Q: My son’s hamster has crusty ears. Obviously they are not right. Do you have any ideas what is causing this and how to treat it?
A: Crust in the ears of a hamster can be due to many things. Ectoparasites can infect the outer part of the ear, and the skin’s reaction to these parasites can lead to crust building up inside in the ear and even on the outer portions of the ears. Bacterial infections can cause similar reactions to the skin around the ears. Finally, fungal organisms cause lesions on the ears leading to secondary bacterial infections that can then result in crusting of the ears.
Without the benefit of cytology and cultures, it may be impossible to determine if a bacterial, fungal or even both infections are present. When your veterinarian examines the ears, one of the first things he or she may do is use a swab to remove some of the debris and look for evidence of parasites or parasite eggs. If those are not seen, further investigation is done on the ear material.
That same swab can be used to place material across a microscope slide. This material is then “fixed” onto the slide and the slide is stained. The staining process is used to look for bacterial and fungal organisms.
Due to the different staining qualities of different species, it is sometimes possible to diagnose the specific organisms in the ears without a culture. But if the stained slide is not definitive for a cause, two more diagnostic tests can be used. First, cultures of the ear material can be sent off to a laboratory in an attempt to grow bacteria or fungal organisms on agar. Finally, if treatment does not cure this condition and all diagnostic tests are negative, your vet might recommend a small biopsy of some of the ear tissue to determine the cause of the crusting.
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