Is it an Ear Infection or Just Inflammation

Daily in our veterinary practice clients bring in cats as well as dogs stating that their pet has an infected ear.  Often the most common symptom is scratching at the ear or shaking the head.  Family members will often comment that there is an odor or discharge around the pet’s head.  Frequently the family suspects that the pet has ear mites.  Though ear mites are a parasite that can cause discomfort for your pet resulting in scratching and/or shaking they are not usually the cause.

Inflammation or irritation of the ear is referred to as otitis.  The otitis is further categorized as otitis externa referring to an inflammation of the external ear, otitis media and otitis interna describing the inflammation as it progresses inward.  Often the term otitis is misinterpreted as to indicate infection.  It is possible to have inflammation without infection but infection is usually accompanied by inflammation.

To diagnose otitis a cytology or sample of the material in the ear needs to be examined under a microscope.  This slide will be studied to determine if there are ear mites present as well as if there is an abundance of bacteria or yeast both of which are capable of causing otitis and infection.  If the problem appears to involve bacteria a culture of the material from the ear may be required to ensure that the antibiotic to be used on the infection is the appropriate one.  While yeast infections often have a characteristic odor,  bacterial infections as well as waxy inflammations may have no odor at all.

Treatment of otitis involves diagnosing the cause as well as cleaning all debris from the ear and, when appropriate, using an antibacterial, anti yeast or a mite killing agent.  If the ear is extremely painful sedation may be required in order that your local vet can adequately treat and diagnose the otitis. Follow up treatment at home similarly involves cleaning as well as medicating when indicated.

The final step in treatment of otitis involves prevention of recurrences.  Often there is an underlying cause or etiology of the otitis.  Allergies, excessive moisture and anatomical characteristics can all contribute to the occurrence of otitis.  It is imperative that the underlying cause be identified  and steps taken to prevent or control these inflammations in the future. Once your pet has been diagnosed with an ear problem chronic maintenance may be required to prevent relapse.  Problem ear conditions that are insufficiently diagnosed or treated can often progress to painful conditions that may require extensive surgery in the future.  Compromise of the pet’s hearing is also a common sequelae to longstanding otitis.  Should your pet show persistent scratching, rubbing or shaking, early intervention is paramount in promoting ear health of your pet.