Ear Infections in Cats: Symptoms, Treatment & More
Ear infections in cats are usually straightforward to treat. However, they cause pain and distress—and if treatment is delayed, they can cause permanent damage.
Here are some important things to know about recognizing and treating cat ear infections.
Are Cat Ear Infections Common?
Cat ear infections aren’t common—at least, not nearly as common as ear infections in dogs. However, they also aren’t rare.
Although many cats go their whole lives without any ear problems, some struggle with chronic ear infections. Usually, if a cat has recurrent ear problems, there is an underlying cause to blame (see below).
What Causes Ear Infections in Cats?
Ear infections can affect cats of any age, breed, or gender. Typically, they are due to an overgrowth of bacteria or yeast (or both). This occurs due to an underlying condition or anything that causes inflammation inside the ear canal.
Cat ear infections are classified by how deep they are. The most common is otitis externa, or an outer ear infection affecting the external ear canal and possibly up to the ear flap/pinna.
If the infection spreads deeper, to the middle ear just past the eardrum, it’s called otitis media. The deepest type of ear infection is otitis interna. It affects the internal structures of the ear, which can be very serious and result in loss of balance and permanent hearing loss.
Deeper, more severe ear infections generally result from otitis externa worsens and spreads inward. However, sometimes the deeper parts of the ear are affected first, such as with a foreign object getting stuck or a mass developing inside the ear.
Here are some of the factors that could put a cat at an increased risk of ear infections, particularly otitis externa…
Ear mite infestation. These tiny parasites of the ears are one of the most common causes of ear infections, and they are highly contagious between cats and some other pets.
Allergies. Both food allergies and environmental/seasonal allergies can cause skin problems—and by extension, affect the ears.
Ear conformation in certain breeds. For example: Scottish folds with folded ear flaps that trap in wax and debris, or cats with excess fur inside their ears.
Immune system diseases, such as autoimmune conditions or viruses that affect the immune system (FIV or feline leukemia virus/FeLV).
Foreign bodies or objects stuck in the ear canal.
Excessive wax buildup.
Polyps (benign growths), masses, or tumors inside the ear.
Health conditions that affect immunity, such as diabetes mellitus.
Traumatic injuries to the ear, such as a bite from another cat.
Symptoms of Cat Ear Infections
Cat ear infection symptoms may occur in just one ear or both ears. Signs may include one or more of the following…
Scratching, pawing, or rubbing at the ear.
Redness, swelling, or bleeding in or near the ear.
Ear discharge, which may be waxy, brown, black, yellow, or creamy. Ear mite infestations commonly produce debris that looks like coffee grounds.
A foul odor from the ear.
Tilting the head to one side.
Painful ears. Your cat might act differently, hide more, or refuse to let you examine their ears.
In severe cases, hearing loss, partial facial paralysis, or loss of balance may occur (these are much less common).
Conditions to Rule Out Before Beginning Treatment
Cats with ear infections often have an underlying condition that caused their infection, such as one of the causes listed above. Diagnosing and treating an underlying cause will help prevent recurring ear infections and associated ear damage.
For cats with a one-off, simple ear infection, it’s usually reasonable to treat the infection and see if it reoccurs. However, for cats with recurrent or chronic ear issues, further testing is valuable. Examples include blood work, diagnostic imaging such as x-rays, or a thorough exam and flushing of a cat’s ears done under anesthesia.
It’s also important to diagnose and treat any complications. For example, if a cat’s eardrum is ruptured, certain cleaning solutions or ear medications could run into the inner ear and cause hearing loss. Some cats also have skin wounds or aural hematomas (a swelling or “blood blister” of the ear flap due to the rupturing of small blood vessels) from the trauma of repeatedly scratching their ear. These conditions must also be treated.
When to See the Vet and Why Proper Diagnosis Is Important
You should see the vet if ANY symptoms of an ear infection are noticed. While an ear infection is not typically an emergency, care should be sought as soon as possible because earlier treatment results in better outcomes.
Your veterinarian will take a detailed look at your cat’s ears, including examining the ear canals with an otoscope for magnification. This helps them look for debris, swelling, and any other signs of infection, as well as evaluate the ear drums for damage.
The next step is typically a cytology, a swab or small sample from the ears examined under a microscope. This evaluates for ear mites, bacteria, or yeast.
For many cats, especially if it’s their first infection and their symptoms are mild or typical, this might be all that’s needed to diagnose an ear infection. If your cat has other symptoms of illness or has recurrent ear infections, your vet might recommend a further workup.
For cats with severe or very painful infections, an evaluation under sedation or general anesthesia might be best—to allow a thorough exam and cleaning without unnecessary pain or fear for the cat.
Proper diagnosis is important because knowing the exact cause of the ear infection enables a vet to prescribe the fastest, most effective treatment. Lack of a proper diagnosis could result in delayed treatment, worsening of the condition, or an ear infection that comes right back after treatment.
Treatment Options for Ear Infections in Cats
The specific treatment plan will vary, based on an individual cat’s needs. But here are some common components of an ear treatment plan…
Medications for the infection or infestation. Appropriate medications are prescribed to treat the specific type of bacteria or yeast present, as well as ear mites if they are present. Most ear medications come in the form of a liquid or ointment placed directly into the ear. There are also some topical products (spot-on products placed at the back of a cat’s neck) that treat ear mites. For severe or deep infections, oral medications may be needed, too.
Medications for inflammation and pain. The most common are corticosteroid (steroidal anti-inflammatory) ointments placed into the ear. In severe cases, oral medications or additional pain control medicines might be recommended.
Ear cleaning. Most ear infections involve excess wax, debris, or discharge inside the ear canals. Simply placing medications on top of this “gunk” won’t do any good. The gunk must be removed. Your vet team will do the initial ear cleaning at your visit, demonstrating so you can do the same at home.
An Elizabethan collar. This is recommended for cats who scratch a lot and create wounds on or around their ear(s), to prevent further damage.
Additional measures, if needed. Some pets with specific circumstances or severe/deep infections might require additional treatments. For example, a cat with a foreign object inside the ear will need it removed. And chronic ear infections in cats might lead to partial or full closure of the ear canal, requiring surgery.
Preventing Cat Ear Infections
The following suggestions can reduce the risks of an ear infection, as well as help a cat owner recognize an ear infection and seek earlier treatment...
Keep your cat indoors. This minimizes exposure to ear mites, not to mention certain infections (like FIV), injuries, cat fights, and foreign objects that could get lodged in the ears. To some extent, avoiding the outdoors during high pollen counts might also help kitties with seasonal allergies.
Check your cat’s ears at home. As a pet parent, it’s not a bad idea to give your cat a quick lookover at least once per month—and that includes their ears. Your cat’s ears should be light pink and free of redness, swelling, wounds, discharge, or odors.
Don’t skip your cat’s yearly checkup. Routine physical examinations are an important part of your feline friend’s health plan. Your vet can fully evaluate your pet—including their ears—to catch any budding health concerns early, before they become too serious. For some kitties, especially as they age, more frequent checkups (once every six months or possibly more often) may be needed.
Clean your cat’s ears regularly—but ONLY IF recommended. For some cats, especially those with extra-waxy ears or recurrent ear infections, your vet might recommend ear cleanings at home for maintenance, with a specific type of cleaning solution. Don’t do this unless you talk to your vet first, though. Too much cleaning in otherwise healthy ears, or improper cleaning technique, can cause irritation and issues.
Fortunately, with some awareness of what to look for and prompt attention if any problems develop, most ear infections go away pretty quickly—so your cat can get back to feeling like their normal, cuddly self.