Ear infections in cats: symptoms, causes and treatments

Does your cat keep shaking or scratching their ears, or has one ear become sore or smelly? Get the lowdown on how to spot the signs of a feline ear infection, why it’s happening, and what you should do to help your pet get better.

Cats’ ears are amazing. Not only is each pointy outer ear (or ‘pinna’) mobile, so your cat can turn it like a radar unit, but they can also hear much higher and lower frequencies than people – or even dogs. It’s part of what makes cats such great hunters.

Getting an infection in such sensitive ears is likely to make your cat very uncomfortable, so it’s not something you want to ignore. Fortunately, ear problems in cats are not an everyday occurrence. The open shape of feline ears makes them relatively easy for cats to keep clean and shake out anything that gets inside, so ear infections in cats are much less common than in dogs. But it’s always a good idea to keep an eye out for telltale signs of a problem.

How to tell if your cat has an ear infection

The key symptoms of ear infections in cats can include:

  • excessive earwax, dark-coloured discharge or pus coming from their ears
  • swelling, scabs, sores or injuries from fights
  • a bad smell coming from their ears
  • repeatedly scratching or pawing their ears, or rubbing them against furniture
  • frequently tilting or shaking their head
  • having difficulties with hearing, balance or flickering eye movements

If you suspect your cat has an ear infection, always seek advice from your vet and don’t try to treat it yourself. Never use cotton buds or insert anything inside your cat’s ear, as their ear canal is incredibly sensitive and you could damage their eardrum.

Causes of cat ear infections

A cat’s ear has three parts: the external, middle and internal compartments. Any of these can become infected and, if the infection is left untreated, cause permanent damage.

Skin infections

Cats’ triangular outer ears are prone to being injured in fights. They can also be damaged by excessive itching in response to mites or allergies, or by sunburn. Once the skin is broken, germs can enter and cause infection, resulting in swelling, redness or yellow-green pus.

Bacterial and yeast infections

Any sort of blockage inside your cat’s ear can upset the natural self-cleaning process or trap debris inside the ear canal, creating a breeding ground for a bacterial or yeast infection. The obstruction could be a growth (such as a polyp or tumour), excess wax or fur, or a foreign object such as a grass seed – a common summer hazard.

Ear mites

Ear mites are among the most common parasites in cats. These tiny, insect-like creatures live in the ear canal, feeding on earwax and oils in the skin. They are barely visible, although you may notice white dots in your cat’s ears. While the mites aren’t usually a serious problem, an ear mite infestation is uncomfortable and itchy, and the repeated scratching they trigger can damage the skin and lead to bacterial infection.

A cat with ear mites will probably scratch their ears and shake their head a lot. Other symptoms include red, inflamed ears, excessive earwax, which may be dark in colour, or a black discharge similar to coffee grounds. Cats catch ear mites from other cats, or sometimes dogs, and they’re most common in kittens and cats that live outdoors.

How to treat ear infections in cats

Outer ear infections can spread to the middle and inner ear, so if you spot the symptoms of an ear infection in your cat, don’t just ignore them and hope your pet will get better. Left untreated, the infection could ultimately lead to hearing loss, facial paralysis or scarring, so always consult your vet promptly if your cat’s ears are bothering them.

The good news is that ear infections in cats are generally very treatable. Feline ear infection treatment may include antibiotics to clear the infection, anti-inflammatories to tackle the swelling and pain relief to ease the discomfort. Sometimes simple surgery can remove an ear blockage, ease the problem and get your cat’s ears back to perfect health.

Your vet will also be able confirm whether or not your cat has ear mites. They may prescribe tablets or a spot-on treatment to kill the mites, and perhaps an ear wash to clear the debris. Always follow the instructions exactly, treat all cats and dogs in your household, and wash their beds, too. Some regular feline flea treatments tackle ear mites as well, helping prevent reinfestation. Check the packaging when you’re choosing one, or ask your vet for a recommendation.

How not to treat ear infections in cats

Don’t ever be tempted to use antibacterial creams or disinfectants designed for humans on your cat, as these can be toxic or burn your pet’s mouth when they lick themselves. If you feel your cat’s sore ear needs bathing before you get to the vet, use salt water only. Stay away from shampoo and soap, which could cause irritation.

Note, too, that cat owners don’t generally have to worry about cleaning their pets’ ears, as the inner ear and middle ear are largely self-cleaning, and cats do a great job of washing the outer ear themselves. The only exception might be if you have a cat with unusually thick fur inside their ears (delightfully known as ‘ear furnishings’!), or an infirm or elderly cat that struggles with grooming. Your vet will be able to advise you if your cat needs any help in the ear-cleaning department.

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