By Dr. Michelle Rose
It’s hard enough to scratch an itch inside an ear with human fingers, much less an entire paw. It’s pretty amazing how far our pets are able to stick their paws down into their ears, but typically, that’s not a good thing.
When a dog or cat has itchy ears, there can be a variety of reasons. Here are some causes to look for when your pet just can’t stop itching their ears.
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Often times it can just be an itch. Similar to humans, when we scratch an itch—that’s the end of it.
Other times, things like insect bites or topical irritants can stimulate itching that is persistent and lasts longer. Generally these causes do not require veterinary intervention.
Allergies are also a frequent cause for a dog or cat to have itchy ears. This can lead to uncomfortable ear infections.
Occasionally, there can also be foxtails and other foreign objects stuck down inside of ear canals, causing the appearance of itchiness that is often irritation and discomfort.
What to look for
If your pet has a single ear-scratching episode, there’s not a real need for alarm.
However, if it begins to be a persistent issue, flip over the ear and have a look down inside.
If there is a small red bump, it’s likely a bug bite. In the event it starts growing, or your pet seems really irritated, it’s best to have it seen by a veterinarian.
If just the outer area of the ear (not the deeper area) is a little red, they are likely suffering from an allergy that can be remedied with an antihistamine such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine) or Zyrtec (cetirizine).
If you take a look or open the ear and notice there is a large amount of debris, or the deep part of the ear is red, it is likely an ear infection that needs to be examined by a vet.
You can also take a sniff of your pets’ ears. It’s a good idea to do this when they are not having any ear issues for comparison purposes. Often ear infections can have a sour or yeasty odor to them. If you smell them and notice a smell, it is likely they have an infection and need medication.
When to talk to a vet
If while inspecting the ear (see section above), you identify something unusual, it’s a good idea to talk with a veterinarian.
Before applying any remedies or medication into the ear canal at home, it’s important to consult a veteriarian. Most medications need the eardrum to be intact for safest use, and objects like foxtails down in the ear canal can be the root cause of infection.
These kind of infections cannot be cleared up without first removing the foreign material. Many pets that get foxtails or other foreign objects stuck in their ears will shake their heads, scratch at the affected ear, and rub the ear on the ground or furniture. If your pet demonstrates any of these signs, it is highly recommended to schedule an exam at your nearest veterinary hospital.
As with any health concern, the sooner the issue can be addressed, the better. It is less likely for ear infections or perforated eardrums to be an issue if the removal of foreign debris is immediate.
Sometimes a sedative is needed in order to perform a thorough ear exam. If your pet is wiggly, painful or acts aggressively, they will likely need to be sedated for a full, thorough ear exam. In some cases with very mellow pets, foxtails can be removed without a sedative and with special forceps instead.