Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I have an 8-month old, black and white, short-haired cat named Whiskey. He seems to be having a problem with his ears: they are very scaly. He is constantly growing new skin in his ears, but it sheds in little pieces afterwards. Just like a scab that falls off, only to be replaced by another scab. And his ears always feel rather warm.
He has been tested for all the usual stuff like fungus and mites but nothing has been found. We have also changed his food to a hypo-allergenic food, but no changes either. Our vet has consulted a skin specialist which has suggested that a biopsy be taken in his ears and sent to the closest vet university for analysis. That procedure is very costly and to be added up to the price of all the other tests done before.
I was wondering if anyone has ever had a cat with scaly, shedding ears before, as nobody around here seems to have seen this kind of problem before.
Siouxsie: Gee, Danielle, that is a mystery. It sounds like your vet has done all the tests to eliminate the common causes of skin issues, so now you’re left with wondering why on earth Whiskey’s ears are still in such rough shape.
Thomas: There are a couple of other reasons why a cat’s ears might be scaling and scabbing, though. First, if Whiskey goes out, he may have gotten frostbitten. Cats’ ears are not covered with as much fur as the rest of our bodies, so it’s easy for cold exposure to cause frostbite.
Dahlia: What happens in frostbite is that the exposed area gets so chilled that the blood vessels contract and cut off blood flow to the skin. The skin then begins to die and can flake off (in mild cases) or turn black and gangrenous (in severe cases).
Siouxsie: You didn’t mention whether you live in a cold area–although you did write this letter in December–or if Whiskey goes outdoors, so we can’t be certain that a cold injury could cause this problem. You also didn’t mention how long Whiskey has been suffering from this skin issue.
Thomas: Another thing that can cause flaky skin and excessive warmth of the ears is sunburn. Cats with white ears are much more likely to get sunburned than those with darker-colored ears. The best way to prevent sunburn is to keep your kitty from going outdoors or basking in sunny spots between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., particularly during the season when the sun’s rays are strongest (summer in the northern hemisphere; winter in the southern hemisphere).
Dahlia: One problem that can develop in cats with white ears who are repeatedly exposed to the sun is skin cancer, which may be why your vet has suggested a skin biopsy. One of the first cats who claimed Mama as her own was a mostly-white calico named Iris. Iris loved to go outside and bask in the sun, just like any good country cat would. But when Iris was about 15, she began developing flaky spots, and then black lumps, on the edges of her ears.
Siouxsie: As you can probably tell from this story, cancer is much more likely to occur in older cats. We think it’s pretty unlikely that an 8-month-old kitten would develop skin cancer, but the biopsy would be a good idea just to be on the safe side.
Thomas: We had Mama look up skin problems in her trusty Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, and she discovered one other possibility. Folliculitis is an infection of the hair follicles. Scaling is the most common sign of folliculitis, although it can also occur with a condition called miliary dermatitis (red bumps and itchiness on the skin). Folliculitis is generally treated with medicated shampoos or, in severe cases, antibiotics.
Dahlia: Your vet is certainly aware of all these other possibilities, as is the skin specialist. There’s a very good reason that the specialist recommended a biopsy. You certainly want to rule out cancer, and if the cause of the flaking is folliculitis (which can also be determined by the biopsy), your vet can set up treatment for that condition.
Siouxsie: We understand your concern about the cost of a biopsy and the money you’ve already spent trying to figure out what’s wrong with Whiskey’s ears. But frankly, if this were happening to one of us, Mama would certainly pay for the procedure–if nothing else, just to know that no other serious problem is occurring.
Thomas: If the biopsy comes up negative for any diseases, you might consider working with a holistic veterinarian. Many people have had good luck using homeopathy and other alternative treatments to manage chronic conditions that don’t respond to traditional veterinary medicine.
Dahlia: Conventional veterinarians vary in their level of acceptance for holistic medicine, but by and large the profession is becoming more open-minded about it as they see these alternative treatments working to ease their patients’ suffering.
Siouxsie: You’ll want to talk with your veterinarian and see if he or she would be willing to share Whiskey’s test results with a holistic practitioner. Hopefully the answer will be yes. And the answer is more likely to be yes as long as you’ve taken the diagnostic and treatment steps your vet has recommended.
Thomas: If you have friends or acquaintances who are interested in holistic medicine, you might ask them if they know of any holistic vets in your area. Also ask if they’ve used that vet and how they felt about his or her work and attitude toward the animal and his or her person.
Dahlia: Another resource, if you live in the United States or Canada, is the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. The AHVMA has a directory of all its member practitioners, which you can access by going to the AHVMA website and clicking the “Find a Holistic Practitioner” button at the top of the home page.
Siouxsie: Keep in mind that the directory only lists practitioners who are members of this organization. Not all holistic vets are members of the AHVMA.
Thomas: Virtually all holistic veterinarians have been trained in conventional veterinary medicine. They have gone to vet school, gotten a D.V.M. (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) degree, completed internships and residencies, and are licensed to practice veterinary medicine in their home state or province. In fact, we’re pretty sure it’s not legal here in the U.S. to call yourself a veterinarian unless you have a D.V.M. degree. But if you’re not a veterinarian, you could call yourself, for example, a veterinary homeopath or a practitioner of veterinary acupuncture.
Dahlia: Holistic vets also undertake specialized training to supplement their veterinary education. They may attend homeopathy school (these do exist), take extensive courses on chiropractic medicine, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine or Western herbology, Bach flower remedies, massage, and other alternative healing practices.
Siouxsie: What this all boils down to, Danielle, is that we’d strongly recommend that you take that next step and get Whiskey a skin biopsy.
Thomas: If the biopsy doesn’t yield any organic cause for his condition, you might consider working with an alternative practitoner as well as your regular vet to try and find a treatment for Whiskey’s scaly ears.
Dahlia: Good luck, Danielle and Whiskey! Please let us know how things turn out.