Poppy the puppy presented to our clinic with a history of scratching her ears almost constantly since her owner had adopted her two weeks prior.
When she wasn’t trying to scratch her ears with her paws, Poppy was shaking her head and her owner noticed a brown, smelly discharge coming from her ears.
There are many reasons for these symptoms in dogs and cats – ranging from foreign bodies (ubiquitous grass seeds are often culprits), ear infections and even allergic skin disease, but close examination of Poppy’s ears with an otoscope revealed the gunk in her ears was moving ever so slightly of its own accord.
It is worth pointing out that dog ears in particular are very different to human ears.
The ear canals are longer and they bend in the middle, forming an “L” shape with a vertical and a horizontal component.
It is difficult to view the horizontal component, particularly if the skin lining the ear canal is inflamed and sore.
Animals with very sore ears may need to be sedated or even anaesthetised to allow a complete examination.
In Poppy’s case, it was possible to examine her ear gently, using a combination of feeding her treats to distract her, and patting her to provide reassurance.
A swab was used to take a sample of the discharge.
Examination of a smear of this material under the microscope revealed the culprits: ear mites.
Ear mite infestation … is no picnic.
Eat mites, or Otodectes cynotis, are a common cause of ear problems in dogs, cats, ferrets and even, occasionally, humans.
They are estimated to cause the majority of ear infections in cats, and up to half of ear infections in young dogs.
Younger animals are more susceptible, with ear mites most commonly detected in puppies and kittens under six months old.
Most affected animals acquire the mites from their mother, but mites can also be spread via grooming equipment like brushes and combs, and bedding.
Ear mite infestation is known as “otocariosis”, and it is no picnic.
While the mites don’t burrow, they cause intense itching, and the ear canal responds by becoming very inflamed, sore and producing a dark brown waxy discharge which ear mites happen to enjoy eating.
It is very difficult for affected animals to enjoy uninterrupted sleep or focus on much when they’re trying to relieve this horrendous itch.
Itching can lead to self-trauma, which may cause bleeding or even burst blood vessels inside the ears, forming a big lump called an aural haematoma.
Self-trauma can lead to secondary bacterial infections and aural haematomas may need surgical treatment.
Ear mites don’t always stay put. They can migrate out of the ears and onto other parts of the body including the head, paws and tail.
Fortunately, effective treatment is available and as Poppy’s ears were so inflamed, she was prescribed twice-daily ear-drops.
In addition, she was treated with a spot-on flea and tick treatment that has also been proven to eliminate mite infestations.
I must confess, I have a soft spot for mites.
They look like majestic, other-worldly creatures under the microscope.
But that doesn’t mean I want to play host to them, nor do I think companion animals should have to put up with them.
While Poppy will make a full recovery, I am sure she would have preferred not to have ever made the acquaintance of ear mites in the first place.
Your veterinary team can advise you of the best product to prevent ear mites in your pet.
Dr Anne Quain BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), Dip ECAWBM (AWSEL) is a lecturer at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and a practising veterinarian.