Middle Ear Polyps in Cats - Ventral Bulla Osteotomy
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Article Written by Dr. Daniel A. Degner, Board-certified Veterinary Surgeon (DACVS)

Key Points

The most common condition requiring bulla osteotomy is inflammatory polyps in cats

Clinical signs vary, but usually include discharge from the ear and scratching at the ear

Bulla osteotomy involves opening the middle ear to remove the offending polyp

Prognosis usually is good following surgery

Definition of Bulla

  • Bulla = tympanic bulla = middle ear cavity


Anatomy of the ear

  • Ear flap (F)
  • Ear canal (C)
  • Ear drum (D) or tympanic membrane - which separates the ear canal from the bulla
  • Middle ear - bulla (B)
  • Auditory tube (A) - is a tube that  connects the bulla to the back of the throat
  • Inner ear (I) - contains the hearing apparatus (trochlea) and the balance organ (vestibular canals)
  • The illustration below left is a cross section through the head showing the components of the ear;
  • The illustration below right is of a magnified view of the bulla, with the thatched area representing the portion of bone that is removed during a ventral bulla osteotomy surgery




Signs of a diseased middle ear cavity (bulla) and inner ear

  • Scratching or rubbing the ear
  • Discharge coming out of the ear
  • Vestibular signs
    • Tilting of the head toward the affected ear
    • walking in circles toward the affected ear
    • nystagnus - eyes shift back and forth
    • incoordination or inability to walk
  • Horner's syndrome
    • third eyelid covers eye
    • pupil becomes smaller than the opposite normal eye
    • slight drooping of the upper eyelid
  • Facial nerve paralysis is uncommon with middle ear problems, but occasionally is seen in dogs
    • sagging of lips and face on side affected
    • drooling from affected side due to lack of control of lips
    • inability to blink eye on affected side
  • Malaise
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pain upon opening the mouth - due to inflammation of the joint of the jaw (TMJ)
  • Breathing difficulty or snorting due to
    • discharge draining into the back of the throat via the auditory tube
    • extension of a polyp from the the middle ear into the back of the throat


Potential disease conditions in the bulla

  • Inflammatory polyps - most common in cats
  • Cancer
  • Infection
  • Foreign body


Inflammatory polyps in cats

  • Cause is unknown, but may be associated with chronic recurrent upper respiratory infections
  • Feline leukemia virus or Feline Immunodeficiency virus may suppress the immune system, resulting in chronic infection that leads to polyp formation
  • Ear polyps are commonly found in the younger cats, malignant tumors are more common in older cats
  • A polyp is rooted in the middle ear cavity and grows until it ruptures the ear drum, then it continues to grow out of the ear canal
  • Some inflammatory polyps will grow through the Eustachian tube (auditory tube) and appear as a mass in the back of the throat
  • Removal of the polyp by plucking it out of the ear canal is about 50% successful when medications (oral - Baytril and Dexamethasone, and ear drops - Baytril and Synotic) are also administered
  • Ventral bulla osteotomy is a more successful procedure, as the entire polyp can be removed more completely
  • Below is a view down the ear canal of a cat that has a polyp (pink mass) that is penetrating through the ear drum



Diagnostic tests

  • Blood work - Complete Blood Cell Count and Chemistry Profile
  • Cats only - Feline Leukemia and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus tests
  • Culture of fluid from the ear or bulla
  • Biopsy of tumor if present
  • Radiographs (x-rays) of the bulla
  • CT scan of the bulla is the most diagnostic test to see the internal structure of the bulla and extent of tumor invasion



  • An incision is made on the under side of the neck, just behind the jaw bone
  • The bulla is exposed and is opened
  • If only infection is present, the lining of the bulla is removed and the area is flushed with saline solution
  • If present, the tumor or polyp is moved
  • In the photo below, a white inflammatory polyp is being removed from the middle ear of a cat


  • Below is a photo of a large polyp that was removed from the middle ear cavity in a cat



Potential complications after surgery

  • Cats
    • Recurrence of inflammatory polyp - 80% cure rate with surgery
    • Vestibular signs - uncommon and usually resolves with time
    • Facial nerve paralysis - uncommon
    • Persistent infection
    • About 80% of cats develop Horner's syndrome after the surgery
      • this can occur following removal of a nasal pharyngeal polyp, removal of a polyp from the ear canal, or removal of a polyp via ventral bulla osteotomy
    • In the photo below, this cat has signs of Horner's syndrome immediately following surgery; take note of the prolapsed third eyelid (white membrane covering the cat's right eye); this problem usually resolves in about 30 days


  • The photo below was taken 24 hours after surgery demonstrating that the Horner's syndrome has almost completely resolved (minor prolapse of the third eyelid and slightly smaller pupil in the right eye)


  • Dogs
    • Same potential complications as cats, but Horner's syndrome is uncommon
    • Dogs that already have vestibular signs, such as a head tilt may have permanent damage to the balance organ, and surgery may not correct this problem; the goal of this surgery is to relieve the infection so that the equilibrium (sense of balance) does not get so bad that the dog is unable to walk

Frequently Asked Questions After Surgery

When should my dog have the first bowel movement after surgery?

  • Many dogs will not have a bowel movement for the first 4 to 5 days after surgery
  • Reasons that a dog will not have regular bowel movements after surgery include:
    • The dog has been fasted prior to surgery
    • Dogs do not eat well during the hospital stay
    • They frequently do not eat well when they go home
    • They are fed highly digestible food that produces little stool
    • Pain medication that contain narcotics (such as morphine, fentanyl patches, and tramadol) can be constipating
  • If a pet does not have a bowel movement on the 5th day of being home, a stool softener such as metamucil can be fed
    • Dose of metamucil is 1 tsp per 25 Kg mixed in with each meal (canned dog food); feed immediately after mixing, as the metamucil will gel the food and may make it less palatable

My pet had surgery and will not eat.  What can be done?

  • Dogs
    • Most pets will not eat their regular dog food after surgery, especially if it is kibble.
    • Offer a cooked diet having a 1:1 ratio of a protein source and carbohydrate source.  The protein source can be any meat (example: chicken breast, turkey breast, lean hamburger) that is low in fat and should be cooked (drain off all fat after the meat has been cooked).   The carbohydrate can be pasta, potato or white rice.
    • Try canned dog food; to enhance the flavor sprinkle a very small amount of garlic powder or chicken or beef broth (Chicken-in-a- MugTM or Beef-in-a-MugTM products)
    • Try Gerber strained meats for babies such as the chicken, beef, turkey, or veal
    • Try Hill's A/D diet available at most veterinary hospitals
    • Hand feeding: place a small amount of food in the mouth so that your dog gets the flavor
    • Warm the food slightly in a microwave, as the food will be more aromatic; stir the food before feeding and test the temperature on the bottom side of your wrist; it should only be luke warm.
    • Remember that most pets will not eat the first day or two after they get home from surgery
  • Cats
    • Offer smelly foods that contain fish such as tuna or smelly cat foods
    • Try Gerber strained meats for babies such as the chicken, beef, turkey or veal
    • Hand feeding:  with your finger place a small amount of food on the roof of your cat's mouth; use a syringe to get soft food into the mouth
    • Warm the food slightly in a microwave as the food will be more aromatic; remember to stir the food before feeding and test the temperature; it should be only luke-warm
    • Some cats will only eat dry food, try kibble if your cat normally has been fed that food
    • Petting and stroking your cat frequently will help to stimulate appetite
    • Remember that most pets will not eat the first day or two after they get home from surgery
    • Appetite stimulants such as cyproheptadine may be helpful
    • If your cat refuses to eat anything for 7 days a stomach tube or nasogastric tube should be placed to provide nutrition so that a serious liver problem (hepatic lipidosis) does not develop

My pet is vomiting.  What can be done?

  • The first thing for you to discern is whether your pet is vomiting or regurgitating.  Both will result in fluid or food being brought up.  Vomiting always will have heaving or retching of the abdomen prior to expulsion of the vomitus.  Regurgitation is not associated with heaving and the pet usually just opens the mouth and fluid or food will be expelled.  Usually the regurgited material will be clear or brown colored fluid. 
  • Next is to identify the cause of the vomiting or regurgitation.
  • Causes and treatment of vomiting after surgery
    • When some pets return home after a stay in the hospital they may drink excessive amounts of water at one time and then vomit; if this appears to be the case, the water should be limited to frequent smaller amounts.
    • Medications such as antibiotics, narcotics or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication commonly cause vomiting after surgery.  In order to see which medication is causing the problem, the administration of each drug should be separated 2 hours apart.  Usually the pet will vomit or appear nauseated (drooling and sick look) within 1 hour of administration of the medication that they are sensitive to.  The antibiotic in some cases may be changed to a different one, or may be discontinued. 
    • Stomach upset from anesthesia is a potential cause of vomiting and will pass within a couple of days. 
    • An uncommon cause of vomiting after surgery is internal organ failure.  Blood testing will confirm this problem. For this reason vomiting should not be ignored if it persists for more than 24 hours.
    • If your pet had surgery of the bowels or stomach, vomiting is always a concern, as it may indicate that infection of the abdominal cavity, called peritonitis, is present.  Do not ignore this sign.
    • Symptomatic treatment of vomiting involves withholding food for 12 to 24 hours, then introducing small amounts of bland food such as rice and lean cooked hamburger, if your pet does not vomit after that then gradually wean him/her back onto the regular diet after 3 days.  In order to decrease the acidity of the stomach, Pepcid AC 0.5 mg/kg can be given by mouth twice daily for 5 days.  Metoclopramide and Cerenia are good anti-vomiting medications for dogs and cats.  You should always consult a veterinary healthcare professional before administering medication.
  • Causes and treatment of regurgitation after surgery
    • The most common cause of regurgitation is reflux of acid from the stomach into the esophagus while your pet is under anesthesia.  Acidic fluid from the stomach can cause a chemical burn of the esophagus and result in a bad case of heart burn, called esophagitis.  This results in poor motility of the esophagus, therefore water and food will accumulate in this structure.  In most cases, esphagitis is self-eliminating and will resolve within two or three days. 
    • If the esophagitis is severe the esophagus may develop one or more strictures.  A stricture is a narrowing or stenosis of the esophagus and does not allow passage of food down the esophagus, in regurgitation that lasts longer than one week.  This problem should be brought to the attention of your pet's doctor within the first two weeks so that it can be treated by ballooning the stricture (minimally invasive procedure, as it is done with the aide of an endoscope).  If an esophageal stricture is chronic surgery is needed.
    • Symptomatic treatment of regurgitation caused by esophagitis includes feeding bland food, and administering a coating agent (sucralfate) and an acid blocker (omeprazole or other).  Consult a veterinary health care professional if the regurgitation continues for more than a couple of days.

How do I know that my dog is in pain following surgery?

  • Signs of pain include
    • crying
    • biting if you get near the surgical site
    • grimacing (lips are pulled back and the the dog looks anxious)
    • tragic facial expression
    • panting
    • restlessness and unable to sleep; pacing
    • if abdominal surgery was done the pet will not lie down on the incision, or will continually sit up in spite of appearing very tired
    • the worst pain will be for the first 2 to 3 days after surgery

What can I do to control my dog's pain?

  • Narcotic medications that control pain: tramadol, butorphanol, Duragesic (fentanyl patch)
  • Anti-inflammatories used to control pain: Deramaxx, Rimadyl, Previcox, or Etogesic
  • If an orthopedic surgery has been done cold packing the surgical site may be helpful
    • A cold pack may be a pack of frozen peas, crushed ice in a Ziploc bag, or a cold gel pack; place a thin barrier between the skin and the cold pack.  An alternative to a cold pack is to freeze water in a styrofoam cup; after frozen cut the bottom of the styrofoam cup out. Cool the surgical site around the incision by rubbing the exposed ice directly on the skin in a circular pattern.  Cooling the surgical site helps to numb the area.

How do I know that my cat is in pain following surgery?

  • Pain is more difficult to assess in cats versus dogs, as signs can be more subtle and they usually do not vocalize when in pain
  • Signs of pain in a cat include the following:
    • biting if you get near the surgical site
    • growling or deep cry
    • not wanting to eat
    • hiding and not wanting to be near owner (remember that this could also be caused by the cat just being upset about leaving home and coming back)

What can be done for pain at home for my cat?

  • Pain medication such as buprenorphine or a Duragesic (fentanyl) patch
  • Tylenol will kill a cat as they lack abundant glutathione enzyme in the liver
  • Anti-inflammatories can be used, but the dose is much less than dogs

Is it okay for my pet to lick the incision?

  • If a dog licks the incision, the healing process may be delayed.
  • Licking can remove stitches and cause the incision to open
  • Licking can become a severe habit that is difficult to break
  • Licking can cause infection as the mouth has many bacteria
  • Dogs will frequently lick the incision when the owner is not watching such as at night time; if the skin looks red or excoriated the most common cause is from licking.
  • To stop your pet from licking the following can be tried:
    • Elizabethan collar can be placed on the neck; this will not help stop your pet from scratching at the region
    • Cervical collar (bite not collar) is a less awkward device and can be effective at stopping a pet from licking the surgical site
    • A tee shirt can be used to cover an incision on the chest or front part of the abdomen; gather the waist of the shirt up over the dog's back and wrap an elastic band around this part of the shirt.
    • A bandage or sock can be used to cover an incision on a limb; fasten the top of the sock to the dog's limb with tape.
    • Bitter apple can be applied around the incision; many dogs will continue to lick  after application of this topical
    • Bitter Apple and Liquid HeetTM (obtain this from a drugstore...it is used for sore muscles) mixed in a 2:1 ratio can be applied around the skin incision
    • Antipsychotic medication in some cases is needed

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  • Experience in the development of new surgical treatments

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  • Assurance that a veterinarian is a surgical specialist

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