Vet Talk

Nothing Bleeds Like a Cut Ear

A bit of blood looks like a shocking amount when splattered over white brick

Published: December 02, 2019
[Not shown: Robert Stack voiceover saying “…but no body was ever found”] Photo by Dr. Tony Johnson

She was (and still is) a lovely, youngish Lab. Shiny, black, and sleek with an aerodynamic head like a porpoise.

Her head was all wrapped up in pink, like an 8-year old’s birthday present. It turns out that someone’s grooming shears zigged when they should have zagged and she had a 2- to 3-centimeter laceration to the edge of her ear. A laceration that small anywhere else on her body would have been a minor inconvenience at worst. But on the ear...ho, boy. I’ll elaborate in a bit.

She wasn’t (directly) my patient, since I was filling in at a hospital and helping the newer breed of doctors there with cases, so I don’t recall her name. I do recall, however, that she was a bouncy, waggity sort of Lab who was full of joy and she was no fan of her new pink turban. She got it off within seconds of being put in her run in ICU.

My daughter, Gloria – 7 years old, like the puptagonist in our little tale - likes to quote The Princess Bride, and this part of the story is where she would shout out: “There will be blood tonight!” Ofttimes it’s adorable, but sometimes it’s a little scary when she comes down in the middle of a dinner party and does it. Ah, parenthood.

Nothing bleeds like an ear. It has a unique combination of large blood vessels on the surface, thin skin and the appropriate physics to make for a crime scene fit to rival Ol’ Saucy Jack in terms of spatter. Forensic detectives could make a whole midterm exam on blood spatter evidence-ing out of the arcs of crimson fluid that flies from the damaged edges of a dog’s ear.

So, when our pink-clad new friend got her bandage off, mayhem ensued.

Yeah. All that from one dog. It’s not as bad as it looks, and the dog was fine. Our new friend was not the least bit worried about her predicament, and just wanted to lick and kiss everyone in the room. A little bit of blood looks like a truly shocking amount when it’s splattered over white brick. She probably lost no more than an ounce, but as you can tell, it just looks…bad.

Imagine your dog doing this in your home. Also, imagine all of your furnishings and carpet are not blood-colored. (If they are, I hope therapy is going well. Also, please don’t kill me.)

Pup owners are usually worried and somewhat horrified and also a little bit pissed off. This is one of the rare times in my job when I am asked house-cleaning advice, as blood is notoriously hard to get out. (Short answer: peroxide or cold water. Or red wine – drink it and you won’t care that much.)

What makes this all worse and elevates it to Wes Craven-levels of interior decorating fails is a dog’s tendency to shake its head. The tendency is accelerated when something is wrong with their ears, so a dog with an annoying cut on its ear will shake and shake and shake, all the while the red, red kroovy just keeps flowing out, my droogies.

Here’s a little experiment you can try at home to illustrate the bloody principle:

  1. Get a helicopter.
  2. Turn it on (it’s the little green button with the picture of an eggbeater on it).
  3. Drop Steven Seagal into the spinning rotors.

Just like that. Sylvester Stallone will do in a pinch.

So, one little slip from a groomer having a bad day, and you’ve got a huge mess on your hands, plus the world has lost a great actor.

The other thing about ear injuries is that they rarely stop bleeding on their own. We usually have to sedate the dog, cauterize any vessels, and stitch up the laceration. All of this is way easier said than done.

Since I’m on an analogy roll, here’s how hard it is to stitch up an ear:

  1. Turn off the helicopter (It’s the little red button with picture of a clown on it. No one knows why.)
  2. Get all the little pieces of Steven Seagal.
  3. Stitch them together.

Ear tissue is thin, slippery, and doesn’t hold sutures well. “Tissue” is an apt name for it, since it resembles a single Kleenex after everyone in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has taken turns sneezing into it during allergy season. Much like a pureed actor, it won’t hold sutures and tends to fall apart. It can be done, but it usually isn’t pretty.

We sedated her and cleaned up her wound. We found the vessel and tied it off and then stitched the edges back together. I think her second turban was purple, which she seemed pleased with. When we were finished, they were still cleaning up blood spatter in her run.

I always warn owners that, despite our best efforts, these things can start bleeding again with no warning and we may have to do the whole shebang over again. We got lucky this time and it all went fine – it usually does, I just warn owners to ward off the evil ear spirits.

Much like happy tail, this is one of those injuries that seems small but has large implications. Not for life and limb, but for curtains, couches, walls, and Steven Seagal. If your vet recommends sedation to stitch up an ear, go for it. It’s the best way to make sure your dog gets the needed care, your walls are safe, and movie buffs get the quality action movies they rightfully deserve.

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