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Why Is My Dog Scratching Their Ear?

Written by Anna Hollisey

Updated

puppy enjoying a jolly good ear scratch

If your dog is endlessly scratching their ear, it’s probably time for a visit to the vet. But is it likely to be serious? We’ll run through the possible causes so you’ll know what to expect. Ear we go!

Use this quick checklist to decide whether it’s time to schedule an appointment:

  • Is your dog shaking their head a lot?
  • Do their ears have a discharge that smells bad?
  • Do their ears look red or sore on the inside?
  • Do they flinch when you touch their ears?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these, it’s best to call your vet. If you’re curious to know what could be causing your dog some discomfort, here’s our roundup of common ear problems. 

Ear wax is normal. In fact, it performs a useful function for your dog: collecting debris inside the ear and drawing it out gradually. 

So that’s gross.

However, sometimes ear wax is produced in excess – for example, your dog recently got something stuck inside their ear, or their breed is disposed to it (Cocker Spaniels and Bulldogs, we’re looking at you!). It can be pushed downwards into the canal and if it becomes compacted, it can create a blockage that becomes uncomfortable or painful. 

Treating Excess or Hardened Ear Wax

Your vet can prescribe a medication which breaks down ear wax, softening it so that it naturally emerges. It’s quite easy to apply. Although you can squirt the solution into the ear canal, try not to stick anything into your dog’s ear – massage the ear externally and allow the solution to work its magic. 

Those fluffy ears can be prone to infection, especially in floppy-eared hounds. Have you ever had an ear infection? They are intensely painful, making ears extremely sensitive. If your dog flinches when you approach their ear, they may be suffering from infection. 

Other signs that it’s an infection include redness and inflammation, and a strange odor. An ear infection can cause loss of balance, so you may see your dog wobbling a bit when they walk.

Treating A Dog’s Ear Infection

It will be obvious that your dog needs veterinary intervention. Ear infections can be treated with pain relief and antibiotics, and swift action is important. Your vet can provide ear drops or solutions which you’ll need to apply once or twice a day. The good news is that treatment is usually fast-acting so your dog will get relief within a couple of days. 

Ear mites are horrible parasites which are too small to see. They live on ear wax and skin debris and cause stressful itching for your dog. Left undiagnosed, ear mites can cause red, inflamed ears and excess ear wax. 

However, many topical flea and tick treatments also prevent ear mites. If your dog’s treatment is up-to-date then they are unlikely to be suffering from mites. On the other hand, if you’ve forgotten to use spot-on this month, ear mites could have moved in. They love a warm and cozy ear flap.

Treating Ear Mites in Dogs

If your vet diagnoses ear mites (by checking a skin swab or looking through an otoscope), you’ll have to treat your dog AND all the other pets in your home. That’s because ear mites are highly contagious, and they lay eggs which take 3 weeks to mature – so if you don’t treat all animals instantaneously, you risk re-entering the mite cycle next month. Ear mites are treated using topical or oral medication designed to kill parasites.

While allergies don’t directly cause ear infections, they do cause itching. Dogs can be allergic to many things including foods, pollen and dust mites. Scratching places like ears can cause sore spots and introduce bacteria, which results in recurrent ear infections. So if your dog keeps getting ear infections, it’s helpful to rule out allergies as a primary cause. 

Treating Allergy-related Ear Problems

Since the ear infections are secondary to the condition, your vet will help you to identify and tackle the source of the allergy. This is usually achieved through trial and error: you’ll try different diets until you find out what’s triggering your dog. If your dog’s allergy is airborne, you might have to practice avoidance to minimize the effects. It’s also a good idea to keep those ears clean – see our advice below. 

If your dog is suffering from infection or ear mites, don’t try cleaning their ears. It won’t go down well! Your vet can provide medicated ear drops or topical treatment for use to clear the infection. Once your dog’s ears are healthy again, your vet might recommend regular cleaning as a preventative measure. 

  • Normal ear wax: Light brown or yellow.
  • Unhealthy ear wax: Dark brown or black and bad-smelling.

Clean them gently using a medicated solution and cotton balls or buds. Make sure you’re not poking anything down into the ear canal, which is quite fragile. 

  • Some medicated ear-cleansers are designed to be squeezed into the ear canal and massaged in. If you’re worried about approaching your dog’s ears then this type of cleanser is a great choice. Once you’ve given those ears a good massage you can let the dog shake and dislodge the solution himself. 
  • Others can be applied using cotton balls which are dampened with solution. Use a clean, dry cotton ball to wipe away the cleanser and wax. Some dogs, like American Bulldogs, get a waxy build-up in the flaps of their ears, so check those while you’re cleaning. Finally, give your dog a high-value treat for being such a good patient!

Water can harbor bacteria and increase the risk of ear infections. So if your dog has floppy ears, dry the insides carefully after a bath or swim.