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Ear Infections in Cats Symptoms and Treatment

If you have a cat, there’s a pretty good chance your feline friend will get an ear infection at some point. Ear infections are one of the most common ailments for cats. The good news is they can usually be treated fairly easily if they’re caught early, which makes it important to know the signs.

The Basics

Ear infections are referred to by the part of the ear that has been affected:

  • Otitis Externa is when the outer portion of the ear is infected.
  • If the infection spreads to the middle part of the ear, it’s referred to as Otitis Media.
  • Once the infection reaches the inner ear, it’s referred to as Otitis Interna.

Otitis Interna is a very serious condition that can lead to loss of hearing and balance because the inner ear contains the eardrum and structures that manage equilibrium. It’s not as prevalent as infections in the outer or middle ear, and can indicate an immune disorder or abnormality in the way the inner ear is formed.

Cats at Risk

Ear infections can happen to cats of any age or breed. However, cats with allergies, diabetes, or conditions that weaken the immune system, such as feline leukemia, may be more at risk. Breeds with small outer ears, like Himalayans and Persians, are also more prone to ear infections.

cat breeds at risk for ear infections _ black and white Himalayan cat

Cat Ear Infection Symptoms

Cats have a tendency to hide or mask their symptoms when they’re sick, so it can be tough to know when your cat has an ear infection, especially in the early stages. Physical symptoms can include:

  • Strong odor around the ears
  • Black specks, which can indicate ear mites
  • Redness or inflammation around the ear
  • Discharge from the ears
  • Excessive wax build up

You may also see changes in your cat’s demeanor, like depression or irritability, along with behavioral signs such as:

  • Tilting the head to one side
  • Shaking the head rapidly
  • Pawing at the ears
  • Rubbing the ear on the floor or furniture

In severe cases, a cat can lose hearing and appear to be ignoring your commands. In addition, they can lose their sense of balance and miss typically easy jumps or stagger when they walk.

cat ear infections causes _ domestic shorthair cat red collar with bell

Potential Causes

Cat ear infections are usually the result of overgrown bacteria, yeast, or both. They can also be caused by:

  • Food or environmental allergies
  • Wax build up
  • Tumors or polyps in the ear canal
  • Something stuck in the ear, such as a grass bristle
  • Immune conditions
  • Trauma, such as a deep scratch or bite wound

Ear Mites

Ear mites are another common cause of ear infections. These parasites are so tiny that you can’t see them with the naked eye, but they leave behind visible specks of black or brown waste. They can make quite a mess of wax and gunk in your cat’s ears.

If you think your cat has ear mites, contact your veterinarian. Mites can typically be treated with eardrops, and early detection could help your cat avoid an ear infection. Mites are also very contagious, so you should check the ears of any other pets in the house for them. Any infected pets will need to be treated to ensure they won’t recur.

diagnosing and treating cat ear infections _ domestic shorthair cat under a blanket


To diagnose an ear infection, your veterinarian will examine your cat and look in their ears with an otoscope, which offers a magnified view of the inner ear. It enables the veterinarian to gage the extent of the infection and see if there has been any damage to the eardrum.

Other services may be needed, such as a culture to determine the type of bacteria causing the infection or blood work to rule out other illnesses. Remember, if you suspect an ear infection, you should visit the veterinarian as soon as possible. Early treatment can help avoid complications like hearing loss.


Cat ear infections are usually treated with antibiotics or anti-fungal medications. In severe cases that can’t be handled by medication, surgery may be needed to excise the infection, which unfortunately can lead to permanent hearing loss. All of these treatments from diagnosis and medications to surgery and hospitalization can be covered by an ASPCA Pet Health Insurance plan. Get a quote for your cat now.

It’s important to follow your veterinarian’s instructions and give any prescribed medications carefully. If the infection is not treated properly, it can come back again. Some cats also have chronic ear infections, which may require surgical intervention.

How to Apply Ear Drops

If your cat is prescribed eardrops to clear up an infection, make sure your veterinarian shows you how to use them. You can also refer to these steps to help:

1. Hold the earflap and gently pull it up to open the ear.

2. Apply the eardrops as instructed into the ear canal.

3. Continue to hold the earflap up so the medication goes into the ear.

4. Place one finger in front and one in back of the earflap and carefully massage the ear area.

Once that’s done, you can release the earflap. Don’t worry if your cat immediately shakes their head or paws at the ears. These are normal reactions and typically won’t affect the eardrops. However, if you have any concerns about your cat’s response to the drops or problems applying them, it’s always a good idea to reach out to your veterinarian.

preventing cat ear infections _ maine coon cat resting on a window sill

Preventing Cat Ear Infections

There’s no sure-fire way to prevent ear infections, but there are things you can do at home to help your cat avoid one. For instance:

  • Check your cat’s ears regularly. Healthy ears should be pale pink with no debris, discharge, redness, swelling, or excessive wax build up.
  • Consider a cleaning solution. There are over-the-counter ear cleaning products available for cats. Ask your veterinarian if any of them would be beneficial for your cat.
  • Learn proper ear cleaning techniques. Have your veterinarian show you how to clean your cat’s ears safely. Avoid using Q-tips to clean the inside of the ear or you could damage the eardrum.
  • Keep your cat inside. By keeping your cat safely indoors, you can help protect them from parasites, such as ear mites (which are highly contagious), illnesses, and injuries, like bite wounds, which could lead to ear infections.
  • Get your cat an annual exam. Yearly check-ups can help your veterinarian detect issues that could result in an ear infection, like ear mites or excessive wax build up, early before they cause an issue.

If your cat does get an ear infection, an ASPCA Pet Health Insurance plan can provide reimbursement for the treatment costs of the affliction, which can get expensive depending on the care needed. One customer submitted a claim for over $3,000 for their cat’s outer ear infection!*

Is your cat covered? See your options now.

* Internal Claims Data 2015

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