Years ago, I rescued a lost hunting dog puppy from the forests in South Carolina, where the ticks were vicious pretty much all year long.
This poor little guy had probably been out on his own for less than a week, but I was hard-pressed to find a spot on him that wasn't infested, and his ears were the worst. Those swollen blood-suckers hung from his drop ears like clusters of grapes, and the more he scratched at them, the more miserable he seemed.
The many animals I've had over the years, and those we take in at the Lawrence Humane Society, have taught me that ears are pretty high-maintenance parts. Whether they're small and perky, long and floppy, or a combination of both, ears are prone to a variety of problems that can just be torturous for the little animal they're attached to.
One of the main problems that roughly 50 percent of dogs and cats face is ear mites (Otodectes cyanotis). These little buggers are as unattractive as their name sounds. They breed by the thousands in the ear canals of your pets, feasting on ear wax and laying eggs as they go. Their whole life cycle is spent inside the ear.
Your first clue as to their presence would be your pet incessantly shaking his head and scratching at his ears. A quick inspection will probably reveal a lot of dark waxy matter in the visible portion of the ear. A veterinarian can peek inside and see the movement of these varmints, and (back in my pre-bifocal days) I actually could see their movement on the dirty end of cotton swab that had been inserted into an infected ear.
When caught early, ear mites can be cleared up. Treatments are most effective if that dark waxy matter is first completely removed with a thorough rinsing, which may best be done by your vet. Also, mites can be transferred from one animal to another by close contact (hence the common occurrence of ear mites in the young kittens of outdoor cats), so it's best to treat all your animals at once to prevent immediate re-infestations.
The hardest part of the treatment for the owners, of course, is wrestling your pets down and inserting the drops, which is usually followed almost immediately by the animals shaking their heads vigorously and spraying the medicine around the room. If you can keep the liquid in long enough, however, they always seem to enjoy the ear rubs that follow, when you work the medicine in until you hear that squishy sound.
When left untreated, ear mites can cause a more serious problem. As the ear canal grows more irritated, it naturally secretes a serum, which in turn mixes with the ear wax and the mite droppings to form even more of the blackish-brown substance that is clearly visible when you look at the ear with just your naked eye. This nasty thick matter can eventually block the ear canal, and without free air flow, secondary infections develop.
Left further untreated, these can eventually result in hearing loss, not to mention incredible pain and discomfort. It's always best to get this taken care of as quickly as possible, because in addition to all of the problems I've just listed, dogs with drop ears can scratch so hard that they break a blood vessel and develop a hematoma (a large pillow-like swelling of blood and serum) in the ear flap, which also is painful and may need to be drained and corrected with surgery.
Ear infections aren't caused only by ear mites, however. Yeast or bacteria, foreign objects (such as ticks), poor air flow (quite common in dogs with drop ears and breeds with naturally hairy ears, such as poodles), poor natural drainage or tumors can all cause infections in the external ear canals or the inner ears. Again, the signs are excessive head shaking and scratching, inflammation in the visible portion of the ear and an excess of the blackish waxy matter.
Your vet can take a sample of matter from the animal's ear and culture it to determine the type of infection and the proper treatment. Sometimes these can be tricky to get rid of and may require repeat treatments before they disappear completely. Also, inner ear infections are just harder to reach with drops and on occasion will require that the animal be anesthetized so the ear can be thoroughly cleaned with out causing great pain.
Ears need to be taken care of as carefully as any other part of your pet. General maintenance includes regularly cleaning the ears with a cotton ball and a gentle cleaner - your vet can recommend one that he or she thinks is best. And don't try using cotton swabs: it's far too easy to get too deep into the ear and cause damage or push bacteria or foreign objects farther into the ear canal.
For the hairy-eared kids, check with a groomer on the best and safest way to remove the excess. My experience has been that the dogs don't seem to mind it as much as I thought they would.
If you are treating ear mites or an infection, follow your vet's instructions carefully. You may not see much sense in the on-again off-again routine of the applications, but your vet knows the life cycle of the mites or the intensity of the bacteria and how to disrupt the growth of both.