Part IV: When it isn’t an Infection

The Itchy Dog

The Itchy Dog


Non-Infection Irritation

Could your dog have no infectious organisms in his ear, yet still be inflamed, red and itchy or painful? Have you taken your dog to the vet and been shocked when the vet told you that your dog does not have an infection? Is that possible?

Yes, it happens all the time, usually for one of a few reasons: allergies to food or airborne causes (like pollen and dust), what I call the “irritated-ear cycle” and the owner feeding the dog a species-inappropriate diet with too many carbohydrates.


When people have allergies, whether they are seasonal or food related, we tend to have itchy noses, watery eyes, sneezes and hives (and boy don’t I know about them!). Dangerous allergies can cause anaphylaxis which can be deadly.

Dogs are slightly different in the way their allergy symptoms manifest themselves. Allergies can make dogs have itchy noses and watery eyes and dogs can get hives too but most of the time allergies in dogs manifest themselves in skin and ear problems.

  • Skin can become dry, itchy and/or scaly.
  • The dog can develop “hot spots”.
  • Paw pads tend to become extremely itchy-the dog might chew constantly on the paws, often turning the fur color a reddish brown from all the saliva.
  • Ears can become red and inflamed.
  • Ears can become extremely itchy and distracting for the dog.
  • Dog can develop goopy eyes in conjunction with the itchy ears.

You could try giving your pet an over-the-counter antihistamine like Benadryl (check with your vet for dosage) and see if that soothes the itchiness. If your dog does not seem to respond at all to antihistamines (other than perhaps some drowsiness) and you’ve tried a few different types then you might see if there is another cause for the itchiness before trying to eliminate possible allergens (especially food allergens as elimination diets are difficult and time consuming).

Just because your dog does respond to medication doesn’t mean he has an allergy, but it might.

Dogs can have allergies to foods and eliminating highly allergenic components of your dog’s diet could certainly improve things, but it is important to note that most allergies are simply environmental such as dust, pollen and mold (which cannot be eliminated).

One thing you can do to help your pup is to install an allergy-rated filter in your home (3M makes a fantastic one). That will be healthy for both you and your dog. You can also keep the dog out of the room when you dust and then be sure to vacuum right away following dusting (and do both regularly) as well as avoid spraying heavily scented or perfumed cleaners or air fragrances as these can make allergies go from really annoying to really unbearable. And always avoid smoking in the house (& the car if your dog ever rides in there with you).

How Earatating

Ah, the dreaded irritated-ear cycle. This is how it goes:

1 The ear gets a little wax build-up; a normal and natural occurrence.

  • This triggers a little itching; a natural function that prompts the dog to rub the ears clean.
  • The dog starts to rub his ears or scratch them a bit more than usual.

2 The loving owner takes notice and cleans the ears for the dog.

  • The perfect natural balance of the ear is severely disrupted (more like wiped out).
  • At this time the owner may misidentify normal ear wax and dirt for an infection and begin administering harsh, severely drying rinses and/or goopy preparations or a veterinarian prescribes unneeded harsh chemical cleansers and antibiotics.


  • The well-meaning dog parent uses a drying or irritating product in the ear canal and/or inner ear leather (the flap). (This is why harsh cleansers with “drying” properties like rubbing alcohol should always be avoided).

3 Inflammation is the result of sensitized or dried out skin, especially skin as delicate as that in the ear.

  • If there is no inflammation right away there will be soon, as the dog is sure to rub and scratch the irritated ear until inflammation is the inevitable result.
  • The rubbing and scratching makes everything worse. Tissues get severely abraded by the scratching and can be injured
  • Bacteria is introduced by the dog’s nails to the now abraded, stripped and unprotected skin

4 At this point the owner may have caused an ear infection (or one is close). Either way the owner brings the poor, miserable dog to the veterinarian to get him some relief.

  • The vet recommends more cleaners, all of which are terrible
  • The veterinarian may need to prescribe antibiotics (especially in the event of an infection being caused by all of the scratching with dirty nails
    • The vet prescribes steroids (and we won’t even get into why steroids need to be used in the most necessary circumstances due to how harmful they are to your pet’s health).
    • Antibiotics completely wipe out any “good” bacteria on the skin that is desperately trying to colonize and make the ear’s environment normal
    • More opportunistic organisms take up residence in the ear, like bacteria or yeast.
    • You are basically inviting yeast infections; in fact you might as well roll out the red carpet.
  • Steroids, antibiotics and lots of heavy cleansing will render the ear sterile for a short while and the redness and inflammation will likely be noticeably reduced from the anti-inflammatory medication.

5 The owner finishes the steroids and the antibiotic course and the sterile environment of the ear does not stay sterile. The owner stops cleansing the ears on a daily basis with the harsh cleansers and so bacteria and/or yeast has the opportunity to set up shop.

6 Since the natural balance of things has been disrupted on the skin there is nothing to protect the ear from these invaders. And so eventually we start the cycle all over again around step 4.


I have seen time and time again this particular cycle being the cause of “chronic” ear infections. Sometimes the dog manages to avoid an immediate infection or irritation following medication and treatment but often that just means this whole process will start over again in a few months when the dog has a mild buildup of natural ear-wax, which is trying to migrate out of the ear. And we start all over from step 1.

If you think your best friend is stuck on this carousel of ear-misery then it is time to help him off this ride for good!

Sometimes pets get stuck on this cycle to a lesser extent, minus serious yeast and bacterial infections. This is usually due to the owner’s extreme diligence in using rinses and/or anti-inflammatories, which keeps the ear irritated but also keeps the opportunistic little buggers at bay. Often these owners and their veterinarians are at a complete loss as to what is causing the constant low-grade irritation and the itching. This makes many owners and veterinarians suspect allergies to be the culprit. Other times genetics and “breeding” is blamed.

Poor breeding selections (generally done by greedy farmers and backyard breeders) most certainly perpetuate tendencies for ear infections and chronic ear problems. My educated guess is that it is mainly because allergies are thought to be at least partially genetic. A dog that has lots of food or environmental allergies will have itchy ears. A dog with itchy ears starts off the cycle right on step 2 and he often causes his own infections from scratching.

Diet and the prevalence of high carbohydrate levels in modern dog food is also a large part of the problem. Heredity certainly plays a factor in how well a dog will digest and handle excessive sugars which are unnatural and biologically inappropriate for canine consumption. This is not the fault of a breeder as there aren’t dog breeders out there working to change the dog from a carnivore to an herbivore (or omnivore).

Back to Allergies

If you think you might have a dog with allergies you must first consider the possibility that the problem could be this terrible irritation-cycle. Secondly you must consider that your dog is simply being fed an inappropriate diet. Few dogs actually have allergies to foods and many pets are diagnosed as having allergies when that is actually not the problem.

Allergies are difficult and expensive to test for and the results are not terribly accurate. Many owners do not have tests done and veterinarians will advise them that if the irritation seems to respond to Benadryl and there are no obvious infectious organisms residing in the ear the only explanation left to them is allergic response.

These pets are placed on antihistamines like Benadryl and Zyrtec. It doesn’t help that these medications have an anti-anxiety and calming effect on dogs and they tend to make dogs drowsy. What may seem like a relieved dog may be due to the medication helping remove the compulsion to scratch, but when the medication wears off the itchiness and irritation begins bothering them again. So it appears as if the medication is helping the “allergy”. Usually the medication is increased and many medications are tried, since the problem doesn’t get better, it just abates during the effects of the medication.

If your dog has allergies as the cause for his raw and swollen ears the ear-irritation should clear completely after two weeks of antihistamine use. If your dog continues to have chronic ear inflammation while on antihistamines for an “allergy” despite serious diet changes and season changes you should seriously reconsider the allergy diagnosis.


Poor Diet

Your dog is a carnivore. Anyone that claims your dog is not a carnivore is trying to sell you something (or push an agenda). Your dog requires animal-based protein to be healthy. If you’re feeding your dog a dry food you should very seriously consider switching your dog to a high-quality canned commercial dog food or you could add fresh, real food into his factory-processed doggie fast-food meal in a bag (or can). You might also go the truly devoted route and begin feeding your dog a fully homemade diet (which is actually much easier than it seems and my top recommendation). Check out my Diet and Nutrition section and read a little about commercial foods and find one that is good for your lifestyle and dog at the same time!

Bottom Line

If you own a breed susceptible to ear troubles (especially a purebred dog) you will want to start off with a good wet food that is low in carbohydrates and avoids the major allergy causing ingredients. You should make ear-checking something you do every day, just a quick peek while you’re giving your best friend a good head-scratch. Look at the canned foods I recommend in this article. I researched these foods well, so if you choose one you’ll be doing your pup food justice.

When it is time to clean the ears (bath-time or after getting wet) make sure you use the correct product. Don’t clean too often or too aggressively (or abrasively). Remember that less is more.

I recommend finding a great holistic veterinarian. They often recognize the real reasons behind problems like chronic ear infections or irritations and so forth. A good veterinarian is worth his (or her) weight in gold. They are hard to find, but if you look hard enough (and perhaps are willing to drive a distance to go to a good vet) you’ll find one.

Ultimately it is really very simple to disrupt the delicate natural balance in the ears. Your motto needs to be: if it is working, don’t fix it.

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