Prevention Becomes Key To Ear Problems

The skin of your horse’s ears is vulnerable to many of the same problems as skin elsewhere on his body, but dealing with it effectively may require different methods.

Signs and symptoms of ear problems include:

• Rubbing the ears/head (sometimes to the point of hair loss).
• Head shaking/tossing.
• Ear droop or head tilt.
• Resistance to having the ears handled, resistance to bridling.
• Excess wax (nonspecific reaction to irritation in the ear canal) or discharge from the ears.

Ear Mites
Although not encountered as frequently in horses as in small animals, especially cats, horses can become infected with ear mites. Ear mites result in a characteristic collection of discharge in the ears that most resembles coffee grounds. It’s a mixture of old blood, serum and the mites themselves. The mites are tiny and usually situated deep in the ear canal, so this diagnosis is best made by a vet using an otoscope.

Treatment and Prevention: Since horses with ear-mite infections are often tender about the ears, get your vet involved at least initially. Your vet can do a gentle but thorough cleansing of the ears after the exam and can treat any secondary infection. The easiest treatment option for the mites themselves is to orally deworm the horse at weekly intervals for three treatments with ivermectin. There are also topical treatments, but they need to be applied daily either for 10 days or up to 21 days.

Merial’s Tresaderm is a 10-day, twice-a-day treatment, a blend of topical thiabendazole to kill the mites, dexamethasone for inflammation and the antibiotic Neomycin. $17 to $30/15 ml, a four- to five-day supply for a horse. This is a prescription item, so contact your veterinarian.

Ear drops containing insecticides, which only kill the adults so require a three-week course of twice-daily drops, are available over the counter. They include Pfizer’s Mita-Clear, a pyrethrin-based product, about $4/12 cc, about a three-day supply (, 800-366-5288) and Farnam’s Adams Pene-Mite, also pyrethrin based, about $6.50/12 ml, three-day supply (, 800-234-2269).

A product containing topical ivermectin (0.01%) has been approved as a one-step ear mite treatment for cats, where it is 92 to 94% effective. This would be the equivalent of mixing 1 cc of cattle injectable ivermectin with 9 cc of sterile water. Discuss this option with your veterinarian.

The ears are a favorite site for tick infestations and should be checked regularly for ticks throughout the tick season. Attached ticks cause considerable irritation and may cause secondary infections. They may even cause neurological symptoms of muscle twitching, tremors and cramping, and prolapse of the third eyelid.

Treatment and Prevention: Ticks should be removed by grasping them with a pair of tweezers at their head, as close to the skin surface as possible. This obviously is not a one-person job and requires at least a twitch for restraint, if not sedation. If multiple ticks are attached, your vet is the best person to do this job and will give the ears a thorough inspection, including a look for infection at the same time.

The most effective tick repellent is permethrin. Products such as W. F. Young/Absorbine’s Bug Block, about $10.95 for a 32-oz. spray bottle or their Ultra Spot, about $13.50 for a four-week supply, are good choices (, 800-628-9653). We also like Manna Pro’s Equine Fly and Mosquito Concentrate (, 800-628-9653), about $14.45 for 32 oz. (concentrate, makes up to 320 oz. of high-potency spray).

A thick layer of petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, on the inner surface of the ear will discourage ticks from biting. If there are no open areas, you can mix it 9 parts Vaseline with 1 part 2.5% permethrin concentrate, such as the Manna Pro, for double protection.

Ear Gnats/Biting Flies
Several different flies will feed off the horse’s ears, causing tremendous irritation and distraction, sometimes leaving behind a mess of irritation, scabbing and secondary infection.

Treatment and Prevention: Fly-bite-damaged ears should be gently cleaned with warm soap and water to remove dried blood and crusts that favor secondary infections. Antibiotic cream can be applied until the skin heals over. Fly masks with ears, such as our favorites, the Cashel Crusader (, 800-333-2202) or Horse Sense (, 480-483-2217) mask, work wonders in protecting the ears.

Otherwise, the same topical fly-repellent liquid wiped on the external ear and a layer of Vaseline inside will work. For extra gnat-repellent effect, add a few drops of Bayer’s Campho-Phenique, 3 to 4 to every 10 cc of Vaseline mixture. This product is available at most drug stores, about $8/1.5 ounces.

Ear Infections
Ear infections are rare. However, a complication of an ear infection ascending/rising into the ear canal from a gutteral pouch problem or secondary to severe mite tick or fly damage can occur.

Treatment and Prevention: Prevention includes avoiding bites to begin with, using the methods previously described. Treatment begins with addressing the source of the problem. The ear itself needs to be gently cleansed, then treated with an antibiotic ointment or drops for several days. Your vet should do the initial cleaning and will recommend the antibiotic.

Aural Plaques
Aural plaques are flat to slightly raised white patches inside the ears. They’re caused by the same virus that causes warts, probably deposited in the ear area by biting insects. Horses with aural plaques usually do not show any symptoms of ear pain or irritation, but some may be more sensitive than average to having their ears manipulated and touched.

Treatment and Prevention: There are no treatments for aural plaques. Protecting your horse’s ears from insects will minimize the chance of this infection.

We usually focus on the nose and face as at greatest risk of sunburn, but the ears may also be involved.

Treatment and Prevention: A plain zinc-oxide ointment or diaper-rash cream, like Desitin, is both soothing to damaged skin and an excellent sun blocker. Zinc-oxide ointments and creams are available at most drugs stores for $4 to $5 for 2 oz.

Tumors rarely involve the ears but sarcoids or squamous cell carcinoma (especially in light-skinned horses) may occur in this location.

Treatment and Prevention: Your vet should examine growths present anywhere on your horse’s body and may recommend doing a biopsy if there is any question about the type of tumor it is. Unprotected sun exposure is a risk factor for squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer.

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