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What are Scratching the Ears?

A canine who is scratching his ears and shaking his head may be experiencing more pain and irritation than you realize. Dogs are very stoic when it comes to pain. Any changes in your pet’s behavior should always be considered as a potential health problem.  Constant scratching can cause small lacerations on the outside of your dog’s ears and the inside may become red and inflamed.  There are various reasons your dog may be excessively scratching his ears:

  • Allergies
  • Bacterial or yeast infection
  • Parasites
  • Foreign body inside the ear
  • Ear tumors

If your dog is excessively scratching at his ears he should be seen by a veterinarian.  The scratching may be a symptom of a serious underlying condition and may cause secondary complications such as hearing loss.

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Why Scratching the Ears Occurs in Dogs


Environmental and food allergies can cause inflammation and infection of the external auditory canal (otitis externa). Allergies are a common cause of otitis externa. Environmental allergens may include grass, tree and weed pollens. Common food items which may cause allergies include beef, dairy, corn, wheat and soy.

Bacterial or Yeast Infections

Dogs with pendant ears are more likely to have ear infections.  Their floppy ears may stop air from circulating and trap moisture in the ears. Unfortunately, both bacteria and yeast grow well in moisture. Dogs that love to swim can develop “swimmer’s ear” due to water being trapped inside the ear canal. A yeast infection may also lead to a secondary bacterial infection. 


Dogs scratching at their ears may have ear mites, fleas or ticks irritating their skin and ears. Ear mites feed upon your dog’s ear wax. They thrive in places that are dark and have moisture. Ticks and fleas feed on your dog’s blood.  

Foreign Objects

Dogs love to run and play outside and sometimes can get foreign objects lodged in their ear.  Your dog may have grass seeds, a twig or other plant material inside his ear canal which may perforate the tympanic membrane. 

Ear Tumors 

Many ear tumors are polyp-like growths. Tumors can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Recurring inflammation of the external ear canal can lead to the growth of cysts.

What to do if your Dog is Scratching the Ears

If your dog’s ears are very painful the veterinary doctor may need to sedate him in order to perform an examination. He may insert an otoscope in your dog’s ears to see if there is a foreign object, inflammation, excess wax or tumor causing your pet to scratch. 

If the veterinarian suspects allergies as a cause, he may suggest an intradermal allergy test.  The intradermal allergy test injects small amounts of common allergens under the dog’s skin.  If the dog is allergic to one or more of the allergens, the area where the allergen was injected will get red and swollen.  An elimination trial may be suggested to rule out food allergies and will involve feeding one protein at a time.   If your dog shows a reaction to a certain protein, the food item is removed from your dog’s diet.  During the food trial, your dog should not be fed treats or table scraps.

Mites may be treated with medications such as selamectin or moxidectin.  Fleas and ticks will be treated with a medication designed to eliminate the parasites.  The veterinarian may also suggest bathing your dog with medicated shampoo or a dip.  The household, your dog’s bedding, and the yard should be treated for parasites.  

Ear tumors may need to be removed using a laser procedure. The veterinarian will prescribe pain medication, and topical and oral antibiotics. Regardless of the condition,  your dog will need to wear an Elizabethan collar (cone) so that he does not keep scratching at his ears.  The use of the cone will allow the ears to heal without further irritation from the scratching.

Prevention of Scratching the Ears

To prevent parasites, it is important to have your dog on a monthly flea and tick preventative medication.  Dogs that love the water should have the inside of their ears cleaned and dried after their swim. In fact, your veterinarian may recommend you do a weekly checking and cleaning of your dog’s ears, particularly if he is susceptible to ear irritation or infection. Breeds with long fur that may grow inward towards the inner ear canal should have the fur groomed if it typically causes problems.

Cost of Scratching the Ears

Ear tumors may cost approximately $3000 to treat.  If your pet has food allergies, the identification of the offending ingredient may be as much as $1500.  Ear mites may cost $350 to eliminate.