ear drums may also have pain, fever, hearing loss, or discharge leaking from the ear. Most ruptured eardrums heal within five weeks, but your dog may need a course of antibiotics if they have a middle ear infection.

Injuries within the ear that are healing may also create an aggravating itch. If your dog’s scratching is causing them to damage themselves, they may need a cone to stop them from scratching.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do dogs love having their ears rubbed? Is it because they’re itchy?

Dogs have a highly complex network of nerves that center in their ears. These nerves run straight to their hypothalamus and pituitary glands. When you rub their ears, their pituitary glands release endorphins, putting them in a trancelike, feel-good state. This is why dogs love having their ears rubbed.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of the cause, itchy ears can be extremely aggravating and uncomfortable for our dogs. Some breeds are definitely more prone to ear pruritus than others, so making good ear hygiene a daily practice with our dogs is essential for their well-being. Whether it’s an allergy or an infection, a clean ear can go a long way to preventing chronic inflammation problems or identifying issues in the early stages.

Sources:

Matousek, J. L. (2004). Diseases of the ear pinna. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 34(2), 511-540.
Mueller, R., Bettenay, S. V., & Shipstone, M. (2001). Value of the pinnal‐pedal reflex in the diagnosis of canine scabies. Veterinary Record, 148(20), 621-623.