Ear Problems of Dogs and Cats

By Dr. Emily Hoppmann

When a dog or cat shakes his head continually, does that mean he has ear mites or ear problems?

Both dogs and cats (indoor and outdoor) can start to shake their heads continually and scratch at their ears and this is never normal. However, to determine what is causing these symptoms, a veterinarian needs to be able to do an exam, look both at the outward apperance of the ears and the discharge in the ear. To look closely enough at the ear during the exam, the veterinarian needs to use a special instrument in order to see both the outer ear and the middle ear. The shape of a dog and cats’ ear canal is not a straight line, but an “L” shape with a sharp turn. It is impossible for owners’ to be able to see past this sharp turn and that is where a lot of discharge can build up. That is why it can seem that ear problems pop up overnight and is also why it is never a good idea to use a q-tip in a pets’ ear. The veterinarian will take a sample to be able to look at the discharge from the middle and inner ear under the microscope to see what is causing the ear problems. The most common reason for ear problems is different for dogs versus cats. Dogs are much more likely to have either a yeast infection or a bacterial infection. Cats are much more likely to have an ear mite infection. Your veterinarian can determine the best medication to treat the ear problem based on the exam and looking at the debris under the microscope. Medication most likely is a combination of a medicated ear wash, which are not available over the counter, and a topical ear medication. In some cases, if ear mites are the only problem, your veterinarian can apply a medication during your appointment that will treat the ear mites without you having to do any medication at home. It is very important to have your dog or cat examined by a veterinarian as soon as you notice them shaking or scratching at their ears and it is equally important to have them rechecked before stopping medication so that the veterinarian can be sure that the infection has completely resolved.

What should be done to prevent ear mites?

There are some very simple ways to prevent ear mites and ear infections. Ear mites in cats are the easiest to prevent, just by using a monthly topical medication that every cat (indoor and outdoor) should be using anyway. This product is called Revolution and is available through veterinary clinics. It is applied to the skin every 30 days and prevents fleas, heartworms, ear mites, and intestinal parasites (other than tapeworms). Once a current ear mite infection has been treated, applying this medication every month will prevent your cat from getting ear mites again. Similarly, some of the monthly topical medications that every dog should be using anyway also treat ear mites. My favorite product is called Vectra and it is available  through veterinary clinics. It is applied to the skin every 30 days and prevents fleas, ticks, mites, and repels flies. Again, once a current ear mite infection has been treated, applying this medication every month will prevent your dog from getting ear mites again.

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