Has your pet been keeping you awake all night shaking his head and scratching at his ears? Rubbing his head on the floor, the couch, anything in sight? Perhaps you’ve noticed a bad smell and dark gunk coming out of the ears. What’s going on?
The most common causes of itchy ears are ear mites and ear infections. Ear mites are most commonly seen in young puppies and kittens, but can be found in adult pets too. They are contagious between pets and can lead to an ear infection as well, so treating them is important. Ear mites typically cause large amounts of dry, dark, crumbly debris to build up in the ear, and can be diagnosed by looking at a swab of the debris under a microscope.
Check out this clip of an ear mite under the microscope:
Ear infections can consist of yeast cells or bacteria or both. They typically produce a moist, dark brown waxy discharge. Bacterial infections can sometimes have a whitish to yellow discharge. Sometimes with very bad infections pus can be seen in the ear. Your vet can take a swab of each ear and examine it under a microscope to determine the type of infection in your pet’s ears. They aren’t always the same in both ears either. The type and severity of the infection will determine the treatment, which typically involves an ear wash, medicated ointments or drops, and sometimes oral antibiotics, antifungals, and anti-inflammatory medications. Ear infections are not contagious between pets. Some pets are predisposed to infections if they have narrow ear canals, or a lot of hair in the ear, which can trap moisture and debris. Moisture in the ear from baths or swimming frequently can set up a perfect environment for infections to set in. And most commonly, allergies to food or the environment (dust, pollens, etc.) cause inflammation in the ear which can allow overgrowth of the normal population of yeast and bacteria.
Less common things that can cause itchy ears are foreign bodies (grass awns, pieces of cotton swabs, etc.) and polyps (dangly growths in the ear). A veterinarian can identify these by examining the ear with an otoscope.
The sooner you get your head-shaking pet to the vet the better. The longer an infection goes on, the worse it can get. We can see painful ulcers in the ear, which often make pets resent having their ears treated. Sometimes the ear drum can rupture, and the infection can extend into the middle ear. This can take longer to treat, and make the treatment more complicated. Sometimes pets shake their head so hard they burst a blood vessel in the ear flap and get a large swelling called a hematoma. These often require surgical correction or they will become scarred and deformed. Not to mention these ear infections are very uncomfortable!
What can you do to help prevent an infection in the first place? Flushing the ears with a quality pet ear cleaner will help. You can do this after each bath, or more frequently if your pet swims a lot. Many ear cleaners have drying agents in them to help dry the ear so moisture doesn’t just sit there. They can also make the ear more acidic, which helps prevent yeast from growing. If your pet has very hairy ears, plucking the hair out may help, but ask your vet if your pet would benefit before doing this.
Often preventing ear infections means doing testing to identify the underlying cause, which is most often an allergy. In pets with recurring ear infections it is often beneficial to do a food trial to rule out food allergies. Sometimes allergy testing is beneficial to determine what your pet is sensitive to, and immune therapy (allergy shots) can be started to help desensitize them to the offending allergens. If your pet has recurring ear infections, talk to your vet about these options.
What NOT to do: Please don’t ever use hydrogen peroxide in your pet’s ears. It can be very painful in a sore, inflamed ear, and once a pet experiences that it will be much harder to treat the ears with more gentle solutions.