Ears: Scratching and Shaking

It warms your heart when your dog presses his head against your hand or your cat rubs his ear against your leg. But then you notice that he is also rubbing against the couch and the living-room carpet. Apparently, it wasn't affection he wanted, but simply a good scratch.

When your pets are using you -- along with the furniture -- as a rubbing post or they are pawing and shaking their heads, it is probably because something is tickling their ears and making them itch. And the more they scratch, the itchier they are going to get, says Dennis W. Thomas, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Libby, Montana. This cycle will continue until you figure out what's going on.

Anything that gets inside the ears -- from fleas to water to tickly burrs -- can set off a frenzy of head shaking and ear scratching. In cats particularly, itchy ears are often caused by ear mites, which are tiny, crablike parasites that occasionally take up residence. When the mites scurry around, the ears can get intensely itchy. Dogs also get ear mites but much less often than cats do.

Allergies are the main reason that dogs and cats paw their ears and shake their heads. You can guess what's causing the itching by where they scratch. Ear and facial itchiness is usually caused by allergies to foods or airborne particles such as pollen, adds Ernest K. Smith, D.V.M., a veterinary allergist and dermatologist in private practice in Tequesta, Florida.

Some pets are prone to seborrhea, a skin condition that can make the ears extremely dry and itchy. Basset hounds, cocker spaniels, and Irish setters are particularly prone to seborrhea, as are springer spaniels, golden retrievers, and shar-peis.

Finally, there are a number of potentially serious conditions, including thyroid disease and polyps (small growths inside the middle ear), that can cause the ears to get extremely itchy.

See Your Vet If...

  • Skin around your pet's ears is dry
  • There is dark debris in one or both of his ears
  • Your pet is scratching mainly during the warm months
  • There is bleeding inside or on one of the earflaps, or the ears are swollen
  • Your pet is frequently tilting her head or having trouble with balance
  • There is a bad smell or discharge in one or both ears
  • There is Fur loss around the ears, or the ears are scabby
  • Your pet seems to be having trouble hearing
  • Her ears are unusually tender or itchy
  • The tips of her ears are cold, white, and dry, which are signs of frostbite
  • Your pet is frequently scratching one or both ears

Next Steps:

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