Dog Scratching Itchy Ear and Whining

Has your dog started shaking his head a lot, scratching at his ears and whining? This is a sign of discomfort, but there are a number of possible causes.

Why does my dog scratch his ears?

Let’s take a look at the most common symptoms, causes, and how to treat them.

Ear mites

Ear mites are more common in cats, but dogs do still suffer from them.

Ear infections are often mistaken for ear mites due to the fact that you normally cannot see the mites without a microscope. They are microscopic parasites that live on the skin of the ear canal, feeding of ear wax and oils secreted from the skin.

Although adult mites only live for 2 months, they lay lots of eggs which hatch in just 4 days and mature into adult mites in 3 weeks.

Symptoms of an ear mite infestation include:

  • Head shaking
  • Pawing or scratching the ears
  • Red, inflamed skin
  • Dark, tar-like discharge
  • Unpleasant odor

Since these symptoms are almost identical to an ear infection, owners often mistakenly assume it is an infection and the dog may end up with a more severe condition due to improper treatment.

Ear mites can be passed from pet to pet, so you should treat all your pets, even if only one of them is showing symptoms. Most spot-on flea treatments also target ear mites, but you may also be given drops or other topical ointments.

Ear infections

Ear infections are very common in dogs, especially breeds that have large, droopy ears.

Infections are either caused by bacteria or yeast build-up in the ear canal. This could be due to an untreated ear mite infestation, excess earwax or a skin complaint.

As with ear mites, common symptoms are head shaking, ear scratching, redness to the skin in the ear and an unusual or unpleasant odor. If you notice your dog tilting its head or appearing unsteady, this could signal that the infection has progressed deeper into the ear.

Treatment is usually in the form of antibiotic and antifungal ear drops along with anti-inflammatories to reduce the redness and swelling around the ear. Your vet will also explain how to clean your dog’s ears to aid the healing process.

Ear mites vs ear infections in dogs

Spotting the difference between ear mites and ear infections is incredibly difficult as both conditions have the same common symptoms. It is essential that you seek veterinary advice as soon as you suspect your dog is ill. Mistaking the two conditions can mean your dog does not receive proper treatment and their condition can progress to a severe state.

Diagnosis of ear mites is very simple. Your veterinarian will use an otoscope to look inside the ear for mites or eggs. If they are not present, they will perform a procedure called a myringotomy. This involves using a spinal needle to extract fluid from the middle ear. They can look at the fluid under the microscope for evidence of infectious organisms.

How can I help my dog with itchy ears?

Often, the best way to soothe your dog’s itchy ears is to stick to the prescribed dosage of ear drops or ointment. These treatments contain antibiotics to fight infection, antifungal properties to kill bacteria or yeast and anti-inflammatories to reduce redness and swelling of the ear.

Your vet will also recommend cleaning your dog’s ears. This will help to reduce the build-up of discharge and help the healing process.

My dog’s ears are clean but he keeps shaking his head

There are no preventative measures you can take to stop this behavior, as your dog is shaking their head instinctively to try and soothe the irritation in their ears.

The best way to stop the behavior is to start treating the cause of their discomfort. Dogs usually stop shaking their head 2-3 days after starting their course of treatment as the medication begins to work and their symptoms lessen.

Do not scratch your dog’s ears for them as this will only make them want to scratch more. If you have other pets in the house and one of them has ear mites, you could easily end up transferring ear mites from your sick dog to your healthy pets.

What to do if my dog keeps scratching itchy ears

Cleaning your dog’s ears is the most effective home remedy, but is best to be used alongside traditional medication such as ear drops. To clean your dog’s ears you will need:

  • Apple cider vinegar or a commercially manufactured ear cleaning solution
  • Water
  • Cotton ball or pad

If you are using an ear cleaning solution formulated for dogs, you may not need to mix it with water. Always follow the directions according to the instructions or product packaging. For a vinegar and water solution, mix 1/3 cup of apple cider vinegar with 2/3 cup of lukewarm water.

Apply a small amount to your cotton ball or pad and gently wipe around the edges of the ear to remove the waxy residue. Slowly move inwards wiping the visible part of your dog’s ear. Never put anything inside your dog’s ear canal as you will push wax and discharge further along the ear canal. This will cause a blockage and can aggravate the infection. You may also cause damage to the eardrum.

Once the discharge is no longer being produced, you will want to continue cleaning your dog’s ears to remove excess wax. You can do this with a few drops of almond, olive or mineral oil onto the visible part of your dog’s ear. Allow your dog to shake his head to spread the oil better. Repeat the same process of wiping the skin by using a small cotton pad or ball and lukewarm water.

Another great home remedy is to alter your dog’s diet. Commercial pet food often contains preservatives, refined carbohydrates and other processed ingredients. They allow yeast colonies to grow, meaning your dog may suffer recurring infections. Swapping your dog onto a grain-free brand using fresh ingredients will help to reduce the chances of recurrent infections.

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