Tuesdays with Tony
The Ears Have It
First things first: please don’t forget that my biggest Meet Tony Event of the year- Open House- is coming up in just a few short weeks! Mark your calendars for Springhill Equine’s 12th Annual Open House on Saturday, September 29th from 10 am – 2 pm. This year you will visit booths themed after favorite movies, enjoy delicious BBQ, and explore what our local vendors have to offer, while getting entered to win a free Wellness Package for one of your horses! I’ll plan on seeing you all there.
Do you ever feel like your week has a theme? For example, you and two of your friends all get a flat tire, or you see a snake in your backyard then the next day you see one on your way in to work, or you hit 2 squirrels with your car within the span of a few days? Well, this week’s theme was definitely ears. We have seen itchy ears, swollen ears, abscessed ears, allergic ears, hyper-sensitive ears, and even an ear with a tick in it! So, I quizzed the docs on the common ear problems horses get, and how to recognize and treat them. Do you know what to do if your horse’s ears are driving him nuts?
My horse won’t let me touch his ear
So first, a few questions. Does your horse normally let you touch his ear? Because most horses generally don’t love it. Is it just one ear, or both ears? Both ears make it more likely to be an itchy, allergic, hypersensitivity condition. One ear makes us think of trauma such as a laceration or bruise, or perhaps a tick inside the ear. Side note: the docs tell me that in vet school they teach you that ear ticks are a super-common thing that you will encounter all the time…but in real life they are extremely rare. However, if your horse develops a sudden extreme hypersensitivity in one ear with no other symptoms, an ear tick is definitely on the rule-out list.
If your horse’s ears are irritated in any way, you’re probably darn right that he won’t let you touch them…they hurt! Spoiler alert: it’s going to require a good amount of sedation, a step stool, and a fancy light called an otoscope to get a good look in there. Read as: Call your vet.
But doc, this just happened today!
Far and away the most common ear problem our docs encounter is chronic, thickened, irritated ears secondary to a gnat allergy called “Culicoides hypersensitivity.” Often the vet doesn’t get called until the horse itches his ear so badly that he cuts it on something, and the owner finally takes note when blood and/or pus are streaming out of the ear. Without fail, they claim this “just happened” and the ears were normal a few days ago. While the wound may be new, the underlying condition that led the horse to be so uncomfortable that he self-traumatized his ear has taken months, or even years, to develop.
Culicoides (kyōō′lĭ-koi′dēz′) is a species of gnat very common here in Florida. Many horses are actually allergic to the saliva of this gnat, so every bite by one of these annoying little devils sends the poor horse into an itching frenzy. The early signs of this gnat allergy include frequent scratching and hair loss in the ears, mane, base of tail, and chest. Over time the skin in these places will become thickened, there will be multiple open bite wounds, the hair will be completely gone, and the horse will constantly be scratching on anything and everything he can find. Horses with chronic Culicoides hypersensitivity will often develop a “cauliflower ear” appearance over a period of years. Once this happens, the ears will never return to their original shape.
What can I do for my horse’s poor ears?
It is best and most successful when owners treat horses with gnat allergies early and often. Look closely at your horse’s ears. Is the hair thinning inside and around the edge of the ear? Are there tiny bug bites inside? Do you see any scabs or blood? Is the skin normal, or is it becoming thickened?
At this early stage, you should be able to get the problem under control with just some topical medication and fly gear. We always recommend a fly mask with ears for these horses; fly sheets, neck pieces, leg covers, etc. can be added at your discretion. The topical medication that works best for this condition is Equishield IBH (that stands for Insect Bite Hypersensitivity). It comes as a salve or a spray, depending on your preference. We find that the IBH salve works great for ears, but the IBH spray is awesome when you need to treat a larger area.
Once the ear has gotten to a point where there is a secondary laceration, abscess, or hematoma, it can be difficult to treat. While we always try conservative options first, these horses sometimes have to undergo surgery under general anesthesia to drain the ear, followed by weeks with the ear taped down against the horse’s head to allow for continued drainage. No fun.
If you have tried the fly protection and IBH products, but your horse is STILL uncontrollably scratching, talk to our docs about a systemic treatment such as an antihistamine to break the chronic itch cycle. There is even a new drug on the market called Apoquel that has been used to treat itchy dogs, but is now finally getting some attention for use in horses. While the medication is pricey for a 1000 lb animal, we have seen promising results with it so far!
As a cat who suffers from itchy skin, let me tell you that constantly feeling itchy is no fun. If (God forbid) I lived outside swarmed by the very creatures that made me so itchy, I would be miserable! So thank you in advance for not ignoring your itchy horses.
P.S. Want more itchy horse info? Check out Dr. Lacher’s podcast on itchy horses. It’s the latest episode of Straight from the Horse Doctor’s Mouth. You can listen right from our website, or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts! What’s a podcast, you ask? It’s just like a radio talk show, except you can listen to it on your phone or your computer whenever you want to. Try it out, and see what the thousands of other subscribers have already figured out 😉
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Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!