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The Story of an Ear Problem

It was a dark, warm, and moist place. The perfect place for a problem to start. The perfect place for an opportunistic pathogen to thrive. It was a dog’s ear canal….

Thus begins the story of an ear problem. It begins with the perfect environment where bacteria, fungi, or parasites can get established. It continues with a breed that easily grows hair in its ears (think Poodle), or one that goes swimming daily (think Labrador), or one that is predisposed to allergies (think Lhasa apso), or one that has extra long ear flaps that tend to get messy (think Cocker Spaniel or Bassett Hound.) It gets worse when the problem isn’t noticed early in the disease process or when the wrong medications are applied to the problem.

Cats are plagued by ear infections, too. It is very common for kittens to be afflicted by an infestation of ear mites. These bugs breed in dark ears, leaving behind a sticky, crusty, black residue of their wastes. The mites spend part of their life cycle on the hair coats of the cats, and thus are easily spread from cat to cat by contact. Ear mites therefore need to be treated both inside the ears and outside on the skin to prevent spreading them. Topical parasite medication, such as Revolution, Frontline, or Advantage-Multi for cats, will safely control most ear mite infections without the need for medicated ear drops.

Contrary to popular opinion, not all discharge from a pet’s ear is due to “ear mites.” While ear mites are a common problem for cats, it is very rare for mites to be the problem for dogs or for cats that are given a monthly prevention. It is more likely that the problem in those ears will be yeast (fungus) or a bacterial infection that will need a prescription ear cleanser and an antibiotic for proper treatment.

How can you tell whether your pet’s ears have a problem? Begin by regularly checking your pet’s ears. If you notice redness, heat, swelling, or a smelly discharge, then it is time for a trip to your veterinarian.

The first thing your veterinarian will do is look inside the ears using a special tool called an otoscope. This tool helps visualize inside the “J”-shaped ear canal of a dog or cat. A peek at the canal will let the veterinarian determine whether the ear drum is still present and whether the ear canal is filled with any hair, discharge, or polyps. Some vets have cameras on the otoscope so the clients can see what they are seeing inside the pet’s ear canal. If there is any discharge in the ear canal, the vet will take a sample to examine under the microscope. Based on the findings of mites, bacteria, or yeast, your vet will prescribe an appropriate treatment plan.

Unfortunately, if you don’t notice the ear problem before your pet starts scratching its ears or violently shaking its head, your pet might be unlucky enough to develop an ear hematoma or an inflammatory ear polyp. Hematomas and polyps usually need surgery for treatment. An ear hematoma happens when the ear flap swells up with blood and feels like a puffy pillow. Once the swelling resolves, however, the ear flap may forever feel like a cornflake. The flap will be scarred and crinkly. Ear polyps can fill the entire ear canal, leading to hearing difficulties. Sometimes these polyps extend down the ear canal and reach into the palate area of the mouth causing the pet to experience breathing and swallowing difficulties. Most of the polyps in a young animal are benign. But some polyps can be cancerous. A biopsy will help your veterinarian tell the difference.

The best way to prevent ear problems is to use monthly parasite prevention and to keep your pet’s ears clean and dry. Some breeds need to have their ear canals plucked free of hair whenever they are groomed. Ask your veterinarian to prescribe a safe, drying, ear-cleanser and to show you how to properly clean your pet’s ears.

A few pets experience repeated ear infections due to food sensitivities. These pets may be sensitive to the protein, carbohydrate, or preservatives in their diet. If this is the case, your veterinarian will help you choose a limited-ingredient diet to help prevent further ear problems.

Just be happy that you live here in Florida. When I practiced in California, every summer we had to remove painful grass awns from the ears of pets. These “hitchhiking seeds” commonly called “foxtails” , attach themselves to the fur of pets. The seeds have tiny hooks on them that cause them to continually move forward and penetrate the skin, travel up the nose, or get caught in the ear canals of pets unlucky enough to walk off the sidewalks and into the weeds. There wasn’t a good way to prevent these problems for pets.

For more information about the ear problems of pets, please visit these websites: (Ear Mites) (Ear Hematoma) (Yeast Infections) (Ear Infections) (Foxtails)

Dr. Spencer currently practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey, Florida