The Ears Have It
Originally printed in America’s
Cutter August 1998 issue
By Kenton H. Arnold, DVM
Putting on a headstall or taking off a halter are two simple maneuvers
that we perform with our horses on a daily basis. These actions take
no more of a conscious effort than donning a hat on the way out the door.
However, once you encountered the horse with a sensitive ear you
will never again take these simple tasks for granted.
A painful ear can cause problems ranging from poor performance to a horse that is down right dangerous. Horses with ear problems quickly become problem horses that leave the owner and/or trainer frustrated and the horse miserable.
It is amazing how often no significant effort is made to find and treat
the underlying cause. All too often, the problem is blamed on someone
who grabbed the ear for restraint in the past. This is a possibility,
however, every effort should be made to determine the cause and correct
the problem. Too often people assume that it is a past bad experience
that created the problem, and never investigate other possibilities.
The first and most important step is a thorough otic exam. Because of
the sensitivity of the ear, heavy sedation will be required. The horse
must be sedated enough to allow the visual inspection of the ear drum.
This exam will be all that is necessary to identify problems such as
ear ticks, foreign bodies or evidence of Otitis externa (infection of
the ear canal). With most of these problems there will be a large amount
of waxy buildup or other debris or exudate. Microscopic evaluation of
the debris will identify the type of infection present. The most common
infections occurring are parasitic (ticks or mites), bacterial, fungal,
or yeast infections. Once is type of infection is identified, the proper
medication can be utilized to clear the infection.
The first step of treatment is to clean the ear, removing all the debris
and the source of infection. This is best done by liberally flushing
the ear with disinfectant solution. Proper flushing also requires heavy
sedation and can be done after the exam, while the horse is still sedated.
Avoid cleaning the ear with Q-tips as you may pack the debris further
down the ear canal. After the flushing is complete, the appropriate medication
can be applied. Subsequent treatments will likely be performed with the
restraint provided by a twitch. Often, the medication will included a
topical cortico steroid to decrease the pain and inflammation created
from the infection. Some infections will require systemic antibiotics,
especially if the ear drum is ruptured.
The above procedures will eliminate the majority of "sensitive ear"
problems and will make life much easier for both you and your horses.
If the problem
is not identified with an otic examination, at the very least several
causes have been eliminated. Further diagnostic procedures are possible
identify inner ear problems, tumors, tempomandibular joint problems...
and the list can go on. On the list is the horse that just plain "doesn't
like his ears messed with." It's best, however, to at least
have a complete otic exam on a properly sedated horse. This will also
allow the procedure
to be performed safely and completely before that diagnosis decided on.