If your vet has ruled out ear 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 secondary to allergies, a mass, or possibly something lodged in the ear canal.
Diagnosing the condition starts with looking in the ear canal with an instrument called an otoscope. Then a sample of the ear debris is looked at under the microscope to determine if there is yeast, bacteria, or ear mites. Further workup may require sedation or X-rays, but treating ear infections usually isn’t complicated. Antibiotics, anti-parasitics, antifungals, 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, or often, both
- Wax buildup in the ear canal
- Thick hair in the ear canal
- Allergies such as food or pollen
- Autoimmune diseases
- Tumors/polyps within the ear canal
- Ruptured eardrum
- Improper ear cleaning
- Foreign bodies such as bristle from grass
- Environmental irritants
- Diabetes mellitus
- Immune suppressing diseases like FIV or feline leukemia virus
Infections of the middle ear are usually the result of an infection that has spread there from the outer ear canal.
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 (a symptom of ear mites)
- Strong odor
- Hearing loss
- Loss of balance or disorientation
How Are Ear Infections in Cats Treated?
If your vet determines that your cat has ear mites or a yeast or bacterial infection, she’ll treat it with anti-parasitics, antifungals, or antibiotics, as appropriate. These all come in ointment or eardrop form.
If the eardrum is fine but infection has reached the middle ear, the vet may prescribe oral or injectable antibiotics.
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 ear flap is pink and the canal is clear. If ear drops have been prescribed, gently lift the ear flap and squeeze out the solution into 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.
Are Certain Cats More Susceptible to Ear Infection?
Cats with diabetes, allergies, or a weak immune system are more susceptible to ear infections.
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. By routinely checking, you can find a potential ear infection early and have it treated before it worsens. It is best for the veterinarian to show you how to clean your cat's ear or to do it himself or herself. Never insert a cleaning device into the ear canal itself unless your vet has instructed you to do so.