Ear infections are a common feline condition, but can result in permanent complications if left untreated. They can have a variety of causes, and may affect the outer, middle, or inner ear. Regardless of cause, ear infections are typically a treatable condition. Identifying a possible ear infection quickly means you can treat it before it causes complications. Fortunately, the symptoms of an ear infection are generally easy to recognize.
Signs and Symptoms of Ear Infections in Cats
Ear infections in cats, scientifically known as otitis externa, otitis media, or otitis interna, can affect one ear, or both. Symptoms may vary depending on the cause of the infection and the location (outer, middle, or inner ear). However, generally the symptoms include:
- Scratching at one or both ears
- Scabbing and other signs of self-trauma from scratching
- Scaly skin
Ear infections are uncomfortable for cats. They may be itchy, painful, and even disorienting, in the case of middle and inner ear infections. The symptoms can occur suddenly or gradually, and last for long periods of time. Many cats will scratch at their ears or shake their heads to try to alleviate this discomfort. However, scratching and head shaking can cause self-trauma, resulting in scabs and secondary infections.
While the symptoms and their duration may vary slightly, any changes to the appearance or smell of your cat’s ears could be a sign of a potential problem, so if you notice anything amiss, contact your veterinarian.
How Did My Cat Get an Ear Infection?
Ear infections in cats can be caused by a variety of factors. In most cases, bacterial or yeast infections are secondary to a primary problem, like mites.
- Polyps or tumors
- Underlying allergies (food or environmental allergies) making your pet more prone to bacterial and/or yeast infections
Ear mites are common parasites in cats. They cause itchiness, irritation, discharge, and swelling of the ear. Mites lead to scratching, which in turn can lead to secondary infections. Ear mites are spread via direct contact between cats, so they are most common in young kittens, cats living in shelters or other crowded conditions, and outdoor cats. An adult cat that lives exclusively indoors is extremely unlikely to have ear mites, unless they have just been adopted from a shelter.
Tumors, polyps, and allergies can cause chronic inflammation and discomfort, leading your cat to scratch their ear and cause self-trauma. Bacteria or yeast normally found on the surface of the skin can grow rapidly, causing an infection and further irritation.
Fungal infections like ringworm can also lead to infection and changes in the ear’s appearance, however this is normally limited to the ear tip margins rather than the ear canal itself.
Diagnosing Ear Infections in Cats
Your veterinarian will perform an in-depth physical examination of your cat. Simply looking at and into your cat’s ear can provide clues about the underlying cause of the ear infection. For example, evidence of scratching at or around the ears indicates discomfort, and a peek inside the ear with an otoscope can reveal abnormalities, debris, tumors, or polyps.
Veterinarians often take samples from the ear during the exam. These samples can be examined under a microscope to determine if yeast, bacteria, and/or mites are present. Occasionally, a sample will be sent to the lab for culture, particularly if a virulent bacterial infection is suspected.
Some cats may require sedation or anesthesia for all or part of the examination. Because ear infections are painful, many cats become uncooperative during the exam, which can put them at risk of further damaging their ears or rupturing the ear canal. However, it is essential that your veterinarian get a good look inside your cat’s ears to accurately assess the infection and the underlying cause.
Treating Your Cat for Ear Infections
The treatment for ear infections in cats will depend on the cause.
First, your veterinarian will take steps to manage the pain and inflammation with medication. Then, depending on the amount of discharge and buildup, your veterinarian may gently clean your cat’s ears to make sure the topical medication is effective.
Most of the available medications for ear infections in cats include a combination of antibiotics, antifungals, and steroids to eliminate the infection and reduce inflammation. These medications coat the top layer of the external ear canal with a thin film when properly applied.
In the case of long-term inflammation or middle or inner ear involvement, oral or injectable drugs may be necessary. Surgery may even be required for serious middle ear infections. Cats with parasites will receive a topical antiparasitic medication.
Tumors or structural abnormalities may require additional steps to treat. Surgical biopsies and potentially a CT scan may be needed to determine whether a tumor is malignant and confirm the appropriate next steps. Allergies may require special testing to uncover the underlying cause and reduce recurrence of ear infections.
It is crucial to treat ear infections only with products approved or prescribed by your veterinarian. Home remedies, like those involving hydrogen peroxide or vinegar, can damage the eardrum, causing further irritation for your cat without resolving the infection. In addition, cats have a nerve that runs very close to the ear canal, which can be irritated by any fluids administered to the ear, causing paralysis to vital parts of their face.
Is There a Cure for Ear Infections in Cats?
Yes, there is a cure for ear infections in cats. Medical management will resolve the infection in most cases. In the case of chronic ear infections, however, an underlying systemic issue could be at work, and further investigation is needed.
Are Ear Infections Contagious for Humans or Other Pets?
Ear infections are generally not contagious for humans or other pets, with one exception: those caused by parasites. Parasites like ear mites are highly contagious for other cats in the household. If one cat is affected, talk to your veterinarian about preventative treatment measures for your other cats.
What Is the Cost for Treating Ear Infections in Cats?
The cost for treating ear infections in cats depends on the cause. In a straightforward case, for example, the costs will include the exam fee, diagnostics, medications, and (possibly) follow-up examinations. If your cat requires sedation or anesthesia, this will add considerably to the bill.
Recovery and Management of Ear Infections in Cats
Most ear infections in cats can be treated with medical management in 1-2 weeks. While complications such as ruptured ear drums and middle and inner ear involvement can lead to hearing loss, most ear infection symptoms resolve with treatment.
Given the anatomy of the nerves close to your cat’s ear, a good rule of thumb is to avoid cleaning your cat’s ears unless instructed to do so by the vet.
Some cats may be uncooperative when it comes to application of medication. If you’re having a hard time, ask your veterinarian for tips. These may include confining your cat to a single room for the duration of treatment to make them easier to catch, and learning how to hold your cat to avoid getting scratched or bitten.
Management and recovery may differ if the underlying cause is a tumor, polyp, or abnormality that requires a surgical procedure. If the tumor is malignant, your veterinarian may recommend a follow-up appointment with a veterinary oncologist to discuss continued treatment options.
Preventing Ear Infections in Cats
Unlike dogs, cats generally do not require regular ear cleanings, and in some cases, cleaning can actually lead to more problems. However, you should make a habit of checking your cat’s ears on a routine basis to check for irregularities. This can help you catch a potential infection before it has time to get out of hand, or lead to secondary bacterial or yeast infections.
Is There a Vaccine for Ear Infections?
There is no vaccine for ear infections.
Ear infections in cats are common, but can cause serious issues if left untreated. Common symptoms include redness, odor and scratching at the ear. Thankfully, most ear infections are easily treatable with medication, although it’s important to determine whether an underlying cause, such as ear mites, tumors, polyps or allergies, is responsible for the infection, and if so, treat that too.