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Why Is My Dog Scratching His Ear?

Ear infections are painful and itchy, and left untreated can cause damage to the ear. So, if you suspect your pup has an ear problem, it’s best to seek treatment as soon as you can.

Here are some clues your pal might have a sore ear…

What are the symptoms of ear infections in dogs?

  • Scratching their ear(s).
  • Shaking or tilting their head.
  • Redness, scratches, or wounds on the ear flap or the skin near the ear.
  • Debris, discharge, bleeding, or excessive wax from your dog’s ear.
  • A bad smell from the ear.
  • A painful ear.
  • A swollen ear flap.

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What causes dog ear infections?

In dogs, most ear infections are caused by bacteria or yeast. These microscopic organisms naturally live on the skin in a healthy balance, but will take the opportunity to overgrow and cause problems if conditions are right.

Because the ear canal is very warm and dark, it’s a good growing environment for bacteria and yeast. So, all it takes is some extra dirt, wax, or water inside your dog’s ear to set off an infection.

Here are some things that can put your pup at a higher risk of infection…

  • Genetics (especially for breeds with floppy ears, such as Cocker Spaniels).
  • Dirty or waxy ears. Bacteria and yeast love to grow in dirty ears!
  • Previous ear infections. Unfortunately, over time, infections can narrow the ear canal, making it harder to clean the ears.
  • Getting water in the ears, whether it's during a bath or a jaunt near a lake or ocean.
  • Allergies, including food allergies. The ears are basically an extension of the skin, so if allergies affect your pup's skin, their ears may be at risk, too.

There are other causes, such as ear mites (small parasites of the ears) and getting something stuck in the ear canal — but these are much less common.

What is the treatment for ear infections in dogs?

Specific treatment will vary depending on what type of ear infection your pooch has. So, the first thing to do is bring your pal for a veterinary visit.

Diagnostics for dog ear infections

Your vet will use a small viewing device called an ‘otoscope’ to check inside the ear canal for debris, redness, swelling, or other problems.

The next step is usually to perform an ‘ear swab’, which involves gently swabbing the affected ear(s) with a cotton-tipped applicator. The sample is then examined under a microscope to look for bacteria, yeast, or anything else out of the ordinary. Once your vet knows the cause, there are a few options for treatment.

Ear Cleaning

If your pal’s ears aren’t properly cleaned, the infection will come right back. There’s a bit of a learning curve for cleaning your dog's ears, but don’t worry — with patience and a few tips, many dogs get accustomed to their ear cleaning routine very quickly.

Your veterinary team can give you a full demonstration in the clinic. But here are a few pointers…

  • Use a proper dog ear cleaning solution, not water. Water leaves moisture in the ear canal, which promotes bacterial and yeast growth. A good quality cleaner is not only self-drying, but also has the right pH to help prevent infections in the first place. Ear cleaners formulated for dogs are also much better than home remedies you might read about online.
  • Pour the cleaner directly into the ear. Start with a small amount if your dog isn’t used to this yet.
  • Massage the base of the ear for a few seconds. Then, stand back! Your pooch will probably shake their head, sending cleaner and ear debris flying. This is actually a good thing, because it helps remove debris from deeper inside the ears. But for this reason, we recommend ear cleanings be done in the bathroom, or somewhere similarly easy to clean.
  • Use gauze or cotton swabs to clean the parts of the ear you can see. Don’t try to go too deep, as you might push the debris further down — the liquid ear cleaner will take care of the deeper part of the cleaning for you.

Note: If the infection is severe or very painful, don’t try to clean the ear without talking to your vet first. Your pet may need pain relief, and a check to be sure their eardrum is healthy enough for routine cleaning.


Usually, you’ll receive a topical ear infection ointment or liquid to place in your dog’s ears (though sometimes an oral medication is prescribed). In addition to ingredients to treat bacteria or yeast, these medications also include ingredients to soothe an angry ear and provide relief from swelling, inflammation, and pain. Fortunately, the medicine starts working quickly so your pal will feel better fast.

As always, remember to finish all medication as prescribed. Don’t stop administering medicine early if your pet is feeling better — there's a good chance the infection will come right back.

What if your dog has an ear hematoma?

Also called an aural hematoma, this swelling of the ear flap is actually a blood pocket that develops when a small blood vessel inside the ear flap ruptures. Usually, this is caused by your pet shaking their head or scratching at their ears too much.

Aural hematomas can happen in cats, too, but they’re much more common in dogs. Typically, these lesions need to be drained by your vet, and often require surgical treatment to prevent them from reccurring. They’re another good reason to bring your pet in early for ear infections — the less time your pup spends shaking their head and scratching their ears, the less likely ear hematomas are to develop.

Preventing ear infections

Some things you can do to prevent ear infections include:

  • Routine ear cleanings at home or at the vet clinic. Your vet can help you choose the right cleaning products for your dog’s ears, as well as the best frequency of cleaning. 
  • Watch for any symptoms and seek treatment ASAP.
  • Keep your pal up to date on their routine veterinary care and physical exams.

While ear infections are definitely not fun to deal with, some quick and thorough care will get your pup feeling much better soon!

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