• Icon of dog ear indicating that Lavengel soothes and treats itchy and irritated dog ears

How Ear-ritating: Itchy Ears + Otic Infections in Dogs

Remember, we always recommend consulting with your vet for any of your dog's health concerns.

Drawing of dog with raised ear with flames sticking out to indicate irritation and discomfort

Why Are My Dog's Ears Itchy?

Dog ears are a sound location for an itch to happen, especially in breeds with ears that droop, fold, or have long hair in their ear canals. If you see your dog constantly digging in their ears, shaking their head, whining, or holding their head tilted to the side, you'll want to investigate.

There are a variety of reasons behind itchy ears, and many of them tend to overlap. As dogs scratch, they can damage the skin of the ear canal and more complicated issues can arise - after all, scratching your ears with your feet isn't exactly a precise science.

Dalmatian sits in grass scratching neck with hind leg

Allergies

Allergies are first among the top causes of itchy dog ears. Environmental allergens, such as grass, pollen, and dust, along with food allergies, trigger an irritating skin reaction.

Allergies often contribute to ear infections. The skin of the ears becomes red, warm, and inflamed, and creates an excellent place for opportunistic microbes to grow. Chronic ear infections can be a sign that your dog has a sensitivity to a particular allergen or substance.

What foods are dogs typically allergic to?

Certain proteins are the most common food ingredients identified with canine food allergies. In order of commonality, they are beef (by a large margin), then dairy, chicken, wheat, and lamb. Other allergens that are far less common across dogs are soy, corn, pork, egg, fish, and rice.

Yeast infection in dog ear with redness and brown discharge

Bacterial or Yeast Infections

Small colonies of bacteria and fungi naturally dwell on your dog's skin, including in the ears. These microbes thrive in dark, warm, and moist environments, and an infection occurs when these microbe populations grow out of control.

Bacteria and fungi also love damaged or broken skin, which typically occurs when dogs repetitively scratch at an itch. It is possible for dogs to have both a bacterial and yeast infection at the same time.

Most canine bacterial skin infections (aka pyoderma) are caused by a species of Staphylococcus called Staph pseudintermedius and another bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Both of these bacterial species can form biofilms, which resist antimicrobial treatments and make the infection much harder to eliminate.

Most fungal (yeast) infections are caused by a species of yeast known as Malassezia pachydermatitis. As a quick plug: Lavengel® can be very helpful against both types of microbes, their infections, and even the bacterial biofilms, according to our research.

A Heads Up for Dogs That Love Water

Water in the ears helps create a great Petri dish for microbes to grow in. Dogs that spend a lot of time in the water are more prone to get ear infections, so be sure to gently dry their ears with a cotton ball or soft cloth after swimming.

Yeast infection in dog ear; photo via the Cornerstone Animal Clinic of Dallas.

Brown long-haired dachshund stands in grass looking at camera covered in loose straw

Foreign Objects or Debris

Sometimes things get stuck in a dog's ear, and they're simply trying to get it out. Loose straw, grass clippings, dirt, bits of mulch, and seeds such as burrs and foxtails can get caught in those listening flaps.

If your dog has long ear hair or a significant amount of inner ear hair, be sure to check their ears for "treasure" that they may have picked up while romping around outside. Use caution if they are in pain, or even consider having a vet help with the extraction.

Illustration of facade of wax museum building

Wax Buildup or Trapped, Matted Hair

Ears need proper air flow to stay dry and minimize the microbial growth. An accumulation of too much ear wax can create an irritation.

Dogs with long ear hair or lots of inner ear hair - spaniels, poodles, Shih tzus, Yorkshire terriers, and others - run the risk of their hair becoming matted and forming knots. These can also be annoying for dogs and call for a vigorous foot-in-ear session.

Blue Heeler dog playfully gnaws at neck of another cattle dog lying on ground

Ear Wound or Injury

Wounds can be causes for irritated ears. Rough play with other dogs, accidents, foxtail seeds, or excessive scratching or head shaking can injure or damage the skin of the ear.

Blood- or fluid-filled spots referred to as aural hematomas can develop as a result of trauma. As we mentioned before, bacteria and yeast are always seeking an opportunity to grow, and open wounds are prime locations to establish an infection.

If you notice a wound in or on your dog's ear - or anywhere else on your dog, really - clean the area and apply some Lavengel®. It will not only relieve the discomfort, but also protect the wound from microbes and help it heal faster.

For more handy-dandy first aid tips and how to build your own dog first aid kit, check out our Canine First Aid page.

Drawing of border collie face looking up inquisitively at purple tumor on ear

Ear Tumors or Polyps

A tumor is an overgrowth of cells in an abnormal place, and a polyp is a variation of a small tumor. Ear polyps typically come in two forms: ceruminous gland adenomas, coming from the glands that make wax (generally benign), and squamous cell carcinomas, arising from the cells lining the ear canal (more aggressive).

It is not fully understood why ear polyps develop, but chronic inflammation in the ear canal can lead to their development. While these growths may not be inherently itchy, they can hamper the function of the ear and lead to a buildup of wax and infections. Surgical removal is generally the most effective way to treat ear polyps.

Otodectes cynotis (ear mite) seen under microscope at 100x magnification

Ear Mites

Ear mites are tiny, microscopic parasites that live in the ear canal of many animals, and travel from host to host via physical contact. The species that typically affects dogs and cats is called Otodectes cynotis; demodectic mange mites may also target ears on occasion.

Ear mites feed on skin oils and ear wax, and an infestation often generates an itchy infection that leaves a dry black/brown discharge similar to coffee grounds. However, it should be noted that residue like this is classic among ear infections and is not exclusive to ear mites.

Determining the presence of ear mites calls for a trip to the vet, where they will take a sample to be examined under the microscope (a process called cytology). Treatment for ear mites will generally involve prescription topicals or oral meds with active ingredients such as selamectin, moxidectin, saralaner, and fluralaner. Some prescription flea and tick preventatives are also effective in preventing ear mites.

Photo by Barbie Papajeski, MS, LVT, RLATG, VTS; via Today's Veterinary Nurse

Closeup of deer tick on gray wooden board

Ticks and Fleas

It's no secret that fleas and ticks love a concealed place to hide when they make a meal out of your dog, and the ears are a great place for it. Ticks tend to be more likely to hide under the ears than fleas, but both are possible and quite itchy.

If your dog spends time outdoors, it's always a good idea to check for ticks and keep them on a flea and tick preventative. If you find them, you can remove them (if you're feeling brave) with your fingers or with a pair of plastic tweezers. Either way, you'll want to be sure to remove their head when you extract them.

For more on ticks and a list of the best vet-recommended flea and tick prevention products on the market, see our Dog Tick Tips and Prevention post.

Drawing of basset hound dressed as Sherlock Holmes with magnifying glass in mouth

Symptoms of Canine Ear Infections (Otitis Externa)

  • Constantly scratching ears, shaking head, rubbing head on things, tilting their head
  • Head shyness (avoids being pet on the head)
  • Red, inflamed ear canals
  • Swollen ear tissue or thickened ear flap
  • Pain and sensitive ears
  • Dark yellow or brown ear discharge with bad odor
  • Depression and irritability

It's very important to note that ear infections have different causes, and simple assumption can lead to extra frustration and expense. Thus, it is vital to perform a cytology to identify the specific microbe(s) behind the infection, select the appropriate treatments or medications, and evaluate response to treatment.

Breeds Commonly Affected by Ear Infections

All dog breeds can suffer from ear (otic) infections, but there are certain traits that make some breeds more susceptible than others.

For example, breeds that are brachycephalic (flat-faced) have narrow ear canals that easily trap moisture and do not allow for good air circulation. In the same vein, breeds with long ears or long hair in the ear canals can accumulate debris and wax and likewise trap moisture and have restricted air flow.

As mentioned previously, dogs that spend a lot of time swimming or undergo frequent bathing run a higher risk of contracting an ear infection.

  • Drawing of a sitting pug wearing a purple cloak and party hat

    Pugs

  • Illustration of French bulldog wearing lavender hoodie

    Frenchies

  • Drawing of English bulldog wearing lavender collar and propellor hat

    Bulldogs

  • Drawing of dachshund wearing lavender mining helmet

    Dachshunds

  • Golden Retrievers

  • Illustration of German Shepherd wearing sunglasses and lavender tie

    German Shepherds

  • Drawing of Shih Tzu wearing lavender Santa hat

    Shih Tzus

  • Spaniels

  • Drawing of a basset hound wearing aviator goggles

    Basset Hounds

Inside of dog ear with redness in reaction to topical ear medication for infection

How Are Dog Ear Infections Treated?

After an examination with an otoscope (the fancy ear magnifying glass) and cytology (taking samples + examining under a microscope), your vet will determine what microbe(s) are causing the infection. Compound infections - more than one microbe - are a possibility.

Treatment for otic bacterial and yeast infections generally begin by cleaning the ears to remove cerumen (wax), debris, or discharge. From there, topical medications are the standard, along with anti-inflammatory meds to help with pain and swelling.

For severe or chronic cases of ear infections, systemic oral medications may be required. While these medications can be effective, they call for prolonged use to eradicate the infection(s), which can put stress on the liver. Not only that, bacteria have the ability - especially if they've developed a biofilm - to resist systemic medications and "share" their resistance mechanisms with other bacteria.

An alternative to prescription topicals that can make a difference with both relieving irritation and helping to reduce inflammation and microbial burden (including biofilms) is Lavengel®. It's made with safe, pronounceable ingredients and backed by 14+ years of microbiology research.

Photo by Dr. Jangi Bajwa, via the Canadian Veterinary Journal

Pug hangs upside down making a silly face

Ear Infection Prevention

We always recommend seeking veterinary attention if your dog has an ear infection, especially since there could be other infection or complications present.

A few ways you can help prevent your dog from developing an ear infection are:

  • Clean their ears every week or two
  • Keep water out of their ear canals when bathing
  • Make sure their ears are dry after bathing or being in water
  • Trimming hair in the ear canal (for dogs with long hair in the ear canal)
  • Make note of their allergies or allergic reactions. For example: Do they tend to be more itchy in the spring/fall? Did they have a reaction to a new food?
  • Feeding them a healthy, well-balanced diet
  • Routine vet visits and scheduling appointments quickly when a problem arises
  • Keep some Lavengel® on hand! (Scroll down for more)
  • 5-star rating for Lavengel for dogs

    Our dog leaves his ears alone now

    This works really well for our dog. He is always digging in his ears so they get all red and rashly. We put a very tiny amount and rub it in really well, and then leaves his ears alone for a couple days. Then when it starts again he comes up and waits for more. Doesn't hurt him and it smells really good.

    -- Eric T.

  • 5-star rating for Lavengel for dogs

    A little goes a long way for dry ears

    I try to use mostly natural products on my dogs and was looking for a nice oil/moisturizer for my dogs dry ears. I have to clean my dog's ears very regularly, so they tend to get dry and itchy afterwards. This has been a nice addition to our routine.

    -- LMK.

  • 5-star rating for Lavengel for dogs

    Works great for itchy ears

    Smells soothing, easy to put on the ears or any spot they itch. Really works well.

    -- Doug B.

  • 5-star rating for Lavengel for dogs

    Great stuff

    This ointment resolved the redness on my dogs inner ear.

    -- Greg B.