Ear canal removal carried out on a pig for the first time

Earlier this month, Ella, a three-year-old Vietnamese potbelly pig, entered into a surgical procedure at Oregon State University (OSU). Simultaneously, she entered the record books as the first pig to ever have undergone the complete removal of an ear canal. Although the procedure is commonly carried out on dogs, the OSU surgery marks the first time it had been conducted on a pig, a species that has a notoriously tricky ear canal.

Ella, who had been rescued by Morningside Farm Sanctuary in Veneta, Oregon from a hoarding situation in California, had been suffering from repeated ear infections. These caused pain and an occasional loss of balance, that made it difficult for her to walk. When this occurs in dogs, an ear-canal removal or ablation can be a good fix. But when OSU veterinary surgeon Katy Townsend looked around for a history of the procedure being done on pigs, she couldn’t find any. That’s likely because the ear canals of pigs are surrounded by a bony column, which makes getting at them notoriously tricky for surgeons.

However, because the porcine ear canal is similar in some ways to those of humans (even though the outer ear is completely different), Townsend turned to her own ear surgeon, Timothy Hullar. He had operated on her about five years ago for a condition called otosclerosis, which can lead to deafness as the inner ear bones fuse.

“He always said to me, ‘If you ever want to collaborate on anything, I would love to,'” Townsend recalled. “After reading this research and finding that pigs have really similar ear canals to humans, I emailed him and said, ‘Hi, do you remember me?’ And he said he’d love to help.”

So the two sent Ella for a CT scan and used the image to 3D print a model of the pig’s skull. This helped them plan out the surgery, which they carried out at the Lois Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital in OSU’s Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine on December 19. With the ear canal removed, the doctors spotted and removed a grape-sized mass that they believe could have been blocking Ella’s Eustachian tube, part of the ear anatomy that helps with pressure and with draining fluid from the middle ear.

The surgery was successful and avoided typical complications such as excessive bleeding or nerve damage, although it’s not clear how the operation will ultimately affect Ella’s hearing in that ear. The researchers say that Ella was back to munching down on carrot chips (her favorite) within a half hour of surgery.

“It went as beautifully as it possibly could have, and everybody is really ecstatic with the success so far,” said Jessica Vasselin of Morningside Farm Sanctuary, where Ella has lived for about two years. “Everybody feels like it was a really cool surgery, and they learned a lot from it. She deserves this. She deserves to finally live a healthy life and not have to worry about this type of stuff anymore, so we’re really hopeful for her.”

“Everything went really well,” Townsend said. “She still has a bit of a head tilt, and that may not resolve, but it makes her look quizzical – it adds to her charm.”

During the procedure, Hullar learned about a new type of postoperative pain medication currently only used for animals, but which he’s interested in studying for human use. This led him to express that more cooperation between doctors who work on humans and those that work on animals could be extremely beneficial.

“The biggest takeaway is showing that, for people who love fairly non-traditional pets, we can provide expert care to any animal,” said Townsend. “The collaboration between all of our teams was so incredible. I think it just pushes the envelope forward on what we can achieve with nontraditional pets and making sure all pets have access to expert-level care.”

Source: Oregon State University

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