We’re not accustomed to thinking of birds as having ears because we don’t see them. They do have ears and sometimes they get infected.
Just like ours, their ears are used for both hearing and balance. The three components are comprised of: an external part, which is hidden by a tiny clump of stiff feathers; a middle part with an air filled tympanic cavity; and an inner part, a complex structure with the membranous labyrinth.
Ear infections can affect any, or all, portions of the ear.
Inner ear infections (Otitis interna): The inner ear, the sensory receptor for both sound and balance, consists of the cochlea and a vestibular organ. The chicken’s inner ear is considered to be a part of their nervous system and helps with balance. Inner ear infections can cause neurological signs in affected chickens, in the form of head tilt, loss of coordination and balance, and wry neck. They are most likely caused by a viral infection and are much more difficult to treat.
Middle ear infections (Otitis media): The middle ear is an air-filled tympanic cavity containing a muscle, ligaments, the tympanic membrane, the cochlear window and a rod-like bone (ossicle) known as the columella. Middle ear infections are usually caused by a chronic bacterial infection or tumours. These infections tend to be difficult to treat as many of the pathogens are considered to be opportunistic and highly resistant to antibiotics.
Outer ear infections (Otitis externa): Inflammation of the external ear may be caused by bacteria or fungal infections. Symptoms include: scratching their ears or rubbing their head, red swelling around the ears or head feathers matted with discharge.
Ear infections in chickens are often referred to as Ear Canker (unrelated to protozoan infection Trichmonosis, known as oral ‘canker’).
Canker can be caused by various bacteria, including E.coli. (Not all strains of E.coli are pathogenic, hence the great number living in the lower intestines of poultry and other animals.)
The bacteria causing ear infections are opportunistic pathogens that take advantage of birds with compromised immune systems. They are often prevalent in the environment and spread through contaminated feed, water and droppings.
Bacteria enter the body through the infundibular cleft, which is located in the roof of the mouth. It is situated behind the chonal cleft, a larger opening leading directly to the sinus cavities.
The infundibular cleft opens directly into the auditory canals of the ears. The canals are semi-circular in shape and lead to the external ear opening. It is in these canals that the infection takes hold. If left unchecked, it will eventually protrude from the external ear opening.
- Matted head feathers
- Rubbing, scratching head
- Swollen ear lobes
- Head shaking
- Tilted head
- Discharge from ear
- Wry neck
- Loss of balance
- Decreased crowing
- Use Q-tips and hydrogen peroxide to gently clean out any build up from the external part of the ear. A small amount (i.e. a couple of drops) of peroxide helps to soften debris in the ear and will make it easier to remove. Just like with people, do NOT push the Q-tip too deep or you may make the situation worse. If you have an avian vet you can take the extracted material from the ear for identification.
- Medications include corticosteroids and antibiotics (gentamycin, amoxicillin and the fluoroquinolone). Many, but not all pathogens related to ear infections, have become highly resistant to most antibiotics, so be careful to get the correct diagnosis and use the meds according to the instructions.
Featured Photo courtesy of Darren Rohr; additional photos courtesy of Backyard Chickens.