New puppies are great fun, but sometimes it can be hard to tell what is normal behaviour and what might be a cause for concern. One example is ear scratching – how common is it, and is it likely to be a problem?

Puppies frequently scratch at their ears and often it’s due to minor irritation. However, if the scratching is very frequent or persistent it’s worth getting them checked; just to make sure there isn’t a problem. Checking irritated ears on a wriggly puppy is much easier if they are used to having their ears handled. Spend time gently touching and looking at your puppy’s ears as part of their daily routine. Regular checks also mean that any issues can be spotted early. It is important to bear in mind though, what you can see from the outside, really is just the tip of the iceberg. Problems deeper down won’t always be apparent. 

What other signs should I look for?

Other signs that might alert you to a problem with your puppy’s ear include large amounts of wax or discharge, an unpleasant smell, heat or redness of the ear canal or ear flaps, and pain. They might yelp or cry out when the ear is touched. If you are in any doubt, consult a vet who can take a proper look deep into the ear and advise on the best course of action.

What causes ear problems in puppies?

There are a number of possibilities:

A relatively common cause of itchy ears in puppies are ear mites (Otodectes cynotis). 

Ear mites are small parasites that live inside the ear canal of dogs. They are hard to see with the naked eye. But you may spot them as small moving specks against a dark background. Ear mites are usually diagnosed when your vet sees them in the ear canal. But if they are not obvious then a small swab might be taken to examine under the microscope. The good news is that there are lots of really simple and effective treatments for ear mites. This includes ear drops and spot-on solutions that are applied to the skin. 

Ear infections are another common cause of itchy ears in puppies and young dogs. 

These infections are generally caused by bacteria or yeasts and are more common in dogs that have underlying problems with their ears such as allergies. Genetics can also play a part. Certain breeds are more likely to be affected, as are dogs with very hairy or narrow ear canals. Dogs that swim or get their ears wet frequently are also more likely to get infections. Left untreated, infections can cause permanent damage to the ear canal and spread to the inner ear. Medicated drops are the most common treatment. But you should always consult your veterinary surgeon before putting anything into your puppy’s ears, as the wrong treatment can do more damage than good. 

Inquisitive puppies, especially those that are out and about in the countryside, can sometimes get foreign objects, such as grass seeds, lodged deep in their ear canals. 

This generally causes very sudden onset severe itching and irritation, and your pet may hold their head to one side. The treatment is removal of the object but this must only be carried out by a veterinary surgeon to prevent further damage to the ear canal or drum. Checking your pup’s ears after each walk, especially when they have been in long grass, means you can often catch the seed before they enter the ear canal itself. 

In some older puppies or adolescent dogs, itchy inflamed ears can be the first or only sign of allergic skin disease.

Any cleaner or treatment applied to the ear can cause a reaction. But more commonly the allergy is either to a food or something in the pet’s environment such as pollens or dust mites. It is a process of elimination to work out what might be causing the problem. Your vet may suggest a low allergy diet that is suitable for puppies. And sometimes blood or skin tests are done to try and work out what your dog might be allergic to. If the offending allergen cannot be avoided treatments generally try and reduce the symptoms to make your dog more comfortable. As well as prevent secondary problems such as infections.

Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to prevent problems with your puppy’s ears. 

Check them regularly so that you can spot problems early on. Get used to what is normal in terms of appearance and smell. Avoid putting anything in your puppy’s ears without speaking to your vet first. Regularly use a broad-spectrum flea treatment to prevent parasites from becoming a problem.

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