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Itchy ear

Species: Dog
Breed: Golden
Age: 6-12 months
Hi Dr.

I have a 9 month old neutered male golden.

Beginning last Saturday he was scratching at his left ear. Though the scratching has nearly disappeared he now shakes his head multiple times a day.

Vet examination showed the *right* pinna was slightly browner inside (not the left)likely due to pigment, but no signs of any infection or scratch marks, no redness or discharge. Max's eyes appear slightly reddish.

The vet said it's possibly the signs of an allergic response.

What do you think? Will it progress to his paws? Will it get better or worse? Is it food based or environmental (I've been feeding his turkey-cranberry treats for the past 2 weeks)? What can be done about it?

If he goes on Benadryl what are the side effects? Does it sound like he may need steroids?

Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

Hi there Jay,

This is a toughie! Usually if there is an ear infection we will see quite a bit of redness, a huge amount of waxy brown discharge and a strong odour. I would agree that this really doesn't sound like an infection.

I agree with your vet that this could be an allergic response. However, I wouldn't go as far to say that this is due to allergies. There's a difference between the two. An "allergic response" would mean that he is responding to something like a spider bite or an insect sting. "Allergies" would mean that his whole body is reacting to allergens in his food or in the environment. This does not usually cause an all of a sudden problem. Rather, we would be seeing a gradual increase in redness in both ears and on his feet and likely around his bum as well.

Did your vet look deep inside the ear with his otoscope? A foreign object in the ear could do this as well.

I find that Benadryl doesn't work too well for most dogs. Some dogs do get a little sedated when they go on it, but it is a safe drug. However, I do find that if a dog has allergies then steroids are usually necessary. But again, it doesn't sound to me like this is due to allergies. It's not likely to be a chronic thing.

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Disclaimer: Although Dr. Marie is a qualified veterinarian, the information found on this site is not meant to replace the advice of your own veterinarian. and Dr. Marie do not accept any responsibility for any loss, damage, injury, death, or disease which may arise from reliance on information contained on this site. Do not use information found on this site for diagnosing or treating your pet. Anything you read here is for information only.

Customer reply:

The vet said he looked deep in the canal and didn't see anything.

When you say redness in feet, do you mean between the toes. If so, there is no redness and he does not lick there. Ears are not red at all.

The vet did observe a slight bit of redness in the eyes.

It may be coincidental but since last week Ive been trying a new turkey-cranberry treat. Also, the day this began he did get the opportunity to play in the bathtub at length.

There's been a progression with him scratching the left ear for the first couple of days, and now he simply shakes his head, 3-4 times a night and on walks.

One final question - Iff it is an allergy he spoke of testing the blood and then administering a serum which would gradually desensitize the dog's immunity. Have you had success with this?

Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

Most dogs with allergies have red skin between their toes, mostly on the underside, but it can be on top as well. They usually lick a lot at their toes.

I am doubtful this is connected to the new treat. It's in theory, possible but I just can't see it causing itchiness in one ear. Regarding the bathtub, I suppose it's possible that he got some water in his ear, but this shouldn't cause him to be itchy for more than a day.

It sounds to me like there was a small injury (i.e. spider bite perhaps?) and now it is getting better.

If the symptoms get worse then there are a few types of allergy tests that can be done. I have been using a company called SPOT testing lately. They do a great blood panel that tells us what a dog is allergic to - including food ingredients. Then, they can make up allergy serum to give as injections. It's not cheap to do the blood panel - around $450. I think we're a long way away from this right now. But if this problem continues or keeps coming back then it's worth looking into!

Customer reply:

True. I've never observed him licking his toes. The underneath the outside toe on each front foot is stained brownish but the skin doesn't seem red.

I will just wait and see.

Thanks for the advice.


Customer reply:

Hi Dr,

Just a couple of additional observations I'd appreciate your oppinion on.

- Max shakes his head now about 7 times a nite, though breifly.
- This morning Max tried to rub his ears on the ground and pawed at them once (left and right) for a few seconds (suggesting it's not a local reaction?)

- Since he was a puppy he briefly nips at his left/right forarm, rear forearm, left right thigh (usually in the cage and sometimes when hes bored, sometimes when Im petting him in the cage). No sign of redness, only for a few seconds, and no hair loss. Maybe itchy?

- When we come in from a walk he will rub his ears on the ground and roll over and kick his feet. -- I always just put this down to growing pains or puppy energy or something.

Could it be food allergy related? Thyroid?

Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

It does sound like Max's ears are bothering him a little more. It's possible that when he saw the vet he had an ear infection that was so mild that they couldn't see anything. Did they do a cytology test? This is a test where they put a swab in the ear and smear it on a microscope slide and then stain it and look at it. Sometimes if I have a dog with an itchy ear and I don't think it is infected, I will do this test and find out that it actually is an early infection after all.

Dogs with allergies are incredibly itchy. The licking of the feet is usually non-stop. It's way too early to start getting worried about allergies. If I have a patient who has had several nasty ear infections in a year or chews at his feet all the time then I will broach the subject of allergies. The foot kicking thing doesn't sound like allergies.

Dogs don't get thyroid problems until they are older than 8 or so.

I'm thinking it's a good idea to have Max go back to the vet and have them do a cytology test. If this shows any bacteria or yeast then they can treat him for that.

Hope he feels better soon!

Dr. Marie.

Customer reply:

One more kick at the can..

As I mentioned, Max had always nipped at his shoulder, thigh, forearm, rear forearm. But now it's become more frequent and longer (mostly in his cage but not always). This is in addition to the head shaking.

Is it possible this a food sensitivity that for some reason has become more apparent (due to additional allergens in the environment?) Is it worth switching foods to see?


Recently my brother Rob wrote to you about their family pet Edward, the 14 year old Shih Tzu. With great sadness but great compassion Edward was put to sleep Wednesday afternoon. He now rests peacefully at their grandparent's farm beside other devoted pets.

Rob, his wife and their two young children are managing through this day by day but he asked me to thank you for all of your help.


Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

Oh, I am so sorry to hear about Edward. Please tell Rob and his family that they did the right thing. From what they had described, it sounded like Edward was very unwell.

Regarding Max, allergies are definitely possible but usually a dog is much more obviously affected when they have allergies. Of course, it is possible that these are early symptoms.

Changing foods is a tough call. Because, if we switch foods ot a hypoallergenic one and he stops itching, can we say it was the food? Or maybe he would have stopped regardless?

There's no harm in going to a different brand of food, but at this point I don't think Max's symptoms are severe enough to be talking about allergies. But then again, I'm not there to examine him so your vet may feel differently.

Is Max still just as itchy with his ear? If so, it would be good to have your vet take another look.

Also, although it's a bit early in the season you could talk to your vet about starting him on a flea preventative just in case. Some dogs are so sensitive to fleas that even one bite could set him off with itchiness.

Customer reply:

Please one last round...

Allergic reaction seems to have leveled off for the moment.

* Head shakes are 3-8 x a day (mostly when out on walks?).
* Scratched his ear with his foot twice in 5 days.
* Still nips at thighs, shoulder, top of arms. Today he bum skated.

A) Should I have his blood tested for food allergies/env allergies? (likely since he began to scratch at 4 months - he's always been on chicken).

B) Should I do a food trial with Skin Supporter food?

C) should I just put him on some obscure food (kangaroo/oatmeal) or hypoallergenic?

D) Should I put him on benadryl while doing a food trial?

Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

It does sound to me like the symptoms are getting better. I know this is hard to hear but I likely would wait a while more before investigating allergies. I'll explain why in a minute.

However, if he is scooting I'd recommend having your vet check his anal glands. They may need to be emptied.

I'd probably also start him on some flea prevention just in case this is a flea issue. Even if you can't see fleas, he could have one or two that are causing him to be itchy.

So, to answer your questions:

Should I test for allergies: I am starting to do a lot of allergy testing in my clinic. The one that I am recommending is called an Ultimate Spot test. It's a blood test that tells us about hundreds of different food allergens and environmental allergens. However, you'll get better results when he is more affected. If he has really mild allergies right now it's possible that the test may not pick them up. It's an expensive test (around $450) so I would rather do it when I am more certain that there are allergies present.

Should I put him on a food trial, and should I use benadryl? Again, I would wait. My reasoning is this: What if you put him on expensive food and a few weeks from now he is all better? Does this mean that the food worked? Or is it possible that the symptoms would have gone away on their own anyhow? Again, I would wait until we are more sure that there are allergies present.

If you are going to do a food trial it really is best to do it under the guidance of your vet to make sure it is done properly.

Regarding the benadryl, it won't hurt to try. But from what you have described, it doesn't sound like Max is terribly uncomfortable. It sounds like he is scratching occasionally throughout the day. Personally, I scratch more than that. :) (Probably too much information, huh?)

I think it would be great to have his anals checked and the vet can have a good look at his coat and ears and help you decide whether you need to go down the road of investigating allergies.

Customer reply:

I think you're right.

Though the ear shake thing came out of nowhere, it's only a half dozen times a day (mostly when exiting cars, house, or on walks?)

The itchiness has been around for 6 months so I was hoping to get rid of the nuisance for him, but it too is only a few times a day and not destructive so far. Whatever its from (chicken?) isn't going away until I make a change.

I'll discuss this with the vet if only to get rid of his itchiness for him.



Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

Sounds good. I know it's hard, when I can't see Max, but it really doesn't sound like food allergy to me. It is relatively normal for a dog to scratch a few times per day. Here's a challenge for you...see if you can count how many times per day you scratch somewhere. I bet you'd be surprised. :)

But again, if your vet feels he is uncomfortable or has irritated skin then it's worth looking into it further.

Customer reply:

Its just like he goes at the forearms and hind forearms like eating corn on the cob. Obviously something's bothering him. I think its tied into the ears.

I will let you know how it goes.


Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

OK sounds good. Thanks for sending me that picture. It made me laugh...he looks like such a character!

Customer reply:

Oh you don't know the half of it.

Take care.

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Dr. MarieDr. Marie is a veterinarian who practices in a busy animal hospital in Ottawa, Ontario. She created Ask A Vet Question as a resource for good, accurate veterinary advice online. Dr. Marie treats dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, and rats. She has been a vet since 1999.

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