Ears are very sensitive organs that are not only necessary for hearing, but are also responsible for maintaining balance.
In some animals they also play a very important part in communication, with them using their ears to express what they are feeling, for example pricked up ears are usually seen in alert animals and ears laid flat against the head can be a sign of fear.
Anatomy Of The Ear
The Outer or External Ear
Consists of the Ear Flap (Pinna), which is shaped depending on the breed and species of the animal. Most animal ear flaps are very mobile and can move independently of each other, allowing the animal to pick up sounds in the environment and communicate with other animals. It also contains the Ear Canal which is a tube of cartilage running from the ear flap to the tympanic membrane (ear drum). The ear canal is lined with glands which secrete wax to protect the ear canal.
The Middle Ear
Consists of the Tympanic Membrane (eardrum) and Auditory Ossicles (three small bones) which convey vibrations caused by sound waves from the external ear to the inner ear. It also contains the Eustachian Tube (auditory tube) which equalises the air pressure on either side of the Tympanic Membrane.
The Inner Ear
This lies within the temporal bone of the skull and consists of an inner membranous labyrinth that is surrounded by a bony labyrinth. The inner ear consists of the Cochlea, where sound is processed and passed on to the brain via the auditory nerve and the Vestibular System, which is responsible for the sensations of balance and motion.
Common Symptoms Of An Ear Problem
Ear problems can be accompanied by a number of symptoms. If you see anything out of the ordinary you should contact your vet as soon as possible, because if the cause of the problem is not found and treated quickly there is a risk of secondary complications, including ruptured eardrums and middle-ear infections.
- Head shaking
- Scratching or rubbing the ears
- Crusty buildups on the ear flap or in the canal
- Excessive wax – usually thick and brown in colour
- Discharge from the ear canal
- Yeasty or unusual smell
- Swelling up of the ear flap (aural haematoma)
- Otitis – inflammation, pain and redness of the ear flap and canal
If your pet is showing any of the above signs it is a good idea to have their ears checked by a vet as soon as possible
Common Causes Of Ear Problems
Ear problems in pets can occur for many reasons, but some of the most commonly seen problems are caused by
Allergies: These will often include symptoms in the ears as well as other parts of the pet’s body. Pets can be allergic to many things but the most common are mites, grasses, trees and occasionally dietary allergies. Fortunately there is a lot your vet can do to relieve allergic symptoms in your pet, including special medications and immunotherapy vaccines.
Aural Haematoma: Sometimes the ear flap is damaged and this allows the flap to fill up with blood. This is usually the result of ear scratching or head shaking because of an ear problem, rather than being the cause itself. Aural haematomas can be very painful and need immediate veterinary attention.
Ear Mites: These tiny little parasites live in the pet’s ears and are fairly common, although we tend to see them more in younger animals. Signs of ear mite infestation include scratching, head shaking and a dark reddish-brown wax throughout the ear canal which can have a similar appearance to coffee grounds.
Excessive wax production: Some animals, like humans, produce too much ear wax which causes discomfort and pain. Once your vet has checked that the problem is just excessive wax production, you may be advised to clean your pet’s ears a few times a week with a special pet ear cleaner.
Grass Seeds: These are commonly seen in pets and can be a real nuisance. The seeds get lodged in the pet’s ear and can gradually work their way down the ear canal and further in some cases; they can cause a lot of discomfort and pain to the pet and need to be removed quickly.
Growths: Benign or malignant growths (cancers) may occur on the ear flap, ear canal or in the middle ear and cause problems for the pet.
Harvest Mites: These can be a seasonal problem with the orange larvae of the mite seen on the ears, face and feet, which cause irritation.
Infections: Bacterial and fungal ear infections can happen for many different reasons. Bacteria and fungus thrive in warm, moist environments like ear canals and are often seen in pets who have very hairy ears, narrow ear canals and pets that swim a lot.
Poor Air Circulation: Dogs with long or hairy ears can be prone to lots of ear problems. The hair on the inner ear flap can be clipped short and the hair inside the ear canal can be plucked out by yourself, or a dog groomer, to allow more air to circulate; however, care needs to be taken to avoid making the ear canals sore.
Solar Dermatitis: Inflammation of the ear tips in animals with white or pale coloured ears (more often seen in cats), can be caused by exposure to UV/sunlight. The skin starts to look pink and scaly (similar to sunburn), but if left it can become crusty, ulcerated, bleed and may develop into a skin cancer. It is recommended to use a pet-safe sun cream for any pets at risk during sunny weather.
Wounds: These are often the result of fighting (particularly in cats) or from getting tangled or caught on something (usually dogs). Ear wounds can often cause owners to panic because they tend to look worse than they are, due to the profuse bleeding even the smallest of wounds can cause. This is often made 100 times worse if your pet decides to shake their head, resulting in a blood splatter all over any walls or other objects in the vicinity! All wounds should be checked by the vet to ensure there is no infection and to decide how best to let the wound heal. If you can apply a dressing or bandage to the injured ear it should help prevent further pain, damage (and mess) while you are on your way to see your vet.
Ears should look clean and healthy (Fig. 1 & 2) Dirty or waxy ears (Fig 3) and thickened skin or sore ears (Fig. 4) can indicate a problems and should be examined by a vet.
Cleaning Your Pet’s Ears
Before you start cleaning your pet’s ears it is a good idea to check with your vet or veterinary nurse what you should use and how to go about it. It is usually recommended to use pet ear wipes or a pet ear cleaner and cotton wool – never put cotton buds down your pet’s ear canal!
Many pets will not need to have their ears cleaned, but it is a good idea to check your pet’s ears every couple of days to ensure they are free from wax and dirt.
Get your ear equipment ready before you get your pet; you will need
- Pet ear cleaner or ear wipes - Ask your veterinary nurse about what to use for your pet.
- Cotton wool balls/pads or a soft cloth (muslin cloth used for babies works well)
- Cotton buds (if necessary)
- Tasty pet treats to reward your pet afterwards
- Small towel or paper towel
- Have someone else gently restrain your pet if necessary
- Gently hold your pets ear flap with one hand (you can fold ear flaps back on long eared dogs)
- Squeeze a few drops of ear cleaner into the ear canal, while holding on to your pet’s ear flap so that you can gently prevent head shaking at this stage
- Gently massage the base of the ear canal for 30 seconds to a minute (it is normal to hear a squelching noise from the liquid)
- Using a small ball of cotton wool or a piece of cloth wrapped around your finger, wipe any wax away from the parts of the ear you can see. You can add a few more drops of cleaner to the cotton wool or cloth if necessary to clean any stubborn dirt from the flap
- You can use a cotton bud to clean wax out of any crevices on the ear flap but NEVER push a cotton bud into the ear canal as not only do you risk loosing the end of your cotton bud down there, but you may also impact any wax at the bottom of the canal and/or damage the ear drum. A good rule is only clean the bits you can see!
- Let your pet shake his or her head to get rid of any excess cleaner and wax in the canal; you may want to do this outside or you can have a towel up next to your pet’s head to catch anything that flies out!.
- Reward your pet with lots of yummy treats or a game
- Clean the other ear
If you would like to make a free appointment with one of our veterinary nurses, they will be happy to demonstrate ear cleaning for you and talk to you about appropriate ear cleaning solutions for your pet.
If you would like any advice or you are in any way concerned about your pet’s health, please contact us and we will be happy to help you.
This great video from International Cat Care demonstrates using an ear cleaner