How to Tell if Your Cat Has an Ear Infection

Though they are more common in dogs, ear infections can plague cats, too. And when they do, they are used caused by an underlying issue that needs to be addressed by a veterinarian. The underlying causes of ear infections in cats are often serious and can lead to complications ranging from deafness to facial paralysis. Unfortunately, many pet parents are unaware of the signs of ear infections in cats. And cats’ natural ability to hide their discomfort makes it even harder to detect problems in their earliest stages.

Ear infections are uncommon in cats, but as veterinarians, we want to ensure our clients know what signs and symptoms to watch for in their feline family members. That is why we have created this guide to help you better understand feline ear infections, their symptoms and causes, and when to seek veterinary care. Read on to learn more.

Signs of Ear Infections in Cats

Pawing at the ear is one of the most common signs of an infection. It can be tricky to tell, though, if your cat is experiencing discomfort – especially when they engage in this behavior while grooming. The best option is to keep a close eye on your cat and contact a vet regarding any usual behavior.

Some additional signs of ear infections to watch for include:

  • Black or yellowish discharge from either ear
  • Head tilting
  • Ear discharge that looks like coffee grounds
  • Redness or swelling in the ear canal
  • Loss of balance or disorientation
  • Hearing loss
  • Strong, offensive odor coming from the ear
  • Excessive waxy buildup in or near the ear canal
  • Redness or swelling of the ear flap

We recommend carefully examining your cat’s ears regularly. Healthy ears are usually pale pink, free from detectable odor and debris, and have little to no wax. If something does not seem quite right, schedule an appointment with a vet as soon as possible.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Ear Infections

When you bring your cat in for an exam, we will use an otoscope to peek inside your cat’s ear canal. This allows us to assess whether the eardrum is intact and look for foreign objects, tumors, or other problems that could be causing your cat’s symptoms. We may also take a small sample of any debris we find to examine under a microscope during the exam. This helps us determine whether the problem is a result of ear mites, yeast, or bacteria. In severe or chronic ear infections, we may need to do additional diagnostic testing to get to the root of the problem.

Once we have diagnosed your cat’s ear infection, we will prescribe an appropriate course of treatment. The necessary treatment varies depending on the underlying cause of the infection. Treatment may include trimming away excess fur or sedating your pet to remove a foreign object or tumor. We commonly prescribe medications to treat fungal and bacterial infections and to eliminate ear mites. Your cat may need oral or injected antibiotics, prescription ear drops, or other medications.

Your vet will educate you on the best course of treatment and make sure you know how to properly administer medications and care for your kitty companion as they recover.

Causes of Feline Ear Infections

As mentioned above, feline ear infections usually occur because of an underlying condition. The only exception to this is if your kitty has gotten ear mites from another pet.

Cats develop ear infections when the skin that lines the ear canal becomes irritated and inflamed. This leads to excess production of wax and creates an environment where naturally occurring yeast and bacteria are free to grow out of control. Cats with allergies, diabetes or weak immune systems are more prone to ear infections than cats who do not have these health issues.

Infections of the outer ear sometimes spread to the inner or middle ear. When left untreated, what may start as a simple outer ear infection could lead to deafness, facial paralysis, chronic pain, loss of balance or coordination, and other potentially serious complications.

Preventing Ear Infections in Cats

While some cats are more predisposed to ear infections than others, there are steps you can take to reduce your cat’s likelihood of developing these painful issues. The most crucial task is routinely examining your ears to check for odor, residue, and redness. Doing so allows you to detect potential problems and seek veterinary care early when infections are easiest to treat.

In addition, you should never insert anything in your cat’s ear canal for cleaning purposes unless a veterinarian has taught you how to do so safely. While many dog breeds require frequent at-home ear cleanings, this is generally unnecessary for cats and tends to be more harmful than beneficial.

Final Thoughts

If your cat is showing any signs of an infection, schedule an appointment with their veterinarian right away. Ear infections are not common in cats, and when left untreated, they can lead to serious complications and long-term pain and discomfort for your pet. The sooner your vet can diagnose the problem, the sooner your cat can receive the appropriate treatment and be on their way to recovery. If you suspect that your feline friend may have an ear infection, your vet is there to help, so call them right away. Don't have a trusted vet yet? We can help you find a local veterinarian.


Contributing DVM