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Common Causes of Ear Problems in Cats & How They Are Diagnosed and Treated

If you own a cat, you likely assume that you don’t need to help with their oral hygiene—after all, aren’t cats one of those animals that bathe themselves? While it’s true that cats self-cleanse, they aren’t entirely thorough about it, especially when it comes to those hard to reach areas. One of those areas is their ears.

Cats ears in particular are prone to injury and infection, both of which can occur to one of four parts of the ear: the pinnae (the ear atop of the head), the external ear canal, the middle ear and/or the inner ear. These infections are usually due to ear mites, otitis, ear polyps and malignant tumors, but could stem from other things to. If your cat seems like his ears are bothering him, take him to your cat veterinarian right away for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.


Signs of Ear Problems in Cats

If your cat’s ears hurt him you may be able to tell right away. Cats may not be very verbal, but they are expressive. Your cat may demonstrate the following signs if he is in pain:

  • He will shake his head frequently and paw at his ears;
  • You may notice hair loss or scabs on or around his ears, on his neck or on his face as a result of him scratching;
  • You may notice a pus or discharge at the ear;
  • You may notice an unpleasant odor coming from your cat; or
  • Your cat may tile his head to one side or the other as a result of the infection.

If you notice any of these signs, be kind and take your cat to the vet. An ear injury or infection can quickly become worse and lead to deafness if not taken care of right away.


Common Ear Problems in Cats

If your kitten is showing signs of pain in or near his ears, it may be due to one of the following common organ of hearing problems in felines:


Ear Mites

Ear mites are similar to fleas except worse, as they’re extremely tiny and about the size of a pin head. Ear mites are easily passed from one cat to another and are most commonly found in kittens. If your feline has mites, he’ll likely shake his head aggressively, scratch at his ears, neck and face and have what appear to be chunks of coffee grounds on him. To know for certain, take a coffee ground looking chunk and place on a dark background and under a magnifying glass. Ear mites are white, moving specks, so if that’s what you see, mites are the culprit. However, take your pet to the vet for an official diagnosis and to start your feline’s treatment.


Outer Ear Infection

Cats are prone to bacterial and yeast infections on their outer ear, both of which present themselves in a form that looks similar to ear mites. The symptoms are generally the same as well, so if your cat has an outer ear infection, look for scratching, shaking of the head and scabs. However, outer ear infections are generally worse than ear mites and will cause your pet’s ears to become intensely swollen and bright red. There will most likely be discharge with an unpleasant odor, which doesn’t happen with a mite infestation.

In order for your vet to accurately diagnose an outer ear infection, they will need to take a sample from your cat’s ear and examine it under a microscope. By doing this, they can determine if it’s a bacterial infection or a yeast infection that’s plaguing your pet. An accurate diagnosis is imperative for prescribing the right course of treatment.


Inner Ear Infection

Inner ear infections are usually the result of one’s failure to treat an outer ear infection. When an infection isn’t treated in time, or if it is not treated properly, the bacteria can move through the bloodstream to the Eustachian tube. Once an infection hits the inner ear, it can be very painful for your cat, causing him to demonstrate many of the same outward symptoms of a outer ear infection—head shaking, tilting of the head and scratching. However, unlike a surface issue, an inner ear infection means that your cat is actually ill. He may become lethargic and want to eat less. Additionally, your pet’s face may droop to one side, he may squint in order to see better, develop a raised third eyelid, have differing pupil sizes, perform strange eye movements and have difficulty walking. He likely won’t be able to hear very well either.

If your kitten gets to this point, your vet may need to perform an x-ray, CT scan or even MRI to diagnose the root of the issue. Treatment may consist or systematic antibiotics, topical treatment or even surgery.


Ear Polyps

Ear polyps in felines are a benign growth that look similar to a tumor and that infect the middle ear. They can cause middle ear infections, which you may notice by some of the symptoms mentioned above. However, in addition to the standard head tilt, shaking and scratching, you may also notice nasal discharge and heavy breathing. Diagnosing such polyp is fairly simple—your vet will simply take a handheld otoscope, a tool similar to what your own doctor uses to examine your ears, and examine the earholes and nasopharynx. The only hard part about this is that cats generally don’t like their ears to be probed, so the vet may request that your pet undergo anesthesia. In some instances an x-ray may be necessary.

Surgery is usually required to remove a polyp, but once it’s gone, it’s gone. However, it’s imperative that the entire stalk of the polyp is removed, as if any is left, there is a significant chance of the infection recurring.


Less Complicated Types of Issues

In many instances, a cat’s ear problems are relatively easy to deal with and prevent. Some of the more common issues that veterinarians see in felines are bites and scratches, mange and foreign bodies such as thistles. If your cat is allowed outdoors, they run the risk of running into other felines who may bite and scratch at your cat. They also risk getting thistles, grass and other foreign bodies lodged in their organs of hearing or on the outer parts of their ear if they’re allowed to roam around outdoors on their own.

Mange occurs when felines have mites. If your cat scratches hard enough, or if the mite problem persists for long enough, your pet may develop thick, scaly skin that is covered with crusts. If this happens, you need to get your pet into the vet right away, as many cats end up dying from mange. Fortunately, mange is fairly easy to treat as it merely involves getting rid of the parasite.



In many cases—with humans, dogs, cats and other mammals—organ of hearing infections stem from allergies. If your cat is allergic to a certain food, it could cause them to feel itchy in their throat and ears. If your cat scratches at his ears but you cannot see any physical sign of infection, you may want to talk to your vet about testing for allergies. The United Veterinary Center has a lab in which pets can be tested for allergies and a diagnosis made fairly quickly.

If your pet is demonstrating signs of an ear infection—head tilting, excessive scratching, head shaking, discharge or worse—reach out the lab at the United Veterinary Center today. We can make a quick diagnosis and ensure that your cat is given the treatment he needs to get healthy.

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