The many causes of animal ear problems

Most ear infections are luckily caught early, and can be managed simply enough with a quick course of drops squirted in the ears, but that’s not always the end of the story. File photo Most ear infections are luckily caught early, and can be managed simply enough with a quick course of drops squirted in the ears, but that’s not always the end of the story. File photo

I’m sure we’d all agree that animal ears are absolutely adorable. Unlike our inert curls of skin that only seem weirder the more you think about them, cats and dogs have delightfully expressive ears. They perk up when we talk to them and flop all over the place, and are generally just fuzzy and fun to play with. But all those lovely perks do come with a price. For some animals, those things can be a nightmare to take care of.

For one thing, pets can have horrible creatures living in their ears. If your cat is furiously scratching at the sides of her head, there’s a solid chance she’s harboring ear mites. These little arachnids—basically microscopic spiders—chow down on ear wax and reproduce quickly, causing ample misery in the process.

Luckily, they aren’t that hard to treat if you do it right. There are plenty of over-the-counter products that kill ear mites, but they don’t always kill the eggs, allowing the infestation to return if you don’t treat for weeks on end. And if you have multiple pets, they may keep bouncing the bugs around unless you treat everybody at the exact same time. Newer prescription options work much faster, and keep you from wasting time and money trying to solve an otherwise simple problem with obsolete tools.

The other frustration with over-the-counter ear mite treatments is that you’re apt to find yourself treating the wrong thing. This is especially true in dogs, where ear mites are comparatively uncommon. I see frustrated owners come in all the time after blowing through three or four different ear mite remedies to no avail. The truth is that dogs are far more likely to have an infection caused by yeast or bacteria (or both). It’s really important to have your veterinarian diagnose the problem before attempting to treat it.

Ear infections can be pretty nasty business. Unchecked, the opening of the ear swells up while the canal fills with foul-smelling discharge. They hurt and itch, often resulting in additional injury as the animal fusses with it. Apart from self-inflicted abrasions, overzealous shaking and scratching can rupture blood vessels within the flap of the ear, causing a hematoma—the whole thing puffs up like a blood-filled balloon. If it reaches this point, surgery may be the only way to get back to normal again.

Most infections are luckily caught early, and can be managed simply enough with a quick course of drops squirted in the ears, but that’s not always the end of the story. Even after multiple rounds of treatment, ear infections have a frustrating habit of returning. This isn’t because your dog is infected with some kind of superbug. In most cases, it’s the same run-of-the-mill bacteria and yeast as usual. It’s because most ear infections piggyback on top of another underlying problem.

Unfortunately, those problems aren’t necessarily the easy ones to solve. Some breeds have an inherent predisposition due to quirks (and outright defects) in the form and structure of their ears. (Owners of cocker spaniels and bulldogs are reflexively sighing.) Cats can have recurring infections because of polyps growing deep within the ear. And lots of animals deal with ear infections resulting from underlying allergies. A full list would go on for pages, but the short version is that ear infections can be unfixable until the underlying cause is identified and eliminated.

I’m often asked about preventing ear infections, and the answer varies case by case. If needed, you can gently wipe away ear wax with a cotton ball once or twice a week. But never go in with a Q-tip —you’re likely to just pack the wax in deeper. Having the ear canals plucked free of hair can be useful in animals with unusually dense fur, but it also introduces bleeding and inflammation that can foster bacterial growth, so I don’t advise it without good reason. By and large, if your pet has healthy ears, my preference is to leave well enough alone. Unnecessary intervention may cause trouble where none existed before.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small-animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.

Clockwise from top left: Brad Pitt, Darcy, Calliope and Lima
Clockwise from top left: Brad Pitt, Darcy, Calliope and Lima. Courtesy Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA

Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA: Pets of the month

You can meet us at the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA, where we’re all available for adoption.
3355 Berkmar Dr. 973-5959,, noon-6pm, daily  


It was kind of a blow to my confidence when my owner left me at the shelter after hours, but I’m working on my trust issues and am ready to find my forever home (for real this time).

Brad Pitt

As my name suggests, I’m cool, confident and enviably handsome. Not to boast, but I’ve been named “Sexiest Tomcat Alive” three times, which is more than the human Brad Pitt can say.


Like the capital of Peru, my personality climate can be cool to mild—
I play hard to get at first, but warm up quickly (with treats). Unlike Peru, loud sounds and fast motion irk me.


Greek muse Calliope is often portrayed wearing a crown, which is fitting for my personality, as I prefer to observe from my throne. (But if you offer a head rub, I won’t turn it down.)

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