Devoted to More Wags and Purrs.

CSI Itchy Ear: Too Many Suspects

 Ear problems present in many different ways for pets. Infections of the outer ear may cause symptoms of head shaking, pawing and scratching at the head, neck and ears, or even a head tilt. The ears may be red, smelly and even painful. Middle ear infection, which have traveled beyond the ear drum, can cause severe discomfort, hearing loss and even profound dizziness. Many people can mistake the dizziness for a stroke or seizure.


If your cat or dog has been shaking their head, and now you are beginning to notice an odor, realize first that it is probably not ear mites. While ear mites are well known, they do require direct contact with an infected animal to catch the little bugs. for many inside pets, this makes ear mites a very unlikely source of the itchiness. Ear mites are disgusting little creatures. They look like almost microscopic little crabs, and live inside the ear canals where they feed and reproduce. They can cause intense itchiness, and are contagious for other dogs and cats who come in contact with the affected animal. Some dogs, cats and rabbits can be so severely affected that the mites may live and cause itchiness on their head and neck as well. Ear mites,once diagnosed, can be treated rather easily, much to the relief of those suffering pets.


Infections, which are more common than mites, can occur with yeast or bacteria; this differentiation can be very important. While antibiotics, either orally or topically, may treat bacteria, they often make yeast infections get worse.  Determining whether an infection is yeast or bacteria often requires microscopic examination of the discharge from the ear. Unfortunately, bacteria or yeast can both produce brown waxy discharge and bad odors.Yeast is often itchy, and bacteria can be painful, but either pathogen can cause either, or both, symptoms. Different types of bacteria may require different kinds of antibiotics, making the number of potential treatment choices large.


Some pets can have intense itchiness without an infection or mites. In both dogs and cats, many allergies can present themselves as ear itchiness. This allergy can be to a food, a pollen or an item in the house or outside environment.  Some pets have even been shown to be allergic to other pets, or even to the people that live in their house. These allergies may not only cause itchiness, but also may predispose a pet to infection too. If allergies are the cause the the itchiness, the allergy must be addressed before the problem will go away. Often, when a pet has ear infections that recur over and over, an underlying allergy may be the cause.


Lastly, cysts, tumors or foreign objects blocking the ear canal may cause itchiness or discomfort as well. A dog and cats ear canal is shaped much differently than a person’s. Besides being much longer for their size, a right hand turn makes looking deep into the canal difficult without specialized devices.


Itchy ears can be a frustrating problem. With so many different causes, some primary and some secondary, determining the exact culprit and appropriate treatment can be challenging. For anyone who has seen their pet scratching frantically at their ear, the challenge is worth it.  


Michael J. Rumore, D.V.M.