Ear Care for Pets

Hot, humid days are rapidly approaching as summer slowly begins. The season means finally diving into the neighborhood swimming pool, children on summer vacation running through the streets, and grass lawns growing at seemingly breakneck speeds. But summer could also mean painful ear infections for your pet. Heat, moisture and even grass clippings could cause serious problems for your furry friend’s ear canals.

“Allergic skin disease affecting the ears and the ear pinnaes, ear mites, foreign bodies such as plant material like a grass awn, or ectoparasites such as a tick are all probable causes of ear infections,” explains Dr. M.A. Crist, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “Hair can grow deep in the ear canals causing the build-up of wax and moisture leading to bacterial growth and infection.”

The causes range from a variety of factors, but one fact seems to remain the same. Our pets often contract ear infections on a regular basis. Crist explains why our pets are so susceptible to contracting these problems.

“The basic anatomy of the cat and dog ear canal has a vertical and horizontal section that predisposes them to ear infections. Waxy debris must work its way upward and outward instead of just straight out,” says Crist. “Irritation to the ear usually results in overproduction of waxy debris.”

An ear infection can sometimes go unnoticed, as our pets cannot always tell us when something is wrong. Fortunately, there are a few warning signs that can let pet owners know when an ear infection might be present.

“Early signs that your pet may be developing an ear infection may include them scratching at their ears, shaking their head, redness of the ears, holding one ear flap slightly dropped to one side or the animal may exhibit signs that ear or ears are painful when you pet or touch around the area,” notes Crist. “Debris or a discharge might be noted in the ear canal and an odor from the ears may become noticeable.”

If symptoms go untreated, ear infections could become very painful and cause the animal to have more severe clinical signs, sometimes requiring the pet to be sedated or put under general anesthesia to have the ears examined.

“Severe infections of the middle ear can lead to facial nerve paralysis, which gives a ‘droopy jaw’ appearance on the affected side of the face,” describes Crist. “Another complication is an aural hematoma and needs to be corrected surgically.”

If you suspect that your pet has an ear infection, it is important to visit your veterinarian to receive a full examination and diagnosis.

“If a pet owner believes their animal to have an ear infection, it is recommended that they visit a veterinarian for a general dermatological history and full examination, complete with a thorough physical examination of the ear, otoscopy and cytologic examination,” says Crist. “A sample of the discharge will be obtained, examined and identified. Once a diagnosis has been made, medications are selected and home treatment is usually continued for several weeks. The ears need to be rechecked to make sure the infection has been resolved.”

Fortunately, there are several preventative measures that can be taken to keep your pet free from pain and your wallet from becoming empty.

“Prevention is key,” urges Crist. “Heat and moisture are enemies of the ear canal and allow bacteria and yeast to flourish. Keeping the animal’s ears clean and dry is important. It is also important to check your pet’s ears regularly as part of their regular grooming routine to avoid ear infections. Giving their ears a quick glance daily could help prevent ear problems from arising.”

While it sounds simple enough, many pet owners are uninformed of the proper methods of ear care and some ignore ear care entirely.

“Routine ear cleaning is a simple method of providing ear therapy,” notes Crist. “A variety of ear cleaners are available and your veterinarian will prescribe the most appropriate ear cleanser for your pet to use during their regular grooming routine. The frequency of cleaning will also be determined by your vet.”

Ear cleaning is easy and can prevent major problems down the road and save your pet from extensive damage to their hearing abilities.

“You want to begin an ear care regimen before your pet keeps you up at night shaking their head, scratching at their ears or before the smell of their ears reaches you before your pet does,” emphasizes Crist. “Every moment that your animal’s ears are inflamed and infected causes damage to the ear canal. It is important to seek veterinary care right away and to follow through with the treatment regimen.”

Don’t let an ear infection put a damper on your summer fun. Following a few preventative measures and being aware of the warning signs will help ensure that your furry friends are both happy and healthy.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University.