How Pet Owners May Recognize Ear Problems Early

He sauntered slowly down the street, as if he had nowhere specific to go.

“No,” he said. And, “No,” again, to an invisible friend walking with him. Or, was there some other reason this stray cat, dumped in our neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina, was shaking his head?

Very likely this kitty shared a problem common in pets worldwide: low-grade otitis or inflammation of the ear.

Our goal today is to educate you to be able to identify ear problems early, before the ear problem escalates from mere discomfort to severe pain.

Hardly a day goes by that we don’t see several pets come in for “routine” preventive care visits with no health complaints from their owners, yet they have discharge and odor in one or both ears. During the examination and diagnostic procedures we discover that these pets have excessive sensitivity to touch, indicating that they are already in discomfort, yet the pet owner is unaware.

What signs should a pet owner be looking for?

  • Shaking the head for no reason. Any normal dog or cat will shake his head when petted, when his hair is mussed or when his head gets wet. Any other shaking, if repeated more than once every hour and for no other apparent reason, warrants you looking inside his ears.
  • Scratching at the ears with the front paws and/or rubbing the ears on the ground or furniture.
  • “Dirt” in the pet’s ears. It isn’t dirt! Unless your old hound dog has been rubbing his head on the ground to mark a smelly area where a wild animal has left a scent, what you’re seeing in the ear canal isn’t dirt, it’s discharge. Discharge is produced when ceruminous (wax) glands in the ears become overactive because they are inflamed by otitis. Your pet’s doctor needs to look for a cause.
  • “Body odor.” Frequently, pets are presented to the veterinarian with the complaint of smelly skin, when, in fact, the odor is coming from the ears. Don’t be afraid to lift up the pinna (flap of the ear) and sniff. Both skin odors and ear odors need to be addressed by a doctor visit. Both are usually highly treatable.
  • Enjoying an ear rub a little too much. If your pet leans into your hand and increases the pressure when you rub his ears, that’s a clear indication that the ears are itchy. Not good.
  • Used to like to have his ears rubbed, but now he shies away? That’s a really bad sign, which indicates that the itchy ear has now become a painful ear.

 You should be looking at your pet’s ears at least once a week. Here’s what to look for:

  • Stroke them. See how your pet responds.
  • Lift the pinna. The skin on the least-haired side should be perfectly smooth. A rough, granular surface means that you missed the early signs of ear inflammation and that the inflammatory process has been going on a while.
  • Look down inside the ear canal. It should be wide open, not swollen shut. There should be no discharge: no yellow, no black, and most of all, no flow! Pus draining from an ear is our worst ear-treatment nightmare.
  • There should be almost no smell and you should be able to inhale a deep breath without an unpleasant feeling.

These are the steps to discovering whether your pet has an ear problem and when he should go to the doctor for it.

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