Reasons Your Dog May Have Itchy Ears

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Both being itchy and having sore ears are pretty unpleasant feelings that most of us can empathise with. Ear problems are common in dogs, and the constant scratching and head shaking can drive you and your dog a bit mad. In this article, we’ll look at why your dog’s ear may be itchy and what you can do to get you both a little bit of respite.

Common causes of ear irritation in dogs

  1. Parasites. All dogs pick up parasites at various times in their lives. It’s an inevitable part of being a dog and going out and about on fun walks. Fleas are the most common parasites and they tend to prefer the head, neck and rear end as places to hang out. If your dog is head-shaking or scratching, fleas are the very first thing to rule out.

    Dogs can also get ear mites and another type of mite called Sarcoptes. Both of these can cause intense irritation in the ear and, in the case of Sarcoptes, also on the flap of the ear.

    Ticks can also be a big problem, particularly in warmer climates and particular environments such as meadows and woodland. Ticks are opportunists and wait for a dog to brush past the undergrowth to climb on. This means the head and ears are commonly where they end up.

  2. Foreign objects. It’s surprisingly common for foreign objects like grass seeds to get trapped in the ear. Dogs with furry, dangly ears, like spaniels, are the most likely candidates, but it can happen to any dog. Particularly if your dog suddenly starts head shaking or scratching at their ears after a walk, this could be the case.


  3. Atopic dermatitis (atopy). Atopy is an allergy to environmental things like pollen, plants and dust mites. It causes itching in many parts of the body, including the ears. Some breeds like Labradors, golden retrievers, boxers and Westies are more prone than others.

  4. Infection. Both bacterial and yeast infections can cause painful inflammation and itching in the ears. If your dog has an ear infection, you may notice an unpleasant smell or a discharge coming from one or both ears.


  5. Food allergy. Just as with atopy, food allergies in dogs can also have skin signs, like itchy ears, as well as gastrointestinal disturbances like diarrhoea.

  6. Chiari malformation/syringomyelia (CM/SM). Although this is uncommon in dogs in general, it is becoming increasingly common in some breeds, especially the Cavalier King Charles spaniel. It is a mismatch between the skull size and the brain, and may cause painful headaches and other signs. Some of these dogs appear to obsessively scratch their ears and neck, but it’s not actually a skin irritation at all, it’s neurological. If you have a cavalier and your vet can’t find a cause of ear or skin irritation, it may be worth considering if CM/SM might be the cause.

What can you do to help your dog?

There are some things you can do to try to help prevent ear problems in the first place:

  • If your dog has very furry ears, you can keep the hair clipped short, especially in the summer months when grass seeds are an issue. Try and get into the habit of checking your dog’s ears and paws after each walk to make sure seeds haven’t hitched a ride in the fur. If you see a seed heading into the ear canal, see your vet to have it removed with the right tools.

  • If your dog is an avid swimmer, they may get more ear problems because of the moisture. If you can gently dry their ears with some cotton wool after each swim, it may help.

  • Keep your preventative parasite control up to date.

If your dog starts showing signs of ear irritation, the best thing to do is see your vet. The treatment will vary widely depending on the underlying cause. It’s best to seek prompt attention, as foreign objects and infections can quickly become quite serious and threaten your dog’s hearing. It’s better to be safe than sorry, and with any of these problems the sooner you get treatment started, the better.

Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA