While pig ears are very different from dog ears, they are a great model for human ears, so Townsend called her own doctor for advice. Portland otologist Dr. Timothy Hullar operated on her five years ago to correct a condition called otosclerosis, in which the bones of the inner ear fuse and cause deafness.
“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.”
Townsend and Hullar collaborated to get a 3-D printed skull based on a CT scan Ella received at OSU. Fellow OSU veterinarian Dr. Susanne Stieger-Vanegas assisted with the diagnostic imaging and printing, which helped the team visualize and plan how they would perform the surgery.
“I look at ear scans five times a day, but it’s not so common that pigs get them,” said Hullar, who also works at the Veterans Affairs Portland Health Care System. “The anatomy there made sense to me — the external ear on a pig is completely different from on a human, but the inner ear and middle ear have some similarities.”
Ella’s ear infections caused her a lot of pain, along with neurological issues that led to her being unable to walk at times from loss of equilibrium.
The surgical team came up with plans A, B, C and D so they could pivot if any challenges arose during the procedure, but in the end, only Plan A was necessary. Within half an hour of surgery, Ella was awake and back to eating carrot chips, her favorite snack.
“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.”