HAVING reached a time when serious infections such as Distemper are now rare - because vets have convinced most caring owners to have their animals vaccinated - the question now is how can the welfare of pets be further improved?

One area where owner education is definitely needed is that of ear problems. Some ear shaking or the occasional scratch is probably normal, but where these signs are persistent, a trip to the vets is indicated. I still get clients saying 'he has always done that', which probably means he has always had pain or irritation of the ears.

Different types of dogs show widely different reactions to ear problems. What would cause hardly any signs in a dour little terrier would have a poodle shrieking. In some animals, the vet only gets to see them when the disease process is advanced.

Most of the problems can be cured if treated early enough but delay can lead to chronic changes in the skin lining the ear canals, which become thickened and cauliflower-like, making a permanent cure unlikely using medication.

Some of these cases can only be cured by surgery, a vertical canal ablation or total ablation. This surgery is usually very successful but we perform it less these days because we try to treat the early cases very aggressively and thoroughly.

The most common reason for problems is lack of ventilation due to the way the ears 'grow', for example, Labradors and Basset Hounds with drooping ears. Strangely, German Shepherd dogs with their upright, open ears have a particular problem as they produce very soft wax which fails to dry and flake away.

Browny red wax, which is often mistaken by owners for blood, builds up in the ear and the environment of warmth and moisture is ideal for the growth of bacteria and yeasts such as Malassezia. The infections are, therefore, not 'caught' from other animals, but are something arising from within.

Treatment is with antibiotic and steroid drops with long-term follow-up using a solvent ear cleaner.

Some dogs need a general anaesthetic and syringing at the start of the treatment if their ears are too bad or too painful for the drops to be administered.

Acute ear pain can be caused by a grass seed entering the ear canal, particularly at this time of year. Owners should be careful to remove any seeds picked up on fur, particularly on the feet.

Ear mites are common. Cats can have incredibly large numbers of these parasitic, microscopic insects and show little discomfort, whereas, paradoxically, a very few can cause intense scratching in dogs.

It is very important to always treat all cats and dogs in the household, even though an individual shows no sign, as they pass readily from dog to dog, cat to cat, dog to cat and vice versa.

The modern drops available to vets are not as effective as the old, now withdrawn, environmentally unfriendly BHC drops. Therefore, using the drops for 10 days, then withholding treatment for any surviving eggs to hatch, followed by a further 10 days, is used to eliminate the problem.

Recently, a client holding her cat for me, jumped three feet backwards, shrieking 'MICE!' when I told her that he cat had mites in its ears!

Converted for the new archive on 13 March 2001. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.