Closeup of cat ears

Key takeaway

Cat ear problems can occur for a variety of reasons, including, due to infection, allergies, or parasites. Treatment depends on the underlying issue at hand, but may involve a cleaning regimen, prescribed medication, and more.

Cat ear problems are not as common as ear problems in dogs but can definitely happen. Cat ear issues arise when the outer canal, inner ear, or middle ear regions become infected. There are a variety of reasons for this. It is a must to reach out to a vet if you notice symptoms that indicate cat ear infections

Different infections indicate different underlying problems, and it is best to seek medical help immediately as some of them may be more dangerous than others.

In this article, we look at common causes and treatments for these infections. This article covers:

Graphic with list of symptoms of cat ear problems

General Indications Of Cat Ear Problems

In order to determine if your cat is suffering from an ear infection or allergy, it is necessary that you know what the symptoms may look like. Cat ear problem symptoms and signs include:

  • Severe itchiness around the ear
  • Ears are sensitive to touch
  • Tilting or shifting its head to one side
  • Shakes head frequently
  • Disoriented or loses balance
  • Inflammation or redness of the inner canal or outer ear
  • Swelling of the ear flaps
  • Swollen ear canal
  • Bad stench or odor rising from the ear area
  • Yellow, black, or brown abnormal ear discharge
  • Excessive amount of earwax
  • Complete or partial loss of hearing
  • Bloody ears
  • Depression, mood swings, and irritability may also occur

Common Cat Ear Problems & Treatments

Now that you know the symptoms that indicate if your cat has an ear problem, let’s take a look at its causes and possible treatment options:

Ear Infections

When it comes down to cat ear infections, there are 3 basic types:

Otitis externa (external)

As the name suggests, otitis externa is the infection of the outer ear canal. This may include the ear flaps and can affect either one or both ears. Outer ear infections onset quickly and suddenly and may last for a few weeks or may become chronic. Common symptoms include:

  • Inflamed ears
  • Bad stench
  • Red and/or swollen ears
  • Constant head shaking
  • Itchiness
  • Abnormal ear discharge
  • Flaky skin

If otitis externa is left untreated, it can spread to the other parts of the ear. This may damage sensitive ear tissues and even cause hearing impairments. This type of infection is usually caused due to ear mites, but since these cannot be seen by the naked eye, it is not easy to eliminate them. External ear infections may also be caused by yeast, bacteria, foreign objects, or even cat dermatitis.

Otitis media (middle ear)

Otitis media or middle ear infections occur halfway down the ear canal. An outer ear infection that is left untreated is usually the reason behind an infection spreading to the middle ear canal. However, it is also possible for such infections to occur solely in the center of the ear canal. Common symptoms include:

  • Constant head shaking
  • Ear scratching and rubbing
  • Tilting head to one side
  • Rotating head toward the infected area

The face of your cat may seem different, as some nerves are affected due to middle ear problems. Further symptoms may include:

  • Facial paralysis
  • Pupil constriction
  • Sunken eyeballs
  • Elevated third eyelid
  • Droopy lids

If the infection spreads to the inner area, things can worsen. Your cat may show symptoms like:

  • Difficulty balancing
  • Lack of coordination
  • Nausea
  • Weight or appetite loss
  • Deafness
  • Abnormalities of the eyes

As mentioned earlier, middle ear infections usually result from the spread of the outer ear infection. However, this is not the only reason for such infections. Other reasons include rupture due to foreign objects, ear polyps, and even cancer. 

Otitis interna (inner ear)

Internal ear infections or otitis interna are probably the worst ear infection a cat can have. This kind of infection occurs very close to the eardrum and can cause serious complications. These infections can also damage the cochlea and vestibular system and cause permanent changes. Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty balancing
  • Difficulty walking straight
  • Involuntary eye movement
  • Drooling
  • Dry eye
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Head shaking
  • Tilting head to one side
  • Redness
  • Abnormal ear discharge with bad odor

Common causes of inner ear infections are fungus and bacteria. However, these may also be caused by ear mites, foreign particles, and abnormal or cancerous growth. 

You can prevent ear infections, or you can treat them after they happen. Vets will describe different medications for different types of infections. Anti-inflammatory medications, antibiotics, and topical medicines are mostly prescribed. Antiparasitic drugs are given for mites, and surgery is usually performed for polyps, cancerous growths, swollen tissues, fluid retention, tumors, and removal of foreign particles. Preventive measures include:

  • Making sure excessive wax is not being produced in the cat’s ear
  • Make regular ear checks to rule out swelling, redness, bad stench, and discharges
  • Make sure your cat is surrounded by an environment that is free from allergens, mites, and dust
  • Maintain proper cat ear hygiene

Ear Mites

Ear mites usually cause external ear canal infections or otitis externa. These ear mites are known as Otodectes cynotis mites and actually cause otodectic mange. These mites inflict damage to the ears and may also be a cause of cat skin allergies. Common symptoms include:

  • Loss of fur
  • Itchiness
  • Skin inflammation
  • Redness

If left untreated, external ear infections caused by mites can turn into infections of the middle ear canal and cause further damage. Since mites cannot be seen by the naked eye, treatment is necessary even if your vet suspects your cat has them. Dips, topical medication, injections, and corticosteroids are commonly used to treat the symptoms. Along with medication, it is also a must to thoroughly clean the cat’s bedding, brushes, and toys.1

Ear Polyps

Ear polyps or nasopharyngeal polyps are the inflammatory or abnormal growth of the connective tissue inside the ear. Cats between the ages of 3 months and 5 years are most likely to face this issue. Polyps can also appear in mucous membranes present in the tract between the upper throat and middle ear. Polyps may be birth defects or may be caused by bacteria.1

Signs and symptoms include:

  • Improper balance
  • Lack of coordination
  • Inflammation of outer ear canal or ear flaps

Usually, surgery is necessary to remove ear polyps completely. If polyps are left untreated or not removed completely, they may grow abnormally.

Graphic with list of common cat ear problems

Allergies

Various allergies cause cat ear problems as well. They may cause itchiness, ear infections, and even inflammation or irritation. Common causes of allergies include:

Food allergies

Food allergies are usually caused by a cat’s body reacting abnormally to certain types of food. Allergies usually affect the abdomen, head, and neck regions. Common symptoms of food allergies are:

  • Itchiness
  • Constant licking 
  • Sores
  • Scaly bumps
  • Fur loss
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Ear infections
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea

Atopic dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis is usually caused by airborne particles such as pollen, dust, or dander. Symptoms of this condition include:

  • Constant scratching
  • Excessive licking
  • Sores
  • Scabby skin
  • Redness
  • Inflammation
  • Crusty skin
  • Loss of fur
  • Ear infections
  • Rhinitis
  • Asthma

Flea/parasitic allergies

Fleas are blood-sucking parasites that love to live in dead skin and hair. Common symptoms of a flea infestation include:

  • Extreme itchiness
  • Constant licking and scratching
  • Sores
  • Crusty skin
  • Bumpy skin
  • Fur loss
  • Swollen lower lip

Treatment for all allergies is different, but one thing is similar — the need to eliminate all harmful substances from the cat’s environment. Topical medicines and medicated shampoos are often prescribed to reduce inflammation and itchiness. For atopic dermatitis, antihistamines, immunosuppressive medications, or immunotherapy, and injections are often prescribed.

Food allergies can be treated by removing foods from the cat’s diet that triggers these allergies. Fleas are eliminated using flea medication prescribed by your vet.

Ringworm

Ringworm in cats is caused by a fungus called Microsporum canis. Kittens are usually most at risk and common symptoms include:

  • Bald patches
  • Scaly skin
  • Broken hair
  • Crusty patches
  • Small, solid bumps
  • Itchiness
  • Large bumps with open sores in a severe ringworm infection

Ringworm infections usually clear out on their own without the need for medications, but may take quite some time to resolve. Antifungal medications speed up recovery and are usually applied in the form of dips and medicated shampoos. Oral antifungal medication may be required for cats that have a severe infection. Your cat may need to be shaved, and it is also a must to clean bedding, toys, and cat brushes with a diluted bleach solution.

 Owner cleaning cat ears

Cat Ear Problems: Frequently Asked Questions

What could be wrong with my cat’s ear?

There isn’t one answer for anyone who may ask: what’s wrong with my cat’s ear? There are tons of reasons why your cat’s ears may be in rough shape. All of these are mentioned in detail above. Make sure to get in touch with a vet to get a proper treatment plan, even if you feel like you have identified the cause.

How do you tell if a cat has an ear infection?

Cat ear infections lead to redness, sores, scaly skin, bumps, itchiness, and many other severe symptoms if they get out of hand. The central nervous system may be affected, and abnormalities may develop. Therefore, it is very important to reach out immediately to a vet to prevent things from getting worse.

How are cat ear problems treated?

Cat ear problems occur due to various reasons. Every reason, like an allergy, infection, or parasites, has different treatment plans. A vet can help you diagnose the cause, devise a treatment plan, and give advice on further preventive measures and therapeutic treatments.

Cat looking up

Final Notes

It is true that cat ear problems may not seem very problematic initially, but they can become a serious problem if not dealt with timely. It is always important to reach out to a vet for proper diagnosis instead of diagnosing problems at home. Using Dutch, you can book an appointment with a qualified vet that will diagnose your cat and help you come up with the most suitable treatment plan. 

Plus, with our ‘telemedicine for pets’ feature, you can get medicines delivered right to your doorstep through one of our partner pharmacies!

References

  1. Torres, Sheila M. F. “Disorders of the Outer Ear in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 15 Dec. 2021, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/ear-disorders-of-cats/disorders-of-the-outer-ear-in-cats?query=ear+mites+cats.

  2. Merchant, Sandra R. “Ringworm (Dermatophytosis) in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 15 Dec. 2021, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/skin-disorders-of-cats/ringworm-dermatophytosis-in-cats?query=ringworm