Ear Problems in Dogs and Cats
Everyone knows that ear ache is often very painful. Unfortunately, our animals are very good at hiding pain and as owners we often cannot see or choose to ignore signs of problems.What does a normal ear look like?
Human ear canals are fairly simple with a straight tube from the opening to the ear drum. Cats and dogs are more complex, both having a vertical canal and a horizontal canal. The vertical canal is a bit like an ice-cream cone shape that opens by the ear flap (pinna). This joins to a horizontal canal that is similar to the human canal, running from the base of the vertical canal to the ear drum.
The colour of normal skin is not really pink, it is more of a grey colour. Pink skin in animals is often a sign of inflammation. An animal with mild ear problems may just have slightly pink ear flaps or a pink ear canal.
A normal ear canal has very little ear wax. In fact, the majority of animals with normal ears have no visible wax down their canals. It is likely that an animal producing lots of ear wax has an underlying cause.
Normal ear canals have very smooth edges and the ear flaps are thin skin covering cartilage. As changes occur, the canals and ear flaps can start to get thickened and scarred. Over time, if left untreated, these changes will become permanent and can leave animals in constant pain even if they appear happy.
Some animals with sore ears may traumatise their ear flaps that result in swellings filled with blood. These are called aural haematomas and can sometimes be treated by simple draining, but may require surgery to correct.
Signs of Ear diseases
As stated already, many pets with ear problems will not show clear signs. However aside from looking for inflammation or excessive wax production, there may be other signs.
Some animals with a sore ear may scratch at it, shake their heads or react (e.g. growl) if you approach or touch the sore ear.
There are many nerves that pass through or around the ears. These control the position of the eyes, the head, balance, ability to blink and the size of the pupils. Animals with ear problems may present with neurological signs.
Common Causes of Ear Problems in Cats
The most common ear condition in cats is probably ear mites. These mites are usually found in kittens and cause irritation of the canals that produce excessive wax. They can be easily treated with medicated ear drops or some flea preparations.
Cats with white ear flaps are susceptible to sunburn (called solar dermatitis), that can turn develop into a cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. Applying a high factor sun cream to white ear flaps can reduce the risk if your cat enjoys sunbathing.
Some other skin mites (such as demodex), or foreign bodies (such as grass seeds), can on rare occasions cause ear problems and infections.
There are several growths that can affect cat’s ears. These vary in severity from benign polyps to more aggressive cancers, and in these cases cats may require major surgery to treat.
Common Causes of Ear Problems in Dogs
Puppies, like kittens, may have ear mites causing irritation and excessive wax production. As with kittens, these can be easily treated.
In the summer time, we often see animals with ear problems due to allergies or foreign bodies. Spaniel-type dogs appear particularly susceptible to ear foreign bodies, commonly grass seeds. These usually present with a fairly sudden onset of a painful ear. They may require sedation to assess a sore ear due to the discomfort.
Skin allergies often show up in the ears, as they have a warm environment that bacteria and yeasts like to grow in. In early stages of a skin allergy, the skin becomes inflamed and this makes it more susceptible to becoming infected. The combination of inflammation and a warm environment like ear canals (also feet and armpits!), makes infection in these areas worse. Allergies may be related to pollens or chemicals in the air causing skin conditions in pets (or hayfever in people!).
Dogs that swim a lot may be more susceptible to ear infections due to dirty water getting into the canals.
Ear infections are usually the result of another cause that give bacteria and yeasts the opportunity to grow, and are rarely the primary cause of ear disease on their own.
Treatment of Ear Problems
The immediate treatment of ear disease may require pain relief and often antibiotics. Topical ear treatments (i.e. ear drops) are usually more effective than tablets, but sometimes we may recommend both.
It is important to treat ear infections fully to reduce the risk of recurrence as soon as the treatment finishes. Antibiotic ear drops should be used as complete courses, and should never be used to apply just on an occasional basis. Occasional use of an antibiotic ear drop is likely to lead to resistant infections that are very difficult to treat.
The long term aim is to restore an ear canal to its normal state. Ear canals will change with time if the underlying problem is not treated, resulting in an end stage canal that can only be treated by surgical removal. Animals can be significantly more comfortable after ear canal removal, and this should not be ruled out as a treatment option in severe cases despite the severity of the surgery.
Allergies are a common cause of skin and ear diseases. There are many tests and treatments available to try to determine the allergy and/or treat the condition. Unfortunately, skin allergies are usually long term conditions that require lifetime treatment.
The use of ear cleaners may be beneficial. We would not recommend regular cleaning of a normal ear, as it may cause irritation. Animals that have excessive wax build up will often benefit from regular cleaning. Many cleaners are slightly acidic that can change the environment in the ear canal to reduce the risk of infections. It may be useful to clean dog’s ears after swimming to remove any dirty water.
Some animals benefit from examination and flushing of ear canals under sedation or anaesthesia.
We recommend a check up after completing a course of ear treatment to check that the canal is back to normal. Some animals require several treatments to restore the ear canal back to a normal state.
If you would like to learn how to clean your pet’s ears effectively, our nurses will be happy to demonstrate this for you so you can be confident in keeping their ears healthy at home. If you are concerned about your pet’s ears and think there may be infection present, please contact the surgery to make an appointment with one of our vets to assess.
Rory Burke BVetMed CertSAS MRCVS - Rory qualified from the Royal Veterinary College in 1996 and joined the group in September that year. He has attended surgical and radiology courses including two year structured modular courses in both subjects. Rory achieved the RCVS Certificate in Small Animal Surgery in 2005 involving both orthopaedic and soft tissue surgery. He has a particular interest in orthopaedics and now performs most orthopaedic procedures within the practice. Rory joined the partnership in July 2006 and works mostly at our Hospital and Stony Stratford branch.