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Ear Problems

Cat with big earsPets can frequently suffer from itchy or smelly ears. 

Ear problems affect all species from guinea pigs to Great Danes and although the causes can be very different, the signs are very similar.

How do I know my pet has ear disease?

Signs to look out for include:

  • Constant head shaking
  • Holding the ear down or the head to one side
  • Excessive scratching
  • Unpleasant smell
  • Black or yellowish discharge
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Redness or swelling of the ear flap or canal
  • These are are all signs that your pet could have a problem.  The earlier you pick up these signs and make an appointment to see the vet, the easier the condition will be to treat.

What causes ear disease?

There are a number of causes but the most common is atopy.  Atopy is an allergic condition in dogs which makes the skin become itchy.  The most common areas usually affected are the external ear canals and between the toes.  Atopy is more often seen during the summer months but it can occur all year round.

Grass seeds can also be a problem during the summer as they easily work their way into the ear canal.  This causes considerable pain and discomfort. 

Other factors resulting in ear disease include ear mites (much more prevalent in cats than dogs).  These live within the ear canal and cause irritation and itching. 

Tumours can physically block the ear canal and allow wax and debris to build up, whilst other diseases affect the amount of wax and debris actually produced.

Treatment of ear disease

Depending on the cause, just one or both ears can be affected.  Your vet will always check both.  Sometimes the cause of the problem is quite obvious.  The vet will examine the ears with something called an auroscope allowing examination of the ear canals and the eardrum.  Unfortunately, this is not always possible if the ear is very painful or the pet is very naughty!  

When looking in the ears, the vet will check for discharges, foreign bodies such as grass seeds, ear mites and any rupture of the eardrum.  If the ear infection is very bad, the vet may want to take a swab and send this to the laboratory so they can find out exactly what type of bacteria are growing.  Unfortunately, ears are often hot and sweaty and once an infection gets established it can get very nasty as the conditions are ideal for the infection to develop.  Pets with very hairy or droopy ears have even more problems because there is less air circulating.

Sometimes an ear infection will clear up easily with a course of drops. These get antibiotics straight into the ear to kill the infection.  Unfortunately, if there is a lot of discharge it stops the drops from working so antibiotics by mouth will then be prescribed.  Oral antibiotics are also used if the eardrum is ruptured as drops can damage the delicate structures of the inner ear.  Needless to say, oral antibiotics are also prescribed when the pet will not let drops be put down the ears!  With severe infections, some antibiotic courses can last for weeks or even months.If ears are very painful the animal may need to be sedated for a proper examination. This allows the vet to remove any foreign bodies without damaging the ear or to syringe the ear canal to clean it out.

To avoid ear problems, check your pet's ears regularly and, in the case of hairy or droopy ears, clean them weekly.


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