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Health & Wellness

7 common causes of cat ear infections and how to prevent them

Plus the many ways veterinarians diagnose ear infections in cats.

There are endless ways you show your cat that you care, from hours of feather-wand play to serving up quality food to snuggling. And if scratching your cat's ears is on the list, too, know that you're actually doing more than just showing your best friend physical love.

Say your cat flinches or squirms away from their favorite scratches — an ear infection could be causing them a lot of discomfort. That's why it's important to know an ear infection's triggers and treatment options if there is a chance something is up.

What are cat ear infections caused by?

Ear infections happen when cats’ inner, middle or external ear areas become infected, causing inner-and-outer-ear discomfort, Dr. Aliya McCullough, Fetch’s on-staff veterinarian, explains. 

There are several causes behind cat ear infections, and working with your veterinarian to nail down the specific trigger can help prevent the infection from recurring. According to Dr. McCullough, these are the most common reasons veterinarians diagnose ear infections:

  • Allergies
  • Parasites
  • Bacteria
  • Yeast 
  • Foreign material
  • Cleaning their ears too much
  • Medical conditions, like immune-mediated disorders and glandular diseases, which is where there’s an abnormal structure or function of a gland

What are the symptoms of cat ear infections? 

Cats with ear infections will probably shy away from anyone touching the impacted area(s) because of pain. But they can also show other symptoms like ear itchiness, odor, discharge, swelling, crusting, ulcerated skin (due to scratching) and redness. 

Don’t be surprised if your cat starts moving oddly, like itching, shaking or tilting their head when they have an ear infection. Because your cat is likely scratching a lot, they may cause themselves to bruise, too. 

“Pet parents that think their cat may have an ear infection should contact their veterinarian as soon as possible,” Dr. McCullough recommends. 

RELATED: How and when to bathe a cat

How do veterinarians diagnose cat ear infections? 

The first step in helping your cat feel better is to figure out what’s causing their discomfort. According to Dr. McCullough, there are several ways vets can examine how badly bacteria is impacting a cat’s ear, including: 

  • Otoscopic exam: visually reviewing the external canal with tools.
  • Cytology exams: swabbing the ear canal to review samples under a microscope. 
  • Culture exams: sending swab samples to a lab for deeper evaluation.
  • X-rays, machine resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT scans): viewing what’s going on inside a cat’s body without being invasive. 

Treatment options for cat ear infections

To treat ear infections, veterinarians usually recommend topical ear medications that should be applied directly to your cat’s ear canal, Dr. McCullough says. Talk to your vet about the dos and don'ts of application before treating your pet.

“In some cases, cleaning the ears with a medicated cleaner is also recommended to remove excessive ear debris,” she adds. “Oral medications like anti-inflammatories, antibiotics or antifungal medications may sometimes be needed. Surgery may be needed in advanced cases.”

Are there any home remedies for cat ear infections? 

Unfortunately, there aren’t any home remedies for cat ear infections, and you should always follow your veterinarian’s guidance for treatment.

How long does it take for a cat ear infection to heal? 

Cats with simple ear infections should feel better between 1 to 2 weeks, Dr. McCullough shares. However, if these issues are chronic, they might take longer to treat. 

How to prevent cat ear infections

Determining the cause of a cat’s ear infection early on helps your vet recommend the right treatment path and can prevent them from happening in the future. 

Suppose mites are causing your cat’s ear infections, you should talk to your veterinarian about topical flea medications. Or, if they’re happening often, you’ll want to ask your veterinarian about regular ear cleanings to prevent them.

The Dig, Fetch's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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