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The outer ear and middle ear of ferrets can, on occasion, become inflamed (known as 'otitis externa' and 'otitis media' respectively). This condition can cause a great degree of discomfort and distress to the affected animal. In ferrets, the symptoms of ear canal inflammation can be particularly pronounced and if left untreated can become dangerous not only to the hearing of the animal but also potentially to its life.
The symptoms of outer and middle ear inflammation will become apparent very quickly, which means that owners should seek medical assistance as soon as possible so that the underlying condition can be caught and addressed whilst it is still in its early stages.
A ferret suffering from inflammation of the ear will often exhibit a change in the color of its ear wax. Owners will be able to see the wax becoming much darker than usual, even to the point of taking on a brownish tinge. Additionally, the quantity of wax will substantially increase, with wax being visible even to cursory observation.
Ferrets with inflammation of the outer and middle ear will also show signs of pain as the condition progresses. Typically, they will start becoming withdrawn and unwilling to interact with other members of the household and may even display a reduced appetite. They may also become aggressive if their owner attempts to touch their ears, due to the extreme sensitivity that they may be experiencing.
Crust Around Ears
As wax production increases due to irritation of the outer ear, much of the liquid portion of the wax may end up running out of the ear and congealing in the fur on the ferret's head. The dark crust that forms is a tell-tale sign of an ear problem, and should prompt an immediate visit to the vet. Furthermore, this crust can often be found to emit a foul odor, which is a good signifier of a bacterial infection.
Scratching at the Ears
Irritation and inflammation of the ear canal can provoke an itching sensation for the affected ferret. In an effort to make it stop, they may start scratching excessively at the area around their ears. This scratching can often result in noticeable hair loss on the head, as the continual scratching of the claws will cause damage to the ferret's coat. The ferret may also start shaking its head seemingly at random in an effort to relieve the irritation felt in the inaccessible middle ear.
There are three main causes for inflammation of the middle and outer ear that are commonly seen in ferrets: bacterial infection, growths, and mites. Bacteria can often build up in the ear due to its relatively warm and moist environment. Most of the time this is not an issue and the bacteria is simply moved out of the ear canal by the wax. But in some cases, the bacteria can take hold and start to attack the ear itself. In such an event, the body will attempt to protect itself in order to remove the bacteria, thereby causing the overproduction of wax and irritation described above. Ear mites will often try to make their home in the outer ear for easy access to dead skin cells, and their activities can also cause a large amount of irritation as they move across the skin. Abnormal growths, however, are mostly confined to the middle and inner ear, though their presence can put pressure on the other sensitive structures of the ear.
When the ferret is brought to the clinic, the vet will usually perform a standard physical examination. This will allow them to assess the ferret's overall health and simultaneously check for any additional symptoms that may have been missed. In most cases, they will be able to make a diagnosis of bacterial infection or mite activity at this stage, though they may wish to take a sample of earwax for viewing under a microscope just to be sure. To examine a growth in the middle ear, however, the vet may wish to use an imaging scan such as ultrasound to gauge its location and composition.
The vast majority of ear infections can be treated via the use of a simple topical antibacterial drug. This usually takes the form of a liquid that is dropped into the ferret's ear using a pipette, and which quickly kills off the bacteria within. Mites are also killed using topical poisons and shampoos, though they have a greater chance of returning due to the resilience of their eggs, which can hatch several weeks later, requiring more treatments. Growths on the other hand, may require surgical removal, which can potentially put the ferret's acuity of hearing at risk.
The majority of bacterial infections and mite infestations can be resolved within the space of three to four weeks if the medication is administered correctly at the right intervals. Surgery may take more time to fully recover from, depending on the size of the required incision. Owners should also keep in mind the necessity to maintain a clean living space for the ferret to prevent secondary infections in the aftermath of surgery and to prevent mites that may have settled on bedding materials from re-infesting the animal. The vet will probably wish to schedule a series of follow up appointments, both to monitor the ferret's progress and to check for any complications that may arise.
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