Dr. Elizabeth Bradt
---- — Recently, a colleague emailed our veterinary group an ear maintenance handout his client had received from a groomer. It included a recipe for a homemade concoction of rubbing alcohol, gentian violet and boric acid that promised to prevent and cure all ear infections and save lots of money.
The general reaction of the veterinarians reading the recipe was “How many poor dogs and cats are going to have that poured down their ears and endure incredible pain?” There was consensus that ear treatment should not be a pet owner’s do-it-yourself project.
Groomers have a lot of contact with pets’ ears. When they see material in an ear and guess that a dog or cat has an ear infection, they may be right. However, there are many causes of ear problems that look like an infection but are not. Parasites such as ear mites and mange mites cause ear infections. Ear lesions can be caused by autoimmune disease, hormonal imbalance, food allergy, regional allergy to pollen, sun exposure, fungal infection and cutaneous cancer. There are many different types of bacterial ear infections, each of which is treated differently. I’m sure that any one of us could go online to look up a hundred different ear medications to throw in our pet’s ear and see if it works. Unfortunately, that is not a clear path to a diagnosis and a pain-free cure.
An ear problem may cause lots of scratching and head shaking if it’s left unattended or treated improperly. Sometimes, a blood vessel breaks in the earflap and causes a big blood bubble inside called a hematoma. If this occurs, the pet’s ear has just become a surgical case, because the hematoma needs to be drained and the ear repaired.
Dogs, cats and rabbits have much longer ear canals than humans. The long cartilage canal lined with skin cells leads down to the eardrum. If that is ruptured, anything you put in can cause a lot of pain. If you see profuse wax in the canal, red ears or continual scratching of the ear, take your pet to the veterinarian. Your veterinarian will look in the ear to see if the eardrum is still intact. Many times, your veterinarian will take a sample to test for fungal or yeast growth or a bacterial infection. Your vet will distinguish between broad types of bacterial infection based on the shape and staining of the bacteria. Ear mites will be noted if present. Presence of inflammatory cells under the microscope will be noted to determine the severity of infection. In that case, your vet may need to perform a bacterial culture to isolate exactly what type of bacteria is growing and determine what antibiotics will be most effective.
In more severe infections, the pet may need to be sedated and have the ear flushed and cleaned. Then, your veterinarian can choose an appropriate medication and cleaner based on ear-swab findings. The medication will be able to contact the lining of the ear canal if it is clear of wax and debris.
Treatment usually takes between five days and two weeks. At that point, your vet will probably want to look in the ear again to check progress. A follow-up ear swab will show whether the infection is gone. The ear may look good on the outside, but deep in the canal, there may still be infection. Sometimes, several progress exams and ear swabs spaced at one- to two-week intervals are necessary.
The worst-case scenario is a chronic ear infection. Sometimes, bacteria and yeast hide in the ear’s nooks and crannies and in the sore ear lining that has developed over years of infections. In some cases, a cure takes months or years. If the problem is allergies, infections can happen over and over again until the cause of the allergy is found. Some breeds of dogs are more prone to chronic ear infections due to their long, floppy ears. Cocker spaniels tend to suffer ear infections and allergies.
A wise groomer will note the ear problem and tell you to make an appointment with your veterinarian. Groomers can be a huge help to you, your veterinarian and your pet — you see your groomer every six to eight weeks and your veterinarian every six to 12 months. An alert groomer can be an early-warning system that will keep your pet healthier and save your pocketbook in the long run.
Dr. Elizabeth Bradt is a 1986 graduate of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and the owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem. Email your pet questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please title your email “Vet Connection.”