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Ask the Vet: Sensitive Ears

What are the possible causes of ear sensitivity in horses?

August 7, 2017

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In our Ask the Vet column, Dr. Lydia Gray answers your horse-health questions at HorseChannel.com/AskTheVet. Got a question for Dr. Gray? Send it to hc-editor@luminamedia.comand use subject line "Ask the Vet."

Pony Ears
Quarter Horse Pony by Jean on Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Q: What do you do when your horse constantly shakes and has sensitive ears, but there is no sign of mites?

A: Your question made me think of this quote by Dr. Kent Allen, equine practitioner from Virginia, International Society of Equine Locomotor Pathology Executive Director and Vice President, and National Head Veterinarian for the FEI for the US:

"Absent a diagnosis, medicine is poison, surgery is trauma, and alternative therapy is witchcraft"

What he means is that the best thing to do when faced with a problem in your horse is call your veterinarian and schedule an examination that may include specific diagnostic tests so that you know what you are dealing with (and equally as important, what you are NOT dealing with). Then appropriate treatment and management can be started. By guessing what might be wrong, it could take longer and cost more to correct, as well as get out of hand and become an even bigger problem.

With the signs you describe, your horse could be suffering from any number of things, from aural plaques in the ears to a dental disorder in the mouth, an eye lesion, the disorder "headshaking,” or other problems and conditions.

When you contact your vet, try to give him or her as complete a history, or background, as you can. This includes when the problem first started, if anything makes the problem better or worse (such as exercise, certain tack and equipment, eating, etc), if certain activities or actions initiate or worsen a bout of shaking (like grooming, bright lights, or weather), as well as any treatment or management you have already tried (perhaps oral medication, topical ointments, or a fly mask with ears). These kinds of details will be very helpful to your vet during the exam, providing important pieces of the puzzle he or she is trying to put together.

Because abnormal behavior such as you describe may not present itself while your vet is inspecting your horse, you may want to take a video of it so that you can demonstrate exactly what you’ve been seeing. As strange as it may sound, the way that a horse shakes its head can tell a vet a lot about what the underlying cause may be!

While you’re waiting for your vet to take a look at your horse, I encourage you to visit www.headshakerinfo.org which describes headshaking, one potential cause for your horse’s action.

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