Dog Scratching Ear And Shaking Head

Pet-Bandanas is a reader supported site. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Product prices are the same whether you buy through our links or not. Thank you for being a part of our community. Learn More

There are a variety of reasons why a dog will shake his head or scratch his ears. In order to offer your dog the most effective treatment, a veterinarian will need to do an examination, looking at your dog’s ears with an Otoscope. This enables him to look inside the ear canal and make an accurate diagnosis. In addition, he may suggest an ear cytology to determine if there is an infection present.

Common Signs of Ear Problems

Some of the most common signs of ear problems include:

  • Head shaking
  • Ear scratching
  • Red, swollen ear canal
  • Brown, smelly wax in the outer ear

The ears are not only used for hearing but also function as a means to eliminate toxins. Ear problems occur when the toxins become trapped in the moist ear canal. If you can reduce the toxins in your dog’s diet and restore his overall health, you can eliminate recurring ear problems. If you can fortify his immune system via a proper diet, you can also reduce ear problems caused by allergies.

Dog Ear Problem Causes

  • Yeast and bacteria are normal flora in the ear canal of dogs, but water, foreign bodies, or excessive hair can lead to a bacterial or yeast overgrowth that causes infection.
  • Ear mites are very small (they cannot be seen with the naked eye) parasitic insects that inhabit the ear canal of dogs. These mites are picked up from contact with other infested animals. An animal suffering from ear mite infestation will continually scratch at his head and ears. As a result, a bacterial infection may settle in the ears as well.
  • Fleas around the head area may cause a dog to scratch at the ears. Because the irritation is so intense, the dog may dig at the ears so hard that he ruptures a blood vessel and the earflap fills with blood.

Symptoms Of Ear Infections


Ear infection in a dog – swollen, red, discharge present & probably smelly too. Photo by Joe Mills

Your dog will usually tell you when his ears are bothering him by scratching, rubbing his head against the carpet or furniture, or shaking his head. You may also notice an unpleasant odor coming from your dog’s ears when an infection is present. Sometimes the itching and irritation associated with an ear infection will cause the dog to traumatize the ear, producing what’s called an Aural Hematoma. A dog will often vigorously shake his head, causing the rupture of tiny capillaries in the earflap. The ear then fills with blood, taking on a large, swollen appearance.


Yeast Infections

Yeast infections in dogs are pretty common. They are most often brought on by a previous illness where the dog has been prescribed antibiotics. Just like with humans, the antibiotics can kill off the good bacteria in the gut causing an overgrowth of Candida or bad bacteria. Although rarely life-threatening, a yeast infection can make your dog very uncomfortable and if not treated, it can become a chronic condition.

In the case of my dog, he developed a yeast infection in his ears. I began to notice an awful smell coming from his ears and he was frequently scratching at them and shaking his head. I’ve since learned that it’s pretty common for dogs with floppy ears (Labrador retrievers, cocker spaniels for example) to develop ear infections especially if they enjoy going swimming or if they live in a warm moist climate. Their ears can become very hot at times and sweat.

Diet can also affect a dog and the potential for developing a yeast infection. I have fed my dog a good quality dog food since day one that I purchase at the pet store (rather than the Supermarket). But, I have to admit that I was feeding him cheap treats and the occasional people treat. The treats I was feeding him were from the Supermarket and a very popular brand. Well, if you read the label, you’ll discover that these kinds of treats are full of filler such as corn and wheat. Many dogs are allergic to corn and wheat particularly if they get an overdose of it and the result can often be a yeast infection.

So, the first thing I did was take my dog off all the Supermarket treats he was getting. I used to give him peanut butter from time to time too and I took him off that as well. And, because he refuses to let me clean his ears, I took him to a groomer to have her clean my dog’s ears for me. The groomer charges me a very small fee to do it and I can avoid the hassle of trying to do it myself. Now, my dog only gets treats that are pure meat such as dried duck strips and freeze-dried liver. I also fed my dog a little bit of plain pureed pumpkin from a can because it’s loaded with vitamin C. If you are going to try this, make sure you get the kind that does not contain any sugar, you don’t want the pumpkin pie filling. Refrigerate the can after you open it and put a tablespoon or so in with your dog’s food for 4 or 5 days. It should reduce any inflammation. My dog’s yeast infection took a little while to clear up but now he is fine.


Some dog breeds are more prone to ear problems than others. Dogs with hanging ears, such as Basset Hounds, or Spaniels, as well as dogs with hairy inner ears, such as Poodles and Schnauzers, are prone to ear problems. Any dog that spends a lot of time swimming or in wet environments can have ear problems ranging from wax buildup, inflammation, or infection.

Anatomy Of The Ear

The propensity for a dog’s ear to become infected is due, in part, to the anatomy of the ear. The ear canal begins horizontally and then takes an abrupt turn upward, thus trapping material that can lead to ear problems. All these factors combine to create the perfect environment for bacteria to grow or wax to accumulate.

The other factor that could be causing ear problems is a foreign object in the ear. Carefully check your dogs ear to make sure there is nothing obvious. If you see something, be careful that you don’t push the object further down the ear. It is best to remove with blunt edge tweezers. If you have any doubts about whether or not the object is a growth or a foreign object, take your dog to the vet.

Do not use Q-tips to clean your dog’s ears as this may just cause additional problems. Use cotton balls or gauze instead.

Untreated Effects

If left untreated, ear infections and parasites can cause long-term damage to your dog’s ear. Chronic ear infections can rupture the eardrum, infect the middle ear and disturb your dog’s equilibrium, making him unable to maintain his balance.


Treatment of any ear problem begins with an examination of the ear canal. In addition, a vet may recommend ear cytology to determine the type of infection present. If your dog has itched so hard that he has produced an Aural Hematoma, the vet will need to place the dog under anesthesia, lance and drain the fluid, and then stitch the incision site. In severe ear mite infestations or ear infections, your veterinarian may want to do an ear flush. By putting the dog under anesthesia, the doctor is able to thoroughly rinse any debris from the entire ear canal.

The treatment of ear mites consists of instilling a liquid medication into the dog’s ears once a day for seven days. You then discontinue the medication for seven days, allowing any ear mite eggs to hatch into the adult stage, and then repeat the drops once a day for another seven days. Your veterinarian may also recommend using a flea powder around the outside of the ears to kill any remaining ear mites. If your dog has been diagnosed with a flea problem, you will need to bathe the dog, as well as treat your home and yard to get rid of the fleas.

Dog Scratching Ear And Shaking Head
Ear mite infestation in a cat. Photo by Uwe Gille

Using ear drops

No matter what the diagnosis, your veterinarian will want to send home medication to heal the infection, or a general ear cleanser to keep the ear from becoming infected again. You should instill the ear drops at the visible opening to the ear canal, then gently massage the ear to help the medication work its way down. Don’t worry if your dog shakes his head after you administer the drops–it’s a common reaction, but he won’t shake it all out.


Your veterinarian may recommend seeing your dog again in a week or so. That’s to ensure that the procedure and/or medication have taken care of the problem. Without proper follow-up, an ear problem can linger on, leading to more serious inner ear conditions. Who’s susceptible to ear infections? Dogs with long, floppy ears, like Cocker Spaniels and Basset Hounds. Unlike dogs with erect ears, pendulous ears do not allow air to circulate. Yeast and bacterial infections are common. Dogs who go swimming a lot, like Labrador and Golden Retrievers, or dogs that are bathed frequently. Water in the ear canal can lead to infections. Dogs like the Poodle, Shih Tzu, Lhasa Apso, Bichon Frise, who have excessive hair in their ears. Genetic inheritance. Some breeds, like the Shar Pei, are more likely to suffer recurrent infections.

Home Remedies

If your dog is suffering from an ear problem and you catch it early, a solution of apple cider vinegar and distilled water (one tsp of ACV in a half cup water) dropped in the ear and massaged using the outer ear, can prevent the infection from escalating.

You can also add a couple of drops of grapefruit seed extract or tea tree oil to kill the bacteria.

A common ear drop formula can be found at health food stores is a mullein oil and garlic combination.