Pet Vet: Pets with itchy ears

Many pets scratch their ears, but that may not be normal. Itchy ears have many causes and our Pet Vet Dr. David Visser joined us Saturday morning to help us figure out what might be going on, and what to do about it.

Here's what he had to say:

Itchy ears are very common. In fact, the largest pet insurance company, VPI, researched and reported the top reasons that pets went to the veterinarian. The 8th most common reason for cats to see the vet was ear infections. For dogs, ear issues topped the annual list!

There are certainly pets that have just an innocent itch, but there are several ways that pets show more intense itchiness and are likely to have a bigger problem going on.

Most pets with ear problems will intensely scratch one or both ears. Sometimes, especially pets that don’t reach their ears well will shake their head or run their face and ear along the furniture or floor. Pets show ear discomfort by walking with one ear tilted down or with their entire head tilted to the side.

Sometimes pet owners may gently rub the ear, causing their dog to lean in and moan, or get their foot tapping because of the itchiness.

There is a typical mild odor from dog’s ears, but most of the time it isn't very noticeable, so strong odor is one of several signs that indicate a more significant problem with the ears.

In addition to strong odor, the ear openings or canals may be bright red and irritated. They may be ulcerated and raw. Discharge may be many different colors and consistency from dry crusty material to more liquidy fluid. And, if a pet has been intensely scratching, they can cause some bleeding either in or around the ears.

A more serious consequence of itchy ears and head shaking is something called a hematoma. The ear flap is really like a cartilage sandwich between two layers of skin. If head shaking or scratching causes a blood vessel to break inside the flap, it can distend out like a balloon. This often requires an operation to drain the fluid out, in addition to treating the underlying cause of the itchiness.

Most people are familiar with ear mites, which is an insect that prefers to live in the ear canal. Mites are most commonly a problem in young cats and some puppies, but it isn’t very common in adult pets.

The more common causes of ear problems in dogs and cats include allergies to inhaled pollens, dust and molds or even reaction to certain types of food proteins. When looking at ear discharge under the microscope, we also identify bacteria or yeast organisms, which are true infections, but these infections usually develop secondary to moisture or water in the ears (like after swimming or baths), or narrow ear canals and floppy ears that don’t allow a lot of ventilation in the ear canals.

The good part is ear conditions are manageable. Ear mites, for instance are easily controlled by prescription ear mite drops, or the heartworm preventative called Revolution. If the infection is related to mild bacteria or yeast, specific ear drops and ear flushing solutions can provide comfort and cure. More severe infections, particularly those that have torn the eardrum require internal antibiotics, and avoiding ear drops altogether since some medications in the ears can damage hearing.

This is the main reason that an exam by your veterinarian is so important – to know if the eardrum is ok and to determine what specifically is causing the ear problem so the right treatment can be prescribed. It’s easy to think that all ear infections are the same and that one ear product can take care of anything, but the only safe approach is to have it checked out first.