Cats have extremely good hearing, and can hear sounds up to 1.6 octaves above those that humans can appreciate. An ear infection can cause progressive tissue damage inside your cat’s ear, which can lead to permanent deafness, if left untreated. Our Just Cats Clinic team wants to help by providing information about cat ear infections and how you can decrease your cat’s risk. 

Cat ear infections

Cat ear infections are classified depending on the affected ear part. Classifications include:

  • Otitis externa — This condition is an inflammation in the external ear canal (i.e., the tube between the outer ear and the eardrum).
  • Otitis media — This condition is inflammation of the air-filled space behind the eardrum, and is usually secondary to upper respiratory infections, such as feline herpesvirus and calicivirus, in cats. Otitis media frequently goes undiagnosed. One retrospective computed tomography (CT) review of 310 cats showed middle ear disease in 101 cats. Only 26 of these cats had been imaged based on a complaint suggesting middle ear disease. 
  • Otitis interna — This condition is an inflammation of the inner ear that most commonly occurs when otitis media is untreated or improperly treated. 

Cat ear infection causes

Cat ear infections are typically caused when pathogens, such as yeast and bacteria, proliferate abnormally. Factors that increase your cat’s risk include:

  • Ear mites — These tiny parasites disrupt the normal ear microbiome and commonly cause ear infections in cats.
  • Allergies — Food and environmental allergies can also predispose cats to ear infections. Allergies compromise the skin barrier and cause increased wax production in the ear canal, allowing yeast and bacteria overgrowth. 
  • Diabetes — Diabetic cats are at increased ear infection risk because their high blood and tissue sugar levels allow pathogens to proliferate.
  • Decreased immunity — Immunocompromised cats, such as those affected by feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus, are at increased risk because their immune system can’t fight off infection.
  • Tumors — Tumors or polyps inside the ear can lead to an ear infection.
  • Foreign bodies — Foreign bodies (e.g., grass awns) stuck in the ear can lead to ear infections.
  • Trauma — Bite wounds and scratches from another cat can lead to ear infections.
  • Small ears — Cat breeds, such as Himalayans and Persians who have small outer ears, are more prone to ear infections.

Cat ear infection signs

Cats tend to hide their vulnerabilities, and recognizing health issues can be difficult. Physical signs include:

  • Strong odor near the ears
  • Discharge from the ear
  • Black specks inside the ear
  • Redness or swelling around the ear
  • Excessive wax buildup
  • Pawing at the ear
  • Head shaking
  • Decreased appetite
  • Lack of interaction with people and other pets

As the infection progresses to the middle and inner ear, neurological signs, including head tilt, incoordination, facial paralysis, staggering when walking, and an inability to jump without falling, can manifest. 

Cat ear infection treatment

Treatment for infections caused by ear mites begins with anti-parasitic medication. Simple infections usually clear when the ear is cleaned and topical ear drops are administered. A culture of a sample from your cat’s ear may be needed to ensure an appropriate medication is used to treat their infection. 

Steps to properly treat your cat’s ears include:

  • Handle their ears — Get your cat used to having their ears handled when they are young, so they will less likely object to their ears being handled if they get an ear infection. Reward their cooperation with treats and pets.
  • Choose a quiet area — Find a quiet, comfortable area in your home where your cat won’t be startled.
  • Use a towel — If your cat’s ear is painful, you may need to wrap them in a towel before treating their ear.
  • Clean your cat’s ear — Clean your cat’s ear with an appropriate ear cleaning solution to maximize the ear medication’s effectiveness.
  • Medicate your cat’s ear — Apply the medication about 10 minutes after cleaning your cat’s ear, massaging their ear base to distribute the drug.
  • Give them a treat — Give your cat a treat after their ear medication.

If the infection persists or recurs, other diagnostic tests that check for underlying conditions, such as allergies or diabetes, may be necessary. 

Cat ear infection prevention

Not all ear infections can be prevented, but you can take steps to decrease your cat’s risk. These steps include:

  • Year-round flea and tick preventives — Year-round flea and tick prevention medications also protect your cat against ear mites.
  • Keeping your cat inside — Keeping your cat inside protects them from parasites, bite and scratch wounds, and illnesses that can lead to ear infections.
  • Checking your cat’s ears — Regularly check your cat’s ears for wax buildup, odor, and redness.
  • Regular wellness exams — Ensure a veterinary professional evaluates your cat at least once a year to detect issues such as ear infections. 

Ear infections can be painful for your cat, but you can take steps to help reduce their risk. If you are concerned your cat has an ear infection, contact our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Just Cats Clinic, so we can diagnose the problem and alleviate their distress.