Pippa the terrier has had itchy ears since she was young

Sally adopted Pippa from Sharpes Hill Animal Sanctuary in County Wicklow. Pippa had  turned up there with a newly born litter of pups: they had found homes for all the pups, and had spayed her, so she was ready for a new start in life.

Itchy ears

She settled in well to Sally’s house, but since the start, she’s had problems with itchy ears. She responded well to a course of ear ointment at first, but it has recurred every three or four months. Sally can tell when the problem is starting: Pippa holds her ears differently – they look “droopy”. Normally, her ears are pricked up, moving quickly towards any sound. When her ears are sore, they go floppy and no longer react actively to things going on around her. She starts to shake her head and she itches at her ears with her back feet.

Itchy ears are common in dogs: the problem is technically known a “otitis externa”, which means “inflammation of the outer ear”. There are many possible causes, including ear mites and specific bacterial infections, but in most cases, a simple one-off course of treatment is enough to cure the problem permanently.

At a recent visit, we decided to do everything possible to achieve a long term answer to Pippa’s sore ears. I took a swab from the ears, sending it off to the laboratory for culture but there was no sign of any bacteria or yeasts that would explain why the problem kept recurring. I asked Sally about any other signs of illness that might give clues about why Pippa’s ears kept getting sore.

Sally explained Pippa seemed to have sensitive skin generally. It isn’t just her ears that bother her. She also chews at her feet, not just after walks, but at different times of the day, getting stuck into them with her teeth as if they are really itchy. She also rubs her face along the ground and nibbles the area under her tail.

Pippa has a skin condition called ‘atopy’

Pippa’s story is typical of common skin condition in dogs known as “atopy”. The problem is caused by an allergic reaction to pollens and dusts in the environment: it’s the canine equivalent of human hay fever or asthma. The condition is difficult to diagnose specifically, but once other causes of itchy skin in dogs are ruled out, it’s often the likely cause. If a dog under the age of three has a problem with itchy ears, face and feet, and if the problem responds promptly to anti-inflammatory treatment, then atopy is high on the list of probabilities. Allergies to ingredients in the dog’s diet can cause a similar type of itchiness, but dietary allergy is rare in dogs as young as Pippa.

Pippa’s atopy could be treated by doing special skin tests to find out the precise dusts and pollens that are causing the reaction, and then by giving her tiny amounts of these substances by injection: a technique known as immunotherapy. This works well in 70% of dogs, but it’s expensive.

Sally took out pet insurance as soon as she adopted Pippa, but she’s discovered that because the ear problem was already present at that stage, the costs won’t be covered by insurance. Owners who adopt rescue dogs with medical problems should be aware of this risk: only new illnesses are covered.

Sally has opted for a more economical type of treatment: a low dose of an anti-inflammatory drug, given every second day, combined with anti-histamines and special oil supplements to boost the natural health of her skin. Pippa may need to be on this treatment for her whole life, but if it means that she never itches her ears again, she’ll be a happy dog, and Sally will be a relieved owner.


  • Itchy ears are common in dogs
  • Many cases are cured with a one-off treatment with ointment
  • If the problem recurs, it’s important to diagnose the underlying cause for a long term answer

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