Rubbing against surfaces, shaking the head, and scratching at the ears are not unusual behaviors in dogs. Most times, dogs scratch their ears for the same reason humans do – to relieve an itch. While the occasional ear scratching is usually not a cause for concern, excessive scratching of the ears may indicate a more serious health problem.
When deciding whether your dog’s ear scratching warrants a trip to the vet, consider other possible ear symptoms that may accompany the itching. Some ear symptoms include redness, swelling, bleeding or dried blood, fruity or funky odors, new spots or bumps, hearing loss, or the sudden loss of balance or sense of direction.
Ear scratching in dogs can have many causes, including the following:
1. Ear Mites
Ear mites might be barely visible to the human eye but can be extremely irritating to your pet. Dogs with ear mites generally have itchy, irritated ears and may frequently shake their heads and scratch at their ears.
If not promptly treated, the ears can become red and inflamed. Rashes and other skin disorders can also develop around the ears.
An infestation of ear mites can produce brownish ear wax that looks similar to coffee grounds. As ear mites are contagious, they can spread from dog to dog. Fortunately, ear mites are treatable with topical medications prescribed by your vet.
2. Contact Dermatitis
Certain substances that come into contact with your dog’s skin can cause an allergic reaction. This type of reaction is known as canine contact dermatitis. Some of the most common causes of contact dermatitis in dogs are grass and succulent ground covers.
Dogs can also develop contact dermatitis for other reasons, such as coming into contact with certain flea products, shampoos, metals, carpet deodorizers, and topical antibiotics.
Pet allergy symptoms can cause severe itching, skin thickening or darkening, and a red rash that develops within four to 72 hours after contact. While the best way to treat contact dermatitis is to prevent exposure, glucocorticoids can help treat symptoms.
3. Trauma or Injury
An accidental bump or injury to the ear can cause trauma. To get relief, your dog may scratch at the ear, shake his head, or rub against surfaces. The ear may swell or sometimes even bleed.
Ear injuries in dogs tend to heal slowly as most dogs are constantly moving their ears. It is important to work closely with your vet to prevent complications during recovery.
Treatment for trauma or injury to the ear depends on the cause and severity of the condition. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics to treat a possible infection and pain medications to make your pet more comfortable. Steroids can reduce inflammation.
4. Ear Infection
Dogs are vulnerable to ear infections due to the unique shape of the ear canal. Infections can occur in the middle ear (otitis media), outer ear (otitis externa), or the inner ear (otitis interna).
Common symptoms of ear infections include an odor from the ear, swelling, crusting or scabbing just inside the ear, brown or yellow discharge, bleeding, or redness inside the ear.
If your dog is diagnosed with an ear infection, your vet will clean the ear with a medicated cleanser and prescribe an antibiotic. Treating an ear infection early on can help prevent more serious damage to the ear.
5. Foreign Bodies
Sometimes dogs will scratch their ears due to something getting into their ear that shouldn’t be there. A common foreign object that can become lodged in the ear include grass seeds.
This seasonal problem often occurs during the summer months when dogs play outdoors. The sharp tip of the seeds can pierce the skin, resulting in irritation.
The fastest way to get a diagnosis is to bring your dog to the vet for an exam. If possible, the foreign body will be removed from the ear by flushing the ears or removing it surgically. Antibiotics may be prescribed to prevent an infection from developing.
6. Insect Bites
If your dog has recently been stung or bitten by an insect, he might experience some itching in the ear area. There are some visible signs of an insect bite, such as redness or swelling around the area that was bitten, as well as skin that is hot to the touch.
Itching often occurs if the dog is allergic to the insect bite. Some dogs express their discomfort vocally through howling or whining.
Treatment for an insect bite starts with checking for a stinger in the wound. A cold compress can help reduce swelling and aloe vera gel applied to the bite can provide relief from itching. Your vet may also recommend Benadryl to reduce swelling.
An allergy is a hypersensitivity of the immune system to an allergen. Allergens are a type of protein that can derive from animals, foods, plants, or insects. One of the most common symptoms of allergies in dogs is itching of the skin.
Sometimes allergies in dogs can be inherited. This is especially common in allergies to plants and pollens. Allergies can also develop over time with increased exposure.
The best way to treat canine allergies is to avoid the allergen; however, this is not always possible. Your vet may prescribe an allergy relief medication and provide tips on how to limit allergic reactions through certain lifestyle changes.
When to See Your Vet
If your dog is scratching at his ears excessively or displaying other concerning symptoms, schedule an appointment to see your vet. Scratching at the ears can have many causes and requires a proper diagnosis to ensure appropriate treatment.