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Listen Up! Don't Let Your Pet's Ear Issues Go Untreated!

Everyone hopes that their pets' visits to the veterinarian are straight forward, non-complicated and easy! But, about 20% of all cases seen at veterinary offices involve problems with the skin, especially ear infections! That's 1 in every 5 pets! While many owners consider an “ear infection” as a diagnosis, it's really a clinical sign or a symptom of other issues happening with your pet! These ear problems are troublesome because they tend to recur often, definitely cause discomfort or even pain for our pets and they have the potential for weaken our bond with our furry friends! So, what can YOU do when Fluffy starts shaking her head or scratching at her ears?

It is important to understand that for both our canine and feline friends, the ear is nothing more than an extension of the rest of the pet’s skin. The ear flap (called the pinna) and the external ear canal are simply cartilage covered by skin. Unlike human ears which have a straight (horizontal) canal to the ear drum, our pets have both a vertical canal and a horizontal canal (think “L” shaped) before the ear drum. This means that there is an area that is dark, often moist and that may not have great air flow…a perfect environment for microorganisms, like yeast and bacteria!

Likewise, understanding why ear infections occur (and recur) is crucial to proper treatment. Simply asking your veterinarian for that "ear cream that worked last time" is not going to solve the true problem and may actually be causing bigger issues! Most ear infections in our pets can be defined by looking at predisposing factors for infection, primary and second causes of the infection and, finally, perpetuating issues that allow the infection to recur.

Predisposing factors for ear infections include things like ear conformation (floppy or hairy ears decrease air flow), excessive hair in the ear canals, stenotic (narrowed) ear canals or a tendency to increased cerumen (ear wax) production.

  1. Some pets are more prone to ear infections because of increased moisture in the ears due to swimming or bathing. Those of you with Labradors take special note!

  2. Other pets may develop polyps or tumors that obstruct the normal cleaning flow of the cerumen and still others may develop issues because of overly aggressive cleaning or even hair plucking.

So, in short, predisposing factors for ear infections set up an environment where the micro-organisms have an easier time growing.

Primary reasons for developing ear infections might include adverse food reactions, parasites, environmental allergies or even systemic diseases. To complicate matters, resident bacteria and yeast can overgrow in the ear, continuing or worsening the infection. Many dogs with food allergies show the initial signs in the ears. Ear mites, demodectic mites in cats and other external parasites can initiate the chain reaction leading to an infected ear.

Finally, chronic changes to the ear’s anatomy because of on-going infections can actually perpetuate the problem as well as add to the difficulty of treatment. These might include over-use of medications, causing concrete-like blocks of wax and ear meds within the ear canal. Also, as inflammation in the ear keeps happening, the skin becomes less resilient and actually the underlying cartilage can calcify, making the ear canals very hard and narrow. These changes make treatment more difficult.

Pets with ear infections will exhibit head shaking, rubbing of the head against the floor or furniture and possibly constant scratching at the ears. Depending on the severity of the infection (or how many times it has happened), your pet might become "head shy" and resistant to allowing treatment. This is due to the pain he or she is experiencing.

If your pet deals with chronic ear infections, it is SO important that you communicate with your veterinarian about proper diagnostics. While ear medications can help resolve the matter in the short term, if you are not finding or treating the underlying condition (such as allergies), the issue will never truly go away. Again, simply asking for the same medication over and over is NOT solving the true issue! What's worse is that over use of these ointments and creams can actually lead to the development of resistant bacteria.

Beyond the physical exam, otoscopic (ear) exam and history taking, your veterinarian may recommend ear cytology, bacterial culture and sensitivity testing, skin scrapings or even digital imaging, such as a CT scan or MRI in extreme cases. Ear cytologies help veterinarians understand if they are dealing with a bacterial infection, yeast overgrowth or combination of the two. Bacterial cultures help isolate the type of bacteria and sensitivity testing allows the choice of the right type of antibiotic or medication the first time.

But, don't be surprised if your doc wants to do additional bloodwork or even allergy testing. Remember, ear infections are more often a symptom of some other disease or problem.

Ear issues are not only uncomfortable for your pet, they also have the potential for severe long term issues, including hearing loss or the need for costly surgery. In rare cases, surgery to actually remove the external ear canal may be the only option left. In addition, the strong odor of ear infections as well as the pet’s constant scratching or head-shaking can test the limits of the human-animal bond.

Your veterinarian can outline a diagnostic plan to help discover what the true cause of the ear infections might be. Don’t rely on Internet fads like coconut oil or apple cider vinegar as treatment options. Follow your veterinarian’s recommended guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up visits…it’s the BEST way to fix the situation and get your pet back to normal as quikcly as possible


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