Ear Infections in Cats: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Ear infections in cats are relatively uncommon but can cause your cat some serious pain when they do occur. If left untreated, they can lead to more serious complications. Today, our La Mesa vets discuss the causes, symptoms, and treatments for ear infections in cats. 

Some Common Causes of Ear Infection in Cats

Usually, when a cat presents with an ear infection, mites are the cause and they will typically be the first thing your vet looks for. If mites are not the culprit they will then look to see if other issues, such as yeast or bacteria are causing the infection in your cat's ear. 

Unfortunately, ear infections in cats can often be a sign of an underlying health condition. If your cat has a weak immune system, diabetes or allergies they face an increased risk of ear infections compared to cats without these health issues.

Cat ear infections can develop when the lining of the ear canal becomes irritated, leading to inflammation. Inflammation within the ear can lead to excess wax production which in turn creates an environment where the naturally occurring bacteria and yeast in their ears grow out of control.

Some common causes of ear infections in cats include:

  • Irritants in the environment
  • Immune system diseases (FLV or FIV)
  • Foreign bodies in the ear canal
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Allergies (pollen, food, etc).
  • Buildup of wax
  • Excessive growth of bacteria, yeast or both
  • Thick fur or hair in the ear canal
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Polyps or tumors in the ear canal
  • Incorrect ear cleaning
  • Ruptured eardrum

Outer ear infections are much less common in cats than they are in dogs, but when they do occur these infections can quickly spread to your cat's middle ear or inner ear. Inner ear infections can cause your cat some significant pain and can affect their balance and cause nausea. 

Signs of Ear Infection in Cats

If your cat is pawing at their ear or shaking their head they may have an ear infection. Other common symptoms of ear infection that your cat might display include:

  • Ear discharge resembling coffee grounds
  • Yellowish or black discharge
  • Head tilting
  • Swelling or redness in the ear canal
  • Hearing loss
  • Loss of balance
  • Waxy buildup near or on the canal
  • Disorientation
  • Swelling or redness of the ear flap
  • Strong odor from the ear

Healthy cat ears are pale pink in color and have no visible debris, or odor, and very little wax buildup. When a cat's ear becomes infected they are often red, swollen, or will have an odor.

Diagnosing Cat Ear Infection

Many times, ear infections in cats are a sign that there is an underlying issue. Because of this when you bring your cat in with a suspected ear infection, your vet will often give your cat a thorough physical exam in addition to looking at their ears. 

Your vet will use an otoscope to perform an examination of your cat's ears, looking inside the ear canal for signs of inflammation, discharge, foreign objects, masses or polyps, or any other abnormalities. 

They may take a swab of any discharge or debris to examine under a microscope to get a better idea of what is causing the infection. 

If there is too much discharge in your cat's ear and your vet cannot get a clear view, they may have to clean and flush the ear canal before an examination can take place. 

How to Treat Ear Infections in Cats

If your cat has long fur, your vet may start the treatment by clipping the fur around the ear canal to assist in keeping it clean and dry. 

For ear mites, bacterial ear infections, or yeast ear infections in cats, treatment with corticosteroids, antifungals, antibiotics, or anti-parasitics in-ear drops may be prescribed by your vet.

Your vet may also prescribe oral antibiotics for you to give to your cat at home. 

Treatment at home for your kitty's ear infection involves monitoring the condition of your cat's ears to check that the interior of the ear flap is clean and that the canal is clear and administering any medication your vet has prescribed.

To apply ear drops to your cat's ear, simply lift the ear flap, then squeeze the solution into the ear canal, gently massaging the base of the ear to help the medicine work its way deeper into the ear.

For inner ear infections in cats, the treatment may involve hospitalization if they are experiencing severe nausea and vomiting that leaves them at risk of becoming dehydrated. 

It is important that your cat finish all the prescribed medication, even if their ear seems to be feeling better. Early and complete treatment is key to your kitty avoiding chronic ear infections that could lead to more serious health issues. 

Chronic Ear Infection in Cats

Chronic ear infections in cats can be caused by a number of issues including growths, allergies, or parasites. If you find that your cat has a long-lasting or recurring ear infection that’s making their ears itchy or painful, talk to your vet about prescribing a medication that works to help reduce swelling inside the ear canal. 

Surgery may be required in some rare cases to correct ear issues and remove swollen tissue that has blocked or narrowed your cat's ear canal.

Preventing Your Cat From Getting an Ear Infection

Regularly check your cat's ears to ensure there’s no odor, residue, redness, swelling, or other symptoms. You may not be able to prevent an ear infection in your cat, but early treatment is key. You can also ask your vet how to correctly clean your cat's ears.

Do not insert cleaning devices into your cat’s ear canal unless your vet has specifically told you to do so and shown you the correct method to safely use the cleaning device. 

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Do you suspect your cat is suffering from an ear infection? Contact our La Mesa vets today to book an examination for your feline friend.