Cats have an incredibly acute sense of hearing. Like an anatomical satellite dish turning to pick up a signal, the feline outer ear, or pinna, rotates 180 degrees to locate and identify the faintest of sounds. They also rely on their vestibular apparatus, a sense organ located deep within the inner ear, for their remarkable sense of balance.
A feline’s ears are an essential asset, but they are also extremely delicate. Just like our ears, our furry friends’ can become infected. If left untreated, ear infections can progress to swelling of the cat’s ear canal, skin infections, deafness, or even facial paralysis.
So, how do you know if your cat has an ear infection? In this short guide, we’ll cover 7 cat ear infection symptoms to look out for.
#1 Excessive Scratching
If you notice your cat is scratching or pawing at their ears more often than normal throughout the day, it may be a sign of an ear infection.
Ear infections in cats can develop in the skin lining of your cat’s ears, causing pain, discomfort, and irritation. Ear infections may also cause excess wax build-up. This build-up provides a place for bacteria and yeast to grow, which can become quite itchy for your furry friend.
However, oftentimes an ear infection in cats is a secondary condition to a larger health problem. In some cases, excessive scratching may be a result of ear mites—the culprit behind more than half of all cat ear infections. These mites can also cause:
- Black discharge
- Head shaking
Beyond ear scratching, your cat may also start rubbing their ears with their back feet or against the floor or furniture. Since cats don’t have the same digit dexterity as humans, they often rely on rubbing to scratch persistent itches. While it’s cute every now and then, cat parents should take note of frequent rubbing, pawing, and scratching at the ears, as it could be a sign of an ear infection that’s causing irritation and itchiness.
Your cat may also resort to rubbing if their ear infection is due to foreign bodies becoming stuck in their ear canal. These foreign bodies can be anything from pollen to wax build-up.
However, ear rubbing isn’t always a symptom of feline ear infections. In fact, allergic reactions are quite common in cats and can also lead to ear irritation and itchiness. Common cat allergens include:
- Insect bites
If you believe your cat is experiencing an allergic reaction, consult your veterinarian. They’ll be able to assess the condition, rule out an ear infection, and prescribe the appropriate ear and allergy medication.
#3 Head Shaking
Like scratching and rubbing, head shaking is also a potential sign that your cat has an ear infection. Although occasional head shaking is normal, if you notice that your cat is continually pausing their mid-day play session to shake their head back and forth, you may be dealing with an ear infection.
In some cases, cats feel a clogging sensation during an ear infection. If you’ve ever experienced an ear infection yourself, you may recall feeling like there was water in your ears. To address this sensation, your instinct (and your cat’s) is likely to shake the “water” out.
However, head shaking won’t alleviate the discomfort. So, if you notice your cat shaking their head excessively, you should contact your vet, as this could be a sign of inflammation—a common cat ear infection symptom.
In other cases, excessive head shaking may indicate that something is lodged in your cat’s ear, causing discomfort or inflammation. If left untreated, a foreign body in your cat’s ear can also lead to infection.
Ear infections often lead to inflammation—a localized and painful condition that you may be able to identify at home. If the inside of your cat’s ears is inflamed, you’ll notice:
- Heat emanating from the ears
The most common cause of feline ear inflammation is otitis externa, a type of ear infection that affects the external ear canal. When the cells that line the canal become inflamed, it can extend to your cat’s ear flap, causing pain, itchiness, and visible redness.
#5 Brown Debris or Black Ear Discharge
When your cat’s ears are healthy, they’re pink and clean, with little to no visible wax. But if your cat has inflamed ears as a result of an ear infection, the inflammation can block the ear canal, leading to a build-up of earwax.
This earwax build-up can cause:
- Ear discharge – If earwax can’t move freely, it sometimes adheres to the skin of the ears as it dries. When your cat tries to remove this cakey build-up, they may break the skin and create an open wound. This wound can then weep discharge during the scabbing process (Cat scabs on ears can also be indicative of miliary dermatitis).
- Black, brown, or red debris – Earwax build-up collects dirt and dust, causing your cat to shed black or brown flakes from their ears. Any residual blood from ear wounds can also leak into the wax, turning it a red or rusty brown color.
To determine if the wax build-up is plaguing your cat, you should inspect their ears on a daily basis. Look for brown earwax that resembles dirt or dried blood inside the ears. Ear mites may also stimulate the wax-producing glands inside the ear to produce black, crusty build-up that resembles coffee grounds.
In addition to a bacterial ear infection, brown or black ear discharge may be an indicator of:
- Systemic inflammation
- Yeast infection (since yeast can thrive in the dark, moist environment that earwax build-up creates)
One way to minimize or avoid these conditions is through regular ear cleaning. Cats are may be prolific groomers, but when it comes to their ears, they need help cleaning them. Pet stores actually sell ear cleaner solutions for cats. But before doing so, make sure you get the go signal from your veterinarian first. That’s because they might prescribe a different solution for the infected ear.
#6 Unpleasant Odor
That ear debris and discharge isn’t just unsightly—it also stinks. As your cat slinks by you, you may smell an unusual odor coming from their ears if they’re experiencing an ear infection. Numerous ear infection symptoms lead to nasty odors, including:
- Bacteria buildup in the ear canal
- Earwax buildup (and the associated debris and discharge) inside and outside the ear
- Fluid buildup that normally drains from healthy ears
The smell may also be caused by a ruptured abscess, which may occur if your cat scratches their ears too rigorously. In this case, you’ll notice pus and other infected fluids within the ear canal, in addition to dark-colored wax.
#7 Loss of Balance
You’re making dinner and catch your cat in the corner of your eye looking a little…wobbly. This isn’t the catnip. Rather, it’s often a sign of an internal ear infection.
In this case, inflammation of the middle ear (otitis media) can travel down the ear canal to infect the eardrum within the inner ear (otitis interna). The inner ear is important because it contains the vestibular apparatus—one of the two major balance controls in cats. When one of your cat’s ears is infected, inflammation can potentially disrupt the function of the vestibular apparatus, which may lead to a loss of balance, as well as a loss of hearing.
Other signs that indicate your cat is experiencing a loss of balance include:
- If they have trouble getting (or staying) up on all fours
- If they fall over while walking
- If they land oddly after they leap or jump
Because middle and inner ear infections are often more severe than external ear infections, their effects may be irreversible. So, if you suspect your cat has an ear infection, take them to the vet immediately.
If you notice hearing loss along with loss of balance, take your cat to the vet to check if there’s a more severe condition.
What to Expect at the Vet
Your cat’s veterinarian will first examine your pet’s ear canal with an otoscope—a small, flashlight-like instrument used to explore the depths of the ear. They will also swab the inside of the ear to take a sample, which will be examined with a microscope to determine if bacteria, yeast, or ear mites are present.
Depending on what they find, your vet may prescribe:
- An ear rinse or flush
These medications may be prescribed in ointment, eardrop, or oral pill form. Your vet may also trim the fur around your cat’s ear to allow the ear canal to stay clean and dry as the infection heals.
How Can You Help Prevent Cat Ear Infections?
As they say, prevention is some of the best medicine. Luckily, when it comes to cat ear infections, there are a few steps you can take to prevent them from plaguing your furry friend.
- Inspect your cat’s ears on a daily basis – The best way to prevent painful ear infections is to routinely check your cat’s ears for signs of infection, including redness, brown debris, and odor. By examining their ears on a regular basis, you have a better understanding of what’s normal and what may be the sign of an infection. Plus, actively inspecting your cat’s ears can help you discover a potential ear infection early, and treat it before it gets worse.
- Flush your cat’s ears – Even if your ear inspections seem to meet the healthy cat ear standard, regularly flushing your cat’s ears with a rinse can help prevent debris and wax build-up from causing blockages and inflammation in the ear. Vetericyn Plus Antimicrobial Ear Rinse is a non-toxic, antibiotic-free cleaning solution that will keep your cat’s ears squeaky clean.
- Clean your cat’s face – Regardless of whether you have an indoor or outdoor cat, allowing debris to collect on their face can increase their likelihood of developing an ear infection. This is because face debris can enter the ears, leading to irritation or infection. Vetericyn Plus Feline Antimicrobial Facial Therapy provides an effective way to clean debris from around your cat’s eyes, mouth, nose, and chin. That means healthier ears and debris-free kitty cuddles.
- Keep up with regular vet visits – By keeping up with regular vet visits, you take advantage of having an extra set of (highly trained) eyes watch over your cat’s health and wellness. Not only will this help ensure your cat’s overall wellbeing, but it will also increase the likelihood of discovering a potential ear infection early on.
Adding these simple steps to your cat’s wellness routine can reduce their likelihood of contracting an ear infection and improve their day-to-day comfort.
Keep Your Cat’s Ears Clean and Healthy with Vetericyn
Spotting cat ear infection symptoms is the first step to getting your favorite fuzzball the treatment they need. The second step is trusting Vetericyn. Vetericyn Plus Ear Rinse is an easy way to remove foreign materials from your pet’s ears, helping to alleviate irritation in infected ears and prevent future infections in healthy ears. You can use it for routine ear cleanings, after an outdoor adventure, or to flush itchy ears with discharge.
Simply put, Vetericyn Plus All Animal Ear Rinse will provide relief and help to prevent cat ear problems. Plus, our products are non-toxic and safe to lick, so there’s no need to break out the cone.
You’re committed to your pet’s health and happiness, and so is the team at Vetericyn. Add our products to your cat’s wellness routine today.
- Animal Planet. Cat Ears and Hearing. http://www.animalplanet.com/pets/cat-ears-hearing/
- Web MD. Ear Infections in Cats: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention. https://pets.webmd.com/cats/ear-infections-in-cats-causes-treatment-and-prevention#1
- PDSA. Ear infections in cats. https://www.pdsa.org.uk/taking-care-of-your-pet/pet-health-hub/conditions/ear-infections-in-cats#contents-link-3
- Merck Manual Veterinary Manual. Otitis Externa in Cats. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/ear-disorders-of-cats/otitis-externa-in-cats
- Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Ear Mites: Tiny Critters that Pose a Major Threat. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/ear-mites-tiny-critters-can-pose-major-threat