The problem with itchy ears is that the constant paw- and head-action can make the ears more itchy and possibly cause infection. To stop the itch/scratch cycle, vets sometimes recommend putting a pair of socks on your pet's hind feet. He will still be able to scratch, but the socks will prevent the nails from irritating the ear. Your vet may also recommend fitting your pet with an Elizabethan collar, a paper or plastic cone that will prevent him from scratching the ears altogether until they have a chance to heal. Elizabethan collars look a little unusual, but they are very effective. The collars are available from vets and pet supply stores.

When ears are itchy and inflamed, your vet may recommend applying several drops of over-the-counter hydrocortisone liquid, which can help ease the discomfort. Every pet will need a different amount, however, and this medication is not recommended for all conditions. Be sure to check with your vet before using it.

Since allergies are so common, it is worth taking a few minutes to try to figure out what's causing the head-shaking, ear-pawing, furniture-rubbing frenzy. Dogs and cats can be allergic to all kinds of things, and it is sometimes difficult to discover the culprit.

If itching occurs mainly during the warm months, there is a good chance that pollen or grasses may be to blame. When it occurs at various times of the year, however, you should suspect that something in your pet's food may be to blame.

If you think that your pet might be allergic to mold, dust, or dust mites, you should clean the house thoroughly and then watch for signs of possible improvement in your pet. "Vacuum the heck out of the drapes and clean the air-conditioner filters," Dr. Smith suggests.

Food allergies can be a little more complicated to recognize and to treat. The only way to figure out what your pet is allergic to is to work with your vet to create a special diet that contains none of the ingredients in his usual chow. Keep him on the diet for 8 to 10 weeks. During that time, "you can't let him finish the cornflakes and milk after breakfast or give him any treats," Dr. Smith adds. If the scratching gradually subsides, a food allergy may have been the problem, and you will want to keep him on this new diet.

There isn't a cure for seborrhea, which causes oily, dandrufflike scales to accumulate on the skin, but it is usually easy to treat by using a medicated shampoo. Available from veterinarians and pet supply stores, medicated shampoos are designed to relieve itchy, dry skin. Selenium-based shampoos can be particularly helpful. In severe cases, your vet may recommend a brief course of steroids such as cortisone to control the itching and inflammation.

If you suspect that your pet has ear mites -- a telltale sign is an accumulation of dark-colored debris in the ears -- you will need to clean the ears thoroughly and apply a mite-killing medication, available at pet supply stores, following the directions on the label. Fleas and other pests, of course, can also be controlled with over-the-counter medications as well as with stronger, prescription medications.

Hairy-eared dogs like poodles and terriers sometimes have itchy ears because there isn't enough air circulation in the ear canals to keep them dry. Removing some of the hair will allow more air to get inside, says Dr. Thomas. He recommends plucking excess hairs with your fingers or tweezers. Only remove hair that is protruding from the canal itself, not inside the earflap, he adds. If your dog has floppy ears, trimming the hair at the base of the flaps will also help the air to circulate. Some vets even recommend tying long, floppy ears over the head with a bandanna to let air inside and help keep them dry.

For pets that are prone to ear problems, vets recommend cleaning the ears once a week, especially during allergy season or if you live in a humid climate. Cleaning the ears is also helpful after your pet has had a bath or has taken a swim because moisture from the water can result in swimmer's ear, an infection caused by bacteria or other germs. Drying the ears makes it harder for germs to thrive.

To give the ears a thorough cleaning, cup your hand around the base of the ear and then fill the ear with an ear-cleaning solution, available from pet supply stores, following the directions on the label. (You can make your own cleaner by mixing equal parts white vinegar and water.) "Massage the base of the ear and be sure that you can hear the liquid swooshing around," Dr. Thomas says. Then stand back: When he shakes his head, the liquid and dirt will come splashing out.

The one thing that you don't want to do when the ear is inflamed is to use alcohol to clean your pet's ears, adds Dr. Thomas. "Alcohol sets the ear on fire," he says. "Cats especially can get tremendous inflammation." There are other manageable ways to get the job done, he adds.

Next Steps:

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Copyright 1999 Rodale Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

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