Ear Infections in Cats: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Cats don't often get ear infections, but when they do, the cause can be complex.

If your vet has ruled out mites -- the culprit in about half of all feline ear infections -- she'll have to do some sleuthing to figure out what's causing your cat's outer or middle ear infection. It could be allergies, or an underlying illness like diabetes, tumors, a damaged eardrum, or feline leukemia virus.

Diagnosing the condition may require sedation or X-rays, but treating ear infections usually isn't complicated. Antibiotics, antiparasitics, and corticosteroids are the most common treatments.

What's essential is that you get your cat in for treatment as soon as you notice signs of ear discomfort. Ear infections can become chronic and lead to deafness and facial paralysis.

What Causes Ear Infections in Cats?

Generally, unless your cat has picked up mites from another animal, ear infections are a secondary condition. That means they are actually the result of some other underlying medical problem.

Here are some of the contributing causes and perpetuating factors for external ear infections, called otitis externa, and middle ear infections, called otitis media:

  • an overgrowth of yeast or bacteria – often both
  • wax buildup in the ear canal
  • thick hair in the ear canal
  • hypothyroidism
  • autoimmune diseases
  • foreign bodies like tumors or the bristle from grass
  • environmental irritants
  • diabetes mellitus

Infections of the middle ear are usually the result of an infection that has spread there from the outer ear canal. Tumors, a ruptured ear drum, or improper ear cleaning can also lead to middle-ear infections in cats.

What Are the Signs of an Ear Infection in a Cat?

A cat will show his discomfort by scratching or pawing at his ear or shaking or tilting his head in the direction of the painful ear. Other symptoms to look for include:

  • black or yellowish discharge
  • redness or swelling of the ear flap or ear canal
  • waxy buildup on or near the ear canal
  • discharge from the ear that resembles coffee grounds and signals ear mites
  • strong odor
  • hearing loss
  • loss of balance or disorientation

How Are Ear Infections in Cats Treated?

If your vet concludes, after examining a sample of the discharge around the cat's ear, that he has mites or a yeast or bacterial infection, she'll treat it with antibiotics, antifungals, or antiparasitics. These all come in ointment or eardrop form. The vet should continue to take cultures until there is no sign of infection.

If the eardrum is fine but infection has reached the middle ear, the vet may prescribe antibiotics and corticosteroids.

To begin treatment, your vet might clip the fur around the cat's ear canal to help the cleaning and drying of the ear canal.

At home, you can continue checking your cat's ear to see if the inside of the pinna -- the part of the ear that projects out from the cat's head -- is pink and clear. If eardrops have been prescribed, gently lift the ear flap and squeeze out the solution into the lowest part of the ear canal. Gently massage the base of the ear to help the medicine work its way into the ear canal.

If your cat has chronic ear infections the vet may prescribe a medication to help reduce the swelling of tissue in the ear canal. Sometimes, surgery is needed to remove swollen tissue that has narrowed or closed the ear canal.


When Animal (Allergies) Attack: Pet Allergy Symptoms, Treatment See Slideshow

Are Certain Cats More Susceptible to Ear Infection?

Cats with diabetes, allergies, immune-mediated disease or immune system suppression are more susceptible to ear infections. So are Persians.

Can Ear Infections in Cats Be Prevented?

The best way to prevent another painful ear infection is to routinely check the ear to make sure there's no redness, residue, or odor. Healthy ears are pale pink and have no visible debris or odor and minimal or no ear wax.

It's also important to properly clean your cat's ears twice a week with an ear cleaning solution recommended by the vet. His ear canals should be kept as dry as possible.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

SOURCES: Healthypet.com: "Ear Infections."

The Merck Veterinary Manual: "Otitis Externa: Introduction."

Veterinarypartner.com: "Ear infections (Otitis Externa)."

Veterinarypartner.com: "Ear Mites FAQ."

ASPCA: "Ear Care."

References for Medical Review.

Healthypet.com: Ear Infections.

Merck Vet Manual.

Veterinarypartner.com: Ear infections, Ear Mites Q&A

ASPCA: Ear Care

Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Martinez, DVM on December 16, 2009

©2010 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.