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.1 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 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.2
So, how do you know if your cat has an ear infection? In this short guide, we’ll cover 7 cat ear infection symptoms.
#1 Excessive Scratching
If you notice your cat is scratching 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 and discomfort.
Ear infections may also cause excess wax buildup, which provides a place for bacteria and yeast to grow, which can get quite itchy.
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 offender of more than half of cat ear infections, which may cause:
- Black discharge
- Head shaking
Beyond ear scratching, your cat may also start rubbing their ears with their back feet to remove foreign bodies from their ear canal, from pollen to wax build-up.3 However, ear rubbing isn’t always a symptom of an ear infection.
In fact, allergic reactions are quite common in cats and caused by:
- Insect bites
If you believe your cat is experiencing an allergic reaction, consult a professional veterinarian to assess the condition and prescribe the appropriate ear medication.
#3 Head Shaking
Occasional head shaking is normal. However, if you notice that your cat is continually pausing their mid-day play session to shake its head back and forth, you may be dealing with an ear infection.
More often than not, regular head shaking indicates something is lodged in your cat’s ear that may be causing discomfort or inflammation.
Inflammation is a localized and painful condition that you can often identify if the inside of your cat’s ear is:
The most common cause of feline ear inflammation is otitis externa, a type of ear infection that affects the external ear canal.4 When the cells that line the canal become inflamed, it can extend to your cat’s ear flap, causing pain and itchiness.
#5 Brown Debris or Black Ear Discharge
When your cat’s ears are healthy they are pink and clean, with little to no visible wax. During an ear infection, the wax will start to build up throughout the ear canal, providing a perfect place for pesky bacteria and yeast to call home.
When inspecting your cat’s ears, 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
#6 Unpleasant Odor
As your cat slinks by you, you may smell an unusual odor coming from their ears if they’re experiencing a bacterial or yeast infection. 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 is 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 internal ear (otitis interna), which may lead to a loss of balance or hearing. Because middle and inner ear infections are often more serious than external ear infections, their effects may be irreversible.
If you suspect your cat has an ear infection, take them to the vet immediately.
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 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, they will prescribe antibiotics, anti-parasitics, antifungals, and/or corticosteroids to treat the condition, as well as an ear rinse or flush.
How Can Ear Infections be Prevented?
The best way to prevent painful ear infections is to routinely check your pet’s ears for symptoms: redness, brown debris, or odor. By examining their ears on a regular basis, you can discover a potential ear infection early and treat it before it gets any worse.
Clean, Healthy Ears with Vetericyn
Vetericyn Plus Ear Rinse is an easy way to remove foreign materials from your pet’s ears, helping to alleviate irritation and keep the infected ear clean and clear. You can use it for routine ear cleaning, after an outdoor adventure, or to flush itchy ears with discharge. Vetericyn Plus All Animal Ear Rinse will provide relief and help to prevent cat ear problems.
- 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