Pet Health
cat ear infection signs treatment

Cat Ear Infection - Signs of Infection and Treatment

Written by Steph McCulloch


Feline ear infections can be caused by various factors, including bacteria, yeast, allergies, foreign bodies, or mites, often leading to ear discharge and waxy buildup as key symptoms of ear infections. In this article, we're taking a look at feline ear infections in further detail so you can understand what signs and common symptoms to look for and what your available treatments options are.
a cat itching their ears


Cat ear infections, also known as otitis externa, occur when the external ear canal becomes inflamed. These infections can be caused by various factors, including bacteria, yeast, allergies, foreign bodies, or mites, often leading to ear discharge and waxy buildup as key symptoms of ear infections.

In this article, we're taking a look at feline ear infections in further detail so you can understand what signs and common symptoms to look for and what your available treatment options are.

Understanding cat ear infections

a close up of cat ears

Otitis externa is a condition characterised by an inflammation or infection of the external ear canal, including the tube-like structure that leads from the outer ear to the eardrum. This condition primarily affects the portion of the ear that is visible to the naked eye.

It is a common condition in both cats and dogs and can be the result of various factors including bacterial or fungal infections, environmental allergies, foreign objects, or parasites like ear mites.

Symptoms often include:

- Ear discomfort
- Scratching
- Head shaking
- A buildup of discharge

Left untreated, otitis externa can lead to pain, hearing loss, loss of balance, severe infections, and serious complications such as a ruptured eardrum.

Ear infections in cats and dogs can have some distinct differences. Cats are generally more prone to ear infections including ottis externa and middle ear infections as well as immune system diseases that can elevate their risk of ear infections. Moreover, incorrect ear cleaning can exacerbate the problem, leading to excess wax production and growth of bacteria.

Cats also have a higher likelihood of
developing allergies that can contribute to ear inflammation, and cats with allergies often become annoyed as this will make their ears itchy and you may notice visible debris in the ear canal.

While dogs might display similar symptoms such as head shaking and ear scratching, cats may be more subtle in showing signs of discomfort. Dogs with floppy ears, on the other hand, are more prone to bacterial ear infections as the shape of their ears can create a warm, moist environment suitable for bacterial growth.

Ear mites play a significant role in feline otitis externa. These microscopic parasites, scientifically known as Otodectes cynotis, are a common cause of ear infections in cats. Ear mites infest the ear canal, feeding on skin debris and tissue fluids. Their presence can lead to irritation, inflammation, and secondary bacterial infections.

Cats with ear mites often exhibit intense itching and may scratch their ears or shake their heads a lot. Ear mites can be transmitted from one cat to another, so prompt treatment of infections and isolation of infected animals are crucial to prevent spread.

Ear mites are particularly prevalent in kittens and outdoor cats. Kittens are more susceptible due to their underdeveloped immune systems and their tendency to spend time in close quarters with other kittens, potentially facilitating mite transmission. Outdoor cats have a higher likelihood of coming into contact with infected animals or environments, increasing their risk of ear infections and contracting ear mites.

Outdoor cats may also be exposed to a wider range of potential irritants and allergens that can contribute to ear inflammation. Regular cleaning and preventive measures, especially for outdoor and young feline companions, can help mitigate the risk of ear mite infestations and ear infections.

Clinical signs of cat ear infections

vet looking into cats ear

As mentioned above, cats can be quite subtle when showing discomfort and will typically show signs of an ear infection through head shaking and ear scratching. It's also important to note common signs such as decreased appetite, vocalisation, and meowing more frequently, and avoidance of being handled, which could indicate a health condition such as an ear infection.

Subtle changes in behaviour or demeanour should always be taken seriously and evaluated by your vet when possible. If you suspect your cat is in pain or discomfort, seeking professional medical advice is the best course of action. If you're a Waggel member, why not speak to a v
et immediately with Joii? Joii is an online video vet care provider offering free calls for Waggel customers. Simply log in to your Waggel account to find out more.

A typical feline ear infection is often accompanied by a change in ear appearance including:

- Redness
- Inflammation / Swollen tissue
- Yellowy-brown discharge and wax build-up
- Foul odour

Though the signs and symptoms of a feline ear infection are usually pretty easy to spot, it can be difficult to determine if it is actually an infection or ear mites. Allow us to explain.

Comparing symptoms of ear mites and ear infections in cats requires careful observation. Ear mites often cause intense itching, leading cats to scratch their ears vigorously. Whilst this can seem similar to an ear infection, a dark, crumbly discharge resembling coffee grounds is often present in the ear canal and can be a big indicator of
mites or parasites. In some cases, tiny, white mites may be visible. The infestation can irritate the skin around the ears, leading to redness and potential sores.

On the other hand, ear infections, whether bacterial or fungal, lead to visible signs of inflammation. The ear canal may appear red, swollen, and irritated. Discharge is common, ranging from clear to yellow, brown, or even bloody. These infections often produce an unpleasant odour from the ears. Cats with ear infections can be sensitive to touch around their ears and may exhibit signs of pain or discomfort. Behavioural changes, like increased irritability or agitation, may also be observed.

Treatment for ear mites typically includes topical medications to kill the mites, often containing an insecticide like pyrethrin. Ear infection treatment can be more complex and may involve antibiotics, antifungals, or anti-inflammatory medications, depending on the underlying cause.

To ensure the best care, it is crucial to seek veterinary attention if you suspect your cat has either condition. Proper diagnosis is key to effective treatment, and self-diagnosing can often lead to inappropriate treatment and worsening of the condition. Always consult your vet for a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan.

Diagnosing ear infections in cats

Scottish Fold with ears down looking unhappy

When it comes to cat ear infections, a thorough diagnosis is crucial for creating an effective treatment plan. This diagnosis also helps to assess the infection's severity, aiding in the selection of suitable therapies. It also ensures any underlying conditions contributing to the infection, such as allergies or anatomical issues, are identified and addressed.

Whilst self-diagnosis and over-the-counter medicines may seem tempting, they can pose risks if you proceed without professional guidance. We always recommend seeking veterinary advice and proper examination to secure a diagnosis. Without these things, it's impossible to determine the precise cause of the infection, potentially leading to ineffective treatment or further harm.

Some non-prescription ear drops may not be suitable for all types of infections and could potentially harm your cat's delicate ear structures. Relying on professional veterinary expertise ensures treatment is tailored to the specific needs of your cat.

The use of an otoscope, a specialised medical instrument, is critical in examining a cat's ears. This device enables a visual inspection of the ear canal and eardrum, revealing signs of infection, inflammation, or other abnormalities. It provides a close-up view of the ear's internal structures, offering vital information for an accurate diagnosis. Otoscopes facilitate safe and precise sample collections, like ear swabs, which are crucial for laboratory analysis to identify the exact cause of the infection.

In severe cases of feline cat ear infections, sedation or anaesthesia may be necessary for a full examination. This is particularly important if your cat is in
significant pain, experiences high levels of discomfort, or proves uncooperative during the examination. Sedation ensures your vet can conduct a detailed and accurate assessment without causing further distress to your cat. It also allows for a more thorough and gentle cleaning of the ears, if required.

Microscopic examinations also play a vital role in helping to diagnose cat ear infections. They enable vets to examine samples taken from the ear under high magnification, allowing for the identification of specific microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, or parasites. This microscopic analysis then provides information about the causative agents of the infection, which is essential for tailoring an effective treatment plan. It ensures that the chosen treatment targets the exact type of infection, increasing the likelihood of a successful outcome and preventing the development of antibiotic resistance.

Treatment options and approaches

a vet cleaning a cats ears with a cotton stick

Otoscopic examination and cytology play a crucial role in guiding treatment choices for feline cat ear infections. The otoscopy allows vets to inspect the ear canal and eardrum, providing essential information about the extent and nature of the infection. This examination helps determine whether the infection is primarily in the external ear canal or if it has progressed further into the middle ear.

Cytology, on the other hand, involves the microscopic examination of samples collected from the ear, such as swabs or discharge. This allows for the identification of specific microorganisms causing the infection, whether they be bacteria, fungi, or parasites. These findings directly influence the selection of medications and therapies.

When it comes to removing foreign bodies from a cat's ear, it's important to proceed with caution and of course, not attempt to do it at home yourself. A veterinarian will typically use specialised instruments, such as forceps or a flushing technique, to safely and gently extract any foreign objects. This process requires a steady hand and a thorough understanding of feline ear anatomy to avoid causing further harm.

The choice of medication for treating feline cat ear infections depends on the identified cause. Antibiotics are prescribed for bacterial infections, while antifungal medications are used to combat fungal infections. In some cases, a combined treatment approach involving both antibiotics and antifungals may be necessary, especially if a mixed infection is present. It's imperative to follow the prescribed medication regime from your vet precisely to ensure the infection is completely treated.

Identifying and treating underlying causes is equally important. Allergies, anatomical abnormalities, or other predisposing factors can contribute to recurrent ear infections. Addressing these underlying issues is essential for preventing future infections and maintaining long-term ear health.

Dietary factors can indirectly affect ear health in cats too.
Food allergies or sensitivities may lead to skin inflammation, which can contribute to ear issues. In addition to this, improper diets that lack essential nutrients can weaken the immune system, making cats more susceptible to infections. Ensuring a balanced and appropriate diet for your cat will contribute to their overall health, including the health of their ears.

Other health issues can also contribute to ear infections such as
hair loss and diarrhoea. If your cat is experiencing unusual symptoms, we recommend seeking immediate veterinary care.

In severe cases of ear infections, surgery may be required. The specific surgical procedure needed will depend on the extent and nature of the infection, as well as any secondary problems that have developed. Surgery is typically only considered a last resort after all other treatment options have been exhausted.

The decision to proceed with surgery will be based on a thorough assessment by a veterinarian, including a careful evaluation of your cat's overall health and the specific circumstances of the ear infection.


a close up of cat ears

In conclusion, dealing with ear infections in cats always requires the expertise and guidance of a qualified veterinarian. Professional veterinary care is of utmost significance in accurately diagnosing and effectively treating these conditions. The complexities of ear infections, ranging from their causes to their potential complications, necessitate the specialised knowledge and resources that only a veterinary professional can provide.

As a cat owner, it’s important to be observant and proactive in your cats' health. Regularly monitoring for any signs of discomfort, unusual behaviour, or changes in ear appearance can help catch potential issues early. Timely intervention and seeking professional advice are key to ensuring your feline friend enjoys optimal ear health at all times.


What are the clinical signs of an ear infection?

Clinical signs of an ear infection in cats may include ear scratching, head shaking, redness or swelling of the ear canal, discharge, foul odour, and signs of discomfort when the ears are touched.

Can cat ear infections go away on their own?

Cat ear infections typically do not resolve on their own and usually require veterinary intervention for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Is a cat ear infection an emergency?

While not an immediate emergency, a cat ear infection should be promptly addressed by a vet to prevent potential complications and alleviate discomfort for your cat.

What is the most common cause of ear infections in cats?

The most common cause of ear infections in cats is the presence of ear mites (Otodectes cynotis), although bacterial and yeast infections are also common culprits.

How are ear infections treated?

Ear infections in cats are typically treated with a combination of cleaning the ears, topical medications like antibiotics or antifungals, and in severe cases, oral medications or surgery may be necessary.

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