All dogs shed hair to varying degrees. I’m sure all dog parents, or their hoovers, can confirm this fact! However, if your dog starts developing bald patches, then this is not normal and needs investigating.
So, let’s look at why your dog may be losing hair, in particular around their ears.
What is alopecia?
Alopecia means partial or complete loss of hair, or fur. In dogs, hair loss can appear in one place, in patches around the body or (less commonly) all over. If your dog is losing hair specifically around their ears, then this would be termed ‘peri (around)- auricular (ears) alopecia’.
Alopecia can have many causes, some more serious than others. Causes range from infections, to parasites to hormonal diseases. Alopecia can happen at any age and to any breed or sex.
Luckily, alopecia is usually treatable, and the hair usually grows back. The underlying cause of the alopecia will determine whether or not your dog is also itchy or has any other symptoms.
Symptoms of alopecia
Technically alopecia really is a symptom itself, rather than a disease. So, the main symptom is the hair loss itself. Depending on the cause of the alopecia, you may notice other symptoms too.
Other symptoms you may notice relating to the skin include:
- itchiness (pruritis)
- redness (erythema)
- areas of darkened skin
- a dry, stary coat
- excessive grooming
You may also notice more generalized symptoms, such as:
- Drinking more than usual
- An increase or decrease in appetite
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Lethargy (a decrease in energy), or sleeping more than usual
It’s useful to make a note of all the symptoms you are seeing, so that you can make your veterinarian aware of the whole picture.
Reasons for hair loss around the ears
Alopecia has many possible causes and can be due to a localized problem or a systemic illness. Read on to find out what can cause hair loss around a dog’s ears.
Parasites are one of the most common skin problems seen in dogs. Fleas, mites and lice can all cause alopecia.
In particular, sarcoptic mange (caused by a mite) tends to affect the ears, alongside the elbows, hocks and groin area. Ear mites (Otodectes) can also affect the pinnae, as well as inside the ear canal.
Allergies caused by food or allergens in the environment are also common in dogs. Examples of environmental allergens include dust, fleas or pollen.
Allergies often cause ear infections, which can extend out of the canal and cause problems on the pinnae too. Allergies often cause skin problems on other areas of the body too, possibly alongside some gut symptoms if the allergy is to a food.
Age and breed
Dachshunds, Chihuahuas, Italian Greyhounds, and Whippets are all prone to alopecia on their pinnae, which is believed to be hereditary. The pinnae may be completely bald by the age of 9 years, and unfortunately this is irreversible. Other areas of the body may also be affected, but luckily there are no other symptoms.
Rarely, Yorkshire terriers can develop alopecia and darkening of the skin of the pinnae, face, feet and tail. This usually happens from 6 months to 3 years of age. It is often a lifelong condition, although some cases may get better on their own.
Puppies can develop a condition called Canine Juvenile Cellulitis around 3 to 4 months of age. Cellulitis is infection and inflammation of the deeper layers of the skin. Puppies with this condition develop pus filled nodules over their ears and face, alongside enlarged lymph nodes (glands). Thankfully the condition is rare!
Hair follicle inflammation
Hair follicle inflammation, medically known as folliculitis, can be caused by bacterial infection, fungal infection or parasites. Bacterial infections due to Staphylococcus are common in dogs, especially secondary to underlying allergies. The fungal infection ringworm often affects the ear tips.
Disruption in the normal growth of hair follicles
Many illnesses and diseases seemingly unrelated to the skin can cause a disruption in the normal growth of hair follicles. Examples include trauma and infection.
Certain immune-mediated diseases, such as vasculitis and pemphigus, can also cause alopecia which may affect the ears. Immune-mediated disease usually affect other areas of the body too, such as the nose, lips, nails and foot pads.
Alopecia can also be caused by some endocrine (hormonal) conditions, although not typically on the ears. Hypothyroidism (an under-active thyroid), and Cushing’s disease (an over-production of steroid) are the two most commonly seen in dogs. Cushing’s tends to cause bald patches on the flanks and tail; whereas hypothyroidism causes hair loss on the neck and sides.
Although not specific to the ears, it’s useful to note that the general health of a dog’s skin and fur can be affected by their nutrition. Skin problems can be caused by nutritional deficiencies (such as zinc), nutritional excesses (since some nutrients prevent proper zinc absorption), poor quality protein or fat (causing a lack of essential fatty acids) and poor digestibility.
Diagnosing hair loss in dogs
Your veterinarian will start by taking a history and performing a physical exam, which can narrow down the list of possibilities. If your dog isn’t up to date with their parasite prevention, they may suggest this as a starting point. Depending on what they find, next steps could include:
- Skin sampling: this involves collecting some skin, by gently scraping the skin with a scalpel blade and transferring it to a slide for examination under a microscope
- Skin swabs: to check for infection
- Blood tests: to look for underlying conditions
- Skin biopsies
- Allergy testing
- Referral to a veterinary dermatologist
Hair loss can be caused by a great many things, so obtaining a final diagnosis can take some time. It’s important to be patient and to remember that each test coming back normal or negative is still a successful test, since it is ruling out some of the conditions.
When to take your dog to the vet
Most dogs will lose more fur during summer, or when the central heating goes on. This should not cause bald patches, however. If you notice any of the following, it’s time for a trip to the veterinary clinic:
- your dog scratching more than usual
- areas of fur loss, or bald patches
- skin changes, such as redness, crusts, scabbing or spots
- changes in skin or hair color.
You know your dog better than anyone! If you have any concerns about changes to their skin or coat, then it’s best to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Similarly, if you notice any of the other symptoms mentioned, which may indicate an underlying medical condition, then you should see your veterinarian without delay.
It’s not uncommon for a dog to lose hair around their ears, or other areas of the body. Naturally, this can be alarming for a pet parent to see. In most cases, the sooner the condition is treated, the better the outcome. So, if you notice any patches of hair loss on your dog, book an appointment with your veterinarian without delay.