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Barks & Mewsings

The Trupanion blog

How to Tell if Your Cat Has an Ear Infection

By: Brianna Gunter

A black and white cat with wide yellow eyes being examined by veterinary hands in gloves.

Perhaps kitty’s ears are looking dirty. Or maybe she’s pawing at them more lately. Uh oh—does my cat have an ear infection?

It’s a common question for cat owners, not to mention a tricky one to solve. Our feline friends can’t exactly tell us what’s bothering them or how bad it feels, so many pet parents don’t realize their cat is suffering from an ear infection until it’s already become quite severe.

Before you start panicking though, the good news is that most feline ear infections can be effectively treated and not result in any lasting health repercussions. However, the only way diagnose ear infections in cats accurately and safely is to consult with your pet’s veterinarian.

With this in mind, let this information serve as a guide to help you better understand cat ear problems and know when it’s time to seek veterinary care.

How common are ear infections in cats?

Known as “otitis” in the veterinary community, ear infections are generally less prevalent in cats than in dogs (5% of feline veterinary visits versus 15% of canine visits, according to DVM 360). Because they are considered uncommon—and because cats are very good at hiding their symptoms—ear infections in cats may go longer periods before they are recognized and lead to complications.

Trupanion pet insurance data nevertheless shows that the amount of otitis claims in cats doubled over recent years, from 900 in 2018 to 1,800 in 2021. The average amount paid per claim also increased, from $74 in 2018 to $86 in 2021. This does not reflect treatment of underlying conditions or serious complications that may have occurred in more extensive ear infection cases.

Cat ear infection symptoms

Looking for symptoms of an ear infection in cats is a bit misleading, as “symptoms” technically only refer to signs of illness felt and experienced by the person (or in this case, animal) affected. Your cat can’t verbalize what he’s feeling, so what you’re really looking for are cat ear infection signs. These are visible changes to your pet’s ears or behavior patterns that you can observe just by looking at him.

According to Trupanion veterinarian Dr. Caroline Wilde, cat ear infection signs to watch for include the following:

  • Scratching at the ears
  • Shaking their head
  • Head tilt
  • Odor coming from the ears
  • Ear redness and inflammation; ears may be warm to the touch
  • Discharge visible in and around the ears
  • Ears lowered “at half mast”
  • Acting in pain when touching around the head or ears

If you notice any of these signs, note that your cat may have an infection in one or both ears. However, it’s important to keep in mind that cats tend to be excellent at hiding when they’re suffering pain and discomfort. Be sure to observe your pet closely and contact your veterinarian if anything seems out of the ordinary.

Cat ear infection causes and treatments

Close-up view of veterinarian examining a cat’s ears for infection.

Wilde explains that treating feline ear infections typically involves cleaning the cat’s ears to remove any discharge and appropriate pain management while symptoms persist. Additional treatment can vary and will depend on the exact cause of the infection. In rarer cases, ear infections in cats may actually be a sign of other health conditions.

“Treatment generally consists of identifying the causal agent, i.e. bacteria, yeast, or mites, and then targeting antimicrobial therapy accordingly,” Wilde says. “Ear infections are rarely a primary issue, and generally occur secondary to allergies [most frequently], polyps or tumors, and those primary conditions should be appropriately diagnosed and managed.”

The risks of not treating your cat’s ear infection

Life gets busy, and it can be tempting to just let something seemingly simple like an ear infection run its course. However, Wilde strongly advises cat owners against this.

“Untreated ear infections can progress to infection to the middle ear,” she explains. “The cat may remain in pain, and [the infection] can cause scarring, thickening, or chronic changes of the ear canal, which can predispose to recurrent infection.”

But what if your cat has had an ear infection before and you still have ear medicine left over at home? According to Wilde, any attempt at treatment without proper diagnosis is dangerous territory.

“Inappropriate therapy can contribute to resistant cat ear infections,” she says. “Delayed treatment of ear infections can cause unnecessary pain.”

What should I do if I think my cat has an ear infection?

Just like in humans, ear infections in cats can lead to long-term problems if left untreated. So, if you suspect there’s something wrong with kitty’s ears, the first thing you should do is call your veterinarian. They’ll likely ask you to bring your cat in for an official diagnosis—in fact, you shouldn’t attempt any at-home treatments before getting a professional opinion.

“If a cat owner is concerned regarding a possible ear infection, they should seek veterinary care and not try to manage the ear infection on their own without veterinary guidance,” Wilde says. “Some ear cleaners and medications can be toxic to the ear and can cause deafness, and improper or inappropriate ear cleaning techniques can damage the ear drum.”

Want to know more about your kitty’s health? Learn about 6 cat behavior changes that require veterinary attention.

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We’re the official blog of Trupanion—chosen by veterinarians as the #1 pet insurance in America. Here you’ll find useful dog and cat care tips, interesting veterinary insights, and fun pet topics galore.

While you’re browsing our pet blog, please note that the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Trupanion. Our articles are reviewed by veterinarians for accuracy, but they are not a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Always consult with your own pet’s veterinarian for advice.

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