Ear Infections in Cats: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

Ear Infections in Cats

You wake up one morning and notice your cat shaking his head more than normal. It could be an ear infection. Those are common in cats, but how can you really tell? And what should you do about it if your suspicion is right? Don’t worry, we’re going to walk you through spotting the signs of an ear infection in your kitty cat. We’ll talk about the tests the vet can do to be sure if it is one, plus go over the various treatment options. We’ll also give you some tips to help prevent painful ear infections in your furry pal in the future.

Ear Infections in Cats

Symptoms of Ear Infections in Cats

Your cat won’t be able to tell you directly that their ears hurt, but there are several signs you can look for that may indicate an ear infection. Watch your cat closely for any of these symptoms:

1. Head Shaking and Scratching

If your cat is scratching, rubbing, or shaking their head frequently, this can be a sign of discomfort in the ears. Excessive scratching and head shaking can lead to damage of the ear flap or cause a hematoma (fluid buildup) that requires treatment.

2. Bad Odor

A foul odor coming from the ears can indicate infection. Ear mites, yeast, or bacterial overgrowth can all cause a musty smell. If you notice an unpleasant odor when you check your cat’s ears, have your vet examine them.

3. Discharge

Thick, yellow, or bloody discharge is abnormal and typically a sign of infection or ear mites. Clear or slightly waxy discharge can be normal, but if you notice a large amount, an odd color, or a bad smell, it’s best to have your cat’s ears checked out.

4. Loss of Balance

If your cat seems off balance or dizzy, is circling in one direction, or has rapid eye movements, this can indicate an inner ear infection or other neurological issue that requires immediate vet attention. Loss of balance can come on very quickly, so call your vet right away if you notice these symptoms.

5. Lack of Ear Movement

Your cat’s ears should rotate freely and move with sounds. If one ear seems lower than the other or your cat is unable to move their ears as usual, this can be a sign of infection, trauma, or nerve damage in the ear. See your vet for an exam to determine the cause.

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By regularly inspecting your cat’s ears and watching for any of these symptoms, you can detect an ear infection early and get treatment right away. Call your vet if you notice any signs of ear pain or infection—the sooner treatment starts, the better for your cat’s comfort and hearing health.

Causes and Risk Factors for Cat Ear Infections

Ear infections in cats, known as otitis externa, have several possible causes. As a cat owner, it’s important to understand the risk factors that can contribute to these painful infections so you can help prevent them.

1. Bacteria and Yeast Overgrowth

The most common causes of ear infections in cats are bacterial and yeast infections. Normal bacteria and yeast live in a cat’s ear canal, but when there’s an overgrowth, it can lead to infection. Things like moisture, ear wax buildup, and ear mites can create the perfect environment for these microorganisms to thrive.

2. Ear Mites

Ear mites, tiny parasites that feed on ear wax, skin, and oils, are a frequent cause of ear infections in cats. Their presence irritates the ears, allowing bacteria and yeast to easily multiply. You may see your cat scratching at their ears frequently or shaking their head, and the ears may have a foul odor. Ear mites spread easily between animals, so if you have other pets, have them checked as well.

3. Foreign Objects

Sometimes small foreign objects like plant awns, litter, or other debris may make their way into a cat’s ear canal, causing irritation and infection. You may see your cat tilting their head, scratching at their ear, or shaking their head trying to dislodge the object. It’s best to have your vet examine the ear to remove the object and treat any resulting infection.

4. Allergies

Allergic reactions to things like pollen, dander, food, or medication can also increase inflammation in a cat’s ears and predispose them to infection. The ears may become red and itchy, and your cat may scratch at them frequently. Antihistamines or diet changes may help relieve the reaction and prevent secondary infections.

By keeping your cat’s ears clean and dry, controlling parasites, limiting exposure to potential allergens when possible, and getting regular vet checkups, you can help lower the risk of painful ear infections and get your feline friend back to feeling their best. Early diagnosis and treatment are key to preventing complications, so don’t hesitate to call your vet if you notice any issues with your cat’s ears.

Diagnosing Ear Infections in Cats

Ear infections in cats can often be tricky to diagnose, as the symptoms may not always be obvious. The most common signs your cat may have an ear infection include scratching or shaking their head excessively, a foul odor coming from the ear, discharge or debris in the ear canal, swelling or redness of the ear flap or canal, and hearing loss or balance issues.

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1. Examination

To properly diagnose an ear infection, your vet will perform an examination of your cat’s ears. They will use an otoscope, which is a special instrument with a light and magnifying lens, to look down into the ear canal. They will check for any redness, swelling, discharge, or other abnormalities. They may also perform some hearing tests to determine if the infection is impacting your cat’s hearing. In some cases, your vet may need to sedate your cat to fully examine the ear if they are in a lot of discomfort.

2. Ear Swab

Your vet may take an ear swab to examine the discharge and debris under a microscope. This can help determine if there are bacteria, yeast, or mites present. A culture and sensitivity test may also be performed on the swab to determine what medications will be most effective against the infection.

3. Imaging

In severe or persistent cases, your vet may recommend imaging of the ear canal and middle ear. X-rays can detect any bone changes, while a CT scan provides a more detailed 3D image to check for polyps, tumors, or other abnormalities. These tests, though more expensive, can be crucial for developing an effective treatment plan, especially for chronic ear infections.

Early diagnosis and treatment of ear infections is critical to preventing permanent damage to your cat’s ears. By monitoring your cat for any symptoms and taking them to the vet right away if an infection is suspected, you can get them back to full health and enjoying crystal clear hearing once again.

Treatment Options for Cat Ear Infections

1. Medications

The most common treatment for cat ear infections is medication, typically antibiotic ear drops that contain medications like gentamicin, neomycin, and polymyxin B. These antibiotic drops work by killing the bacteria and yeast causing the infection. You’ll need to apply the drops as directed by your vet, usually 3-4 times a day for 7-10 days. Be very careful not to get any medication in the cat’s eyes. Oral antibiotics may also be prescribed for severe or chronic infections.

2. Anti-inflammatories

In some cases, your vet may also prescribe anti-inflammatory medication, like cortisone, to help reduce inflammation in the ears. Reducing inflammation will make your cat more comfortable and speed up healing. Anti-inflammatories are usually administered orally or by injection.

3. Ear cleansers

Keeping your cat’s ears clean is an important part of treatment and prevention. Your vet may recommend using a commercial ear cleanser, mineral or baby oil, or a mixture of water and white vinegar to help loosen debris and wax in the ears. Gently wipe out the ears with a cotton ball after applying the cleanser. Be very careful not to go too deep into the ear or you may cause damage. Only clean as far as you can see.

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4. Surgery

For severe or chronic infections that do not clear up with other treatments, your vet may recommend surgery. The most common procedure is called ventral bulla osteotomy, which removes part of the bone and tissue at the base of the ear to allow for drainage and airflow. This can be an effective method for curing infections, but it does require anesthesia and recovery time. Surgery is usually only recommended as a last resort for stubborn infections that have not responded to other treatments.

Following the prescribed treatment, most cat ear infections will clear up within 7-14 days. Be sure to give any medication exactly as directed for the best results. Call your vet if your cat’s symptoms do not improve, or if they get worse at any time. Preventing future infections with regular ear cleaning and checkups is also important for your cat’s health and comfort.

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Preventing Ear Infections in Cats

The good news is there are several steps you can take to help reduce the risk of your cat developing ear infections. Prevention is always better than treatment, so try incorporating these tips into your cat’s routine.

1. Keep ears clean and dry

Moist, waxy buildup in the ears creates the perfect environment for infection-causing bacteria and yeast to grow. Gently wipe your cat’s outer ears with a damp cotton ball once a week to remove dirt and debris. Never use cotton swabs, as these can damage the eardrum. After bathing or swimming, thoroughly dry your cat’s ears to prevent trapped moisture.

2. Check ears regularly

Make checking your cat’s ears a part of their regular grooming routine. Look for any redness, bad odor, excess wax, head shaking, or scratching. Catching potential infections early will make them easier to treat. See your vet right away if you notice any concerning symptoms.

3. Control allergies

If your cat suffers from environmental allergies, managing them can help reduce ear infections. Talk to your vet about antihistamines or other treatments to control allergy symptoms like itchy, irritated skin that can lead to ear infections.

4. Keep ear mites in check

Ear mites are tiny parasites that feed on wax and oils in the ear canal. They can cause irritation and inflammation that sets the stage for bacterial infection. Have your vet check for ear mites during annual checkups and treat them promptly if found.

5. Feed a high-quality diet

A nutritious diet will keep your cat’s immune system strong to help fight off infections. Choose a high-quality cat food appropriate for your cat’s age, size, and activity level. For some cats, omega-3 fatty acid supplements may also help reduce inflammation and support ear health.

By following these prevention tips, staying alert for any signs of ear trouble, and getting prompt treatment when needed, you’ll help ensure your feline companion maintains a lifetime of happy, healthy ears.