You've probably noticed your dog scratching its head and ears from time to time. Sometimes, it’s just a normal itch. Other times, it can be more than that. How often the scratching happens will help to determine what might be going on. Let's take a look!

Reasons why dogs scratch their ears: an ear infection

If your dog is frequently scratching their ears due to irritation, it could be the result of an ear infection. An inflamed ear can be very painful for your dog, just as it is for a human.

Most of the time, ear infections are the result of bacteria and/or yeast overgrowth that permeate the ear from an internal or external source. This then causes inflammation that is itchy and often painful.

If a dog has food allergies, they are more susceptible to ear infections due to inflammation that begins in the intestines and works it way around the body, to the ears.

Vets assessing ear infections will be searching for that source. As it can be difficult to tell exactly which type of ear infection your dog is suffering from (the symptoms are often quite similar), an expert assessment will be the only means to determine this.

Outer ear infection (otitis externa)

This is the most common type of ear infection found in dogs. These affect the ear canal through to the ear drum. They are most noticeable by the ear's red and swollen appearance, often warm to the touch. You may also notice an unpleasant smell coming from the area.

Your dog is likely to increase its scratching of the area as the infection worsens. This is due to the discomfort and itchiness they experience. They may also tilt their head to reduce pressure on the area.

If you start to notice any of these symptoms, it's important to have your pet checked out by a vet promptly.

Middle ear infection (otitis media)

A middle ear infection is one that is situated just behind the eardrum. The symptoms will be similar to an outer ear infection, but you may notice some temporary hearing loss or even some issues with facial movement.

Again, prompt assessment by a vet will be necessary.

Inner ear infection (otitis internal or labyrinthitis)

This is a more rare form of ear infection affecting the semicircular canals of a dog's inner ear. This type of ear infection can cause sudden loss of hearing, dizziness and balance issues. Similar to the above, your dog's head may tilt to one side as with other types of ear infections.

This type of infection is more difficult to diagnose and may require CT or MRI imaging for confirmation.

Reason why dogs scratch their ears: Foxtails or spikelets

Foxtails or spikelets refer to the small, barbed seed heads of wild grasses. They are characterised by tiny sharp needles that are dangerous to many fur friends (not just dogs).

These small heads easily detach themselves from the plant’s stem and are designed to move in one direction in order to be carried by the wind. They then end up in fields, gardens and lawns, which is how they find their way into animal ears. Normal movement by the animal encourages them to burrow further and further into the animal. 

Foxtails are particularly dangerous if they make their way into the ears, mouth, nose, eyes, paws, or skin of an animal. In the long-term, they can cause cysts and abscesses that can lead to infection.

If your dog has a foxtail lodged in or around their ear, you will start to notice incessant pawing or scratching, violent shaking of the head, tilting of the head, sores or abscesses, swelling, and/or discharge.

If you notice a foxtail in your dog’s ear, you should try and remove it with care to avoid rupturing the skin. If it is too small, head to your vet to have it removed quickly.

Has your dog ever suffered from an ear infection or spikelet?

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