Signs and Diagnosis of Ear Infections in Cats

Cat Ear Exam
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Ear infections are common among cats. Ear infections are not only uncomfortable; they can also be a symptom of a more significant health issue. If left untreated, ear infections can lead to hearing loss or other issues.

Signs of Ear Infection in Cats

Regardless of the cause of the ear infection, the signs of an ear problem will always look similar. If you notice these issues, it's time to visit the vet.

  • Cats with ear infections and other ear problems often shake their head or scratch at their ears.
  • You may see hair loss or scabs around the face, ears, and neck of your as a result of scratching at its ears.
  • A discharge may be present in the ears.
  • The ears may have an unpleasant odor.
  • Your cat may tilt its head to one side or another as a result of the ear problem.

Diagnosing the Cause of Feline Ear Infections

The diagnosis starts with an examination not only of the ears but of the entire cat. This is because some of the causes of ear infections in cats can signal a systemic health problem. Your vet will check to be sure that your cat is generally healthy, and will carefully examine its skin and fur. 

In addition to an overall examination, your veterinarian will perform an examination of your cat's ears with an otoscope. An otoscope allows your veterinarian to examine the inside of the ear canal for signs such as redness and inflammation, discharge, masses and polyps, foreign bodies, and other abnormalities.

Your veterinarian will also want to examine the integrity of your cat's eardrum if possible. However, if there is discharge inside of the ear canal, it may be necessary to first clean and flush the ear canal free of debris in order to be able to see the eardrum. Depending on the severity of the infection, sedation may be necessary to thoroughly flush the ear canal and examine your cat's ear.

About Ear Mites

Ear mites are responsible for approximately one-half of the ear infections seen in cats. In fact, ear mites might be one of the first things your veterinarian checks for if your cat has an ear infection.

Ear mites cause a characteristic dark brown to black-colored discharge in the ears that looks a bit like coffee grounds. The presence of this type of discharge is often the first indication that your cat has ear mites. Your veterinarian may also examine the debris from your cat's ears microscopically looking for ear mites.

If ear mites are detected in your cat's ears, the search may stop there. However, if your cat does not have ear mites or if appropriate treatment for ear mites fails to rid your cat of the infection, further diagnosis may be necessary.

Additional Diagnostic Procedures for Cat Ear Infections

Ear cytology involves swabbing the inside of your cat's ear and then using a microscope to looking for abnormal cells, bacteria, or yeast in your cat's ears. Ear cytology is often used to guide treatment of an ear infection. The results of this test will help your veterinarian determine which antibiotics, anti-fungal, or other medications are best used in your cat's ears.

An ear culture may also need to be performed, particularly if ear cytology indicates a bacterial infection that is not responding well to antibiotic treatment. An ear culture will tell your veterinarian what type of bacteria is present in your cat's ears and test specific antibiotics to determine if they are effective in killing that bacteria.

Because ear problems in cats can be due to more systemic causes, if your cat has not responded to traditional therapies or a more widespread disease is suspected, your veterinarian may recommend further testing. This testing may include:

  • Blood testing can detect conditions such as feline leukemia and feline FIV testing.
  • Food trials will be conducted if a food allergy is suspected.
  • Effective flea treatment will rule out flea allergy as a cause of the ear infection.
  • Testing for atopy will reveal an allergy to something in your cat's environment.
  • Fungal cultures might be ordered if a fungal disease such as ringworm is suspected of playing a role in the ear disease.
  • Skin scrapings can rule out other parasitic diseases, such as sarcoptic mange.

Please note: This article has been provided for informational purposes only. If your pet is showing any signs of illness, please consult a veterinarian as quickly as possible.