My Pet Has Itchy Ears. What's Going On?

Though it seems a small thing, an intensely itchy ear can be maddening for a pet. When both ears are involved, as is often the case, head-shaking and -scratching can mean a sleepless night for both you and your afflicted pet. Excruciating pain, in fact, is a not-uncommon long-term prospect for some pets.

The good news is that there’s hope — and help — for even the itchiest, most painful situations. The ease with which these issues can be dealt with, however, depends on the cause. And though some might require only a round or two of topical medications before getting better, some causes of itchy ears demand a lifetime of management.

Causes

Common causes of itchy ears in pets include:

1. Allergic skin disease. It’s a likely cause of itchy ears in pets — dogs, especially — but the cycle’s the same for both canines and felines:

  • The ears become inflamed in response to an allergen that’s been inhaled, absorbed, or ingested. The ears produce excess wax and other secretions.
  • Organisms that love warmth and moisture grow happily in this environment — hence, the increase in yeast and bacteria.
  • These organisms and their detritus bring on greater inflammation and sometimes even an additional allergic response.

2. Yeast infections. Yeast infections are notoriously itchy. But almost all yeast infections in pets are secondary to allergic skin disease. However, once in a while pets who are not suffering allergies can suffer yeast infections, given the right conditions.

3. Ear mites. These extremely common parasites are spiderlike and microscopic; they are relentless inside a pet’s ears and can make a pet miserable.

4. Other external parasites. Though ear mites are a common cause of itchy ears, plenty of other parasites cause itchy ears, too. Mange mites and even fleas and ticks can make the ears and head itch.

5. Foreign bodies. Sometimes things that don’t belong end up in ears. Grass awns, foxtails, and even bits of cotton swab or paper towel left behind when you clean your pet’s ears can lead to serious itchiness and vigorous pawing and head-shaking.

6. Aural masses. Masses in the ear canal — such as polyps and cancerous tumors — will typically act just as any foreign body might.

7. Bacterial infections. As with yeast, most bacterial infections of ear canals are secondary to other processes. Masses, foreign bodies, and allergic skin disease are likely to yield secondary bacterial infections.

What To Do at Home

There are some things that pet owners can do at home to help keep the ear itchies at bay.

1. Check your pet’s ears every week or more often if your veterinarian recommends it. Look inside to be sure there’s nothing gumming up the works. A smooth, shiny surface with a delicate pink undertone is ideally what you’ll see. Bring any redness or discharge to your veterinarian’s attention.

2. Clean ears every week or more often if your veterinarian recommends it. Some dogs and cats require daily ablutions to keep their ears clean, while others manage without any serious attention whatsoever. Nonetheless, it’s recommended that all pet owners wipe out their pets ears at least once every couple of weeks.

3. Keep pets with hairy ears well groomed. Some dogs might even require the removal of hairs that grow in the external ear canal. Others’ thick coats immediately surrounding the ear canals might need to be clipped to allow for drier conditions, especially during hotter weather or if water play is frequent.

4. Take your pet to a veterinarian at the first sign of discomfort — whether head-shaking, -pawing, or -scratching. Early intervention is the key to healing.

What Your Veterinarian May Do

When you take your pet to a vet for itchy ears, here are some of the things your doctor may do:

1. History. Most veterinarians will start by asking a few questions to understand the history of the problem. When did you first notice it? Has it changed? How has your pet been otherwise? What do you normally do to take care of your pets ears? What medications or products do you use? Take the products with you so your veterinarian can have a look.

2. Physical examination. Examining the whole body, not just the ears, is a crucial part of the process. The aural examination, using a hand-held otoscope, however, is the most important aspect of itchy ear assessment.

3. Ear discharge analysis. Obtaining a sample of discharge from your pet's ears and looking at it under a microscope helps a veterinarian determine whether microscopic parasites and/or bacteria and yeast are involved in an ear’s itchiness.

4. Ear discharge culture and sensitivity testing. Once a bacterial organism is identified (or is assumed based on the characteristics of the discharge), culturing the ear discharge is standard procedure. This tells your veterinarian what kind of bacteria live there and which antibiotic is best employed to defeat it.

5. Anesthetic evaluation. Unfortunately, even the most cursory evaluation of the external ear canal is sometimes impossible due to copious amounts of debris in the ear canal and/or pain the pet is experiencing. In these cases, a vet will sedate or anesthetize the pet so that he can thoroughly assess the entire ear canal with an otoscope. Sedation also provides an opportunity to thoroughly clean the ears of debris.

6. Ear canal cleaning. As part of a thorough evaluation of the ear canals, clearing them of all debris is necessary. As mentioned above, this can require sedation or anesthesia in moderately to severely affected pets.

7. Biopsy. If there is apparently abnormal tissue a vet may recommend obtaining a small sample for submission to a diagnostic laboratory. Pathologists there examine the sample to determine its origins; this helps your veterinarian recommend the best treatment. This tends to be the case when ear canal masses are involved.

8. Food trials. Pets with food allergies can develop itchy ears and ear infections. If your vet suspects your pet may have a food allergy, a food trial may be recommended. Eliminating all but a few ingredients in a pet’s diet for a period of time can help isolate which proteins a pet may be allergic to.

9. Allergy testing. Sophisticated skin or blood testing may be necessary to determine which allergens a pet might be reacting to.

Treatment

Treatment depends wholly on the underlying cause. It can range from the application of topical medication to kill parasites to long-term allergy treatment involving a multipronged approach with oral and/or topical therapy (at least in the short term) and a restricted diet and/or immunotherapy.

This article was written by a Veterinarian.

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