Other Causes of Ear Problems:

A few common causes of ear problems are infection, mites, and objects in the ear. Learn more about these common conditions now.

Infection
Ear infections are among the most common and potentially serious problems that dogs and cats get. Although infections in the outer ear are easy to see and treat, inner-ear infections are entirely out of sight, so both detection and treatment are more challenging. The inner-ear infection can get extremely "hot" before you realize that something is wrong.

"You generally won't be able to detect these infections just by looking in your pet's ear because the infection is so deep inside," says Jay W. Geasling, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Buffalo, New York. Signs that your pet may have an ear infection include head tilting, fever, tenderness, and, less often, a loss of balance. In addition, there may be a strong odor coming from inside the ear, and possibly a discolored discharge.

Almost anything can cause ear infections, says Merry Crimi, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Milwaukie, Oregon. In cats, one of the most common causes is ear mites -- tiny parasites that can cause ferocious itching when they wiggle around. Dogs also get ear mites but not as often as cats do. But because dogs like the water, they often get bacterial and yeast infections. Their wet ears are perfect breeding grounds for bacteria, fungi, or other organisms.

Infections in the outer ear can often be cured simply by cleaning the ear with a commercial ear-cleaning solution, available from vets and pet supply stores, says Craig N. Carter, D.V.M., Ph.D., head of epidemiology at the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Inner-ear infections, however, are more serious and frequently require oral antibiotics. These medications usually clear up the infection in a week or two. When the infection is well-advanced, your vet may need to drain pus and other fluids from inside the ear, says Dr. Geasling.

Ears are always open to the elements, so it is not always easy to prevent infections. Periodically trimming excess hair from your pet's ears will help keep the ear canals dry and prevent moisture from accumulating inside. It is also important to treat outer-ear infections promptly. If you don't, the harmful organisms may move inside, causing a more serious problem, says Dr. Crimi.

Mites
They are so small that you can barely see them, but when mites get inside your pet's ears, they can cause some very obvious scratching.

Ear mites are little parasites that thrive in the dark, moist recesses of the ears. The problem with mites is that they tickle as they scurry around inside the ears. As a result, cats will scratch and scratch to ease the itch. They will scratch so much, in fact, that they will sometimes rub off the fur around their ears, making the skin raw and sore. Over time, this can lead to serious infections.

Even though it is very hard to see mites, you can see the dirt they leave behind. "Ear mites produce a distinctive, brown-black waxy substance," says Dr. Crimi.

Pet supply stores and veterinarians sell different kinds of liquid drops that will help kill ear mites. Be sure to follow directions on the label and to use the medication as long as recommended -- usually one to two weeks. If you have more than one pet in the house, the best way to get rid of mites is to examine all your pets and treat each animal if necessary, Dr. Crimi says. If even a few mites get away, the problem will start all over again.

Other Bugs or Objects in the Ear
Dogs and cats spend their lives a lot closer to the ground than people do. They run through tall grass, scurry under shrubs, and investigate burrows in the dirt. Along the way, their hairy ears are natural basins for all sorts of things, including burrs, twigs, or even stones. Insects such as ticks and fleas find the ears a very comfortable place to set up shop. And if the object or insect slips down into the ear, it can cause problems. "If it is not removed right away, the object can travel down the ear canal and set up inflammation or infection or puncture the eardrum," says Dr. Crimi.

If your pet is pawing her ear or shaking her head and you can't see anything inside, there is a good chance something has slipped into the ear canal, and you will need to call your vet, says Ernest K. Smith, D.V.M., a veterinary allergist and dermatologist in private practice in Tequesta, Florida. You should also make the phone call if there is a bad odor in the ear, which is a common sign of infection.

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Copyright 1999 Rodale Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

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