Essential Oils for Dogs with Itchy Ears

In a time of antibiotic resistance, an alternative therapy helps dogs ditch that itch.
By Dr. Michael Tyler BVSc, August 2020
dog itchy ears home remedy

Many dogs suffer from itchy ears, and antibiotics are a standard treatment. Yet, the overuse of antibiotics has created bacteria able to resist this most commonly used remedy. Essential oils offer another way to help clear up the problem.

Dogs are often plagued with itchy ears; reportedly, as many as one in eight dogs seen by vets are brought in for treatment of this problem. Otitis externa—the official name—can be both debilitating and difficult for an owner to deal with. The disease is multifactorial in origin, which is a fancy way of saying that it may be caused or triggered by many things. This can sometimes make it hard for a vet to offer a quick fix.

The L-shaped structure of a dog’s ear creates a prime breeding ground for bacteria and yeast, and once they get out of control, the scratching starts. Often, the problem can be controlled with antibiotics, ear cleaning at home and lifestyle changes. However, this course of action is not always successful.

As many dog owners can attest, ear infections are resilient and can be quite tenacious. And sometimes, the course of treatment has hefty consequences: frequent trips to the vet, expensive diets and costly surgeries with significant risks (including deafness).

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We also need to appreciate the role of antibiotics, which can make a difference between sickness and health. The paradox of antibiotic resistance is real; overuse of antibiotics has resulted in “superbugs,” pathogens that aren’t affected by the drugs we’ve long used to defeat them. This includes our pup’s ear infections. Fortunately, 21st-century research is confirming alternative solutions, among them essential oils, which possess an array of curative properties.

As a result, many experienced vets are now recommending this treatments for otitis externa, which often leads to questions. Three of the most common, and their answers, follow.

How effective are essential oils compared to conventional therapy?

A study done in 2009 with a small subject set demonstrated significant improvement without adverse reactions. More recently, in 2017, research showed that essential oils successfully inhibit the growth of many of the bacteria and fungi (yeast) found in ear infections. While not all essential oils have exhibited efficacy, tea tree, thyme, cinnamon, origanum (oregano), lemongrass and manuka oils were considered effective in another 2009 study.

Is it safe to use these oils in a dog’s ear?

Seemingly yes, but caution needs to be exercised. Some widely used antimicrobial products (for example, chlorhexidine) are toxic to the ear drum, and research with rodent subjects suggests that tea tree oil may also affect it, particularly at high concentrations. This needs to be taken into account by your vet. The responsibility lies with the vet to put the health of your pooch first, and to effectively communicate risks to you.

Can I skip the vet visit and use an essential oil on my own?

For several reasons, it’s a bad idea to DIY an ear infection. Other causes of infection, not all of which can be addressed with essential oils, need to be ruled out by your vet. Further, for successful treatment and to prevent ototoxicity, amounts, concentrations, and exposure times need to be precisely calibrated by a veterinary professional.

While there can be a general sense of distrust in alternative therapies because they are sometimes used without much evidence they work, research shows that they have a role to play. As science reveals truths behind ancient therapies, responsible use of these oils can augment modern approaches. Certainly, alternative medicine has been making inroads into modern veterinary medicine, and may become a significant part of our future.

Dr. Michael Tyler, who is in charge of the health of thousands of police dogs, loves the German Shepherds, Belgian Shepherds in his care, and loves what he does.