A cat having an ear examination

Cat ear infections: the symptoms and causes of ear problems in cats

If you’ve ever had an ear infection, you’ll know there’s nothing like the pain of having sore ears. But did you know that cats are just as susceptible to ear infections as their owners? In fact, feline ear infections are a common conditions treated by vets.

So, how do you recognise if your cat has an ear infection – and what should you do about it? We take a look at the causes and symptoms of feline ear infections.

Is my cat likely to get an ear infection?

Much like us humans, some cats are more susceptible to ear infections than others. Some naturally produce more oil and wax than normal, while others have too much hair inside their ears – both increase your cat’s risk of getting an ear infection. 

Ear infections can happen to cats of any age or breed, though cats with allergies, diabetes, or a weakened immune system are more at risk. Breeds with small ears, such as Persians or Himalayans, are also more likely to suffer from ear infections.

Recognising the signs and symptoms of cat ear infections

If your cat develops an ear infection, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • Frequent head shaking 
  • Loss of balance
  • Discharge or pus from the ears
  • Excessive wax build up
  • Smelly ears
  • Redness, inflammation and irritation
  • Swelling
  • Deafness
  • Scabs or hair loss around the ears
  • Rubbing and scratching the ears
  • Tilting the head to one side
  • Walking in circles

Common causes of cat ear infections 

Feline ear infections are often caused by a build-up of bacteria or yeast in your cat’s ears. They can also be caused by:

  • Foreign bodies in the ears
  • Too much hair, moisture or wax in the ears
  • Wax build up
  • Tumours or polyps in the ear canal
  • Allergies
  • Ear mites
  • Hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) 

The anatomy of your cat’s ears

While human ear canals are horizontal, your cat’s ear canals are mostly vertical, making it easy for debris and moisture to build up and cause infection.

The lining of the ear canal produces oil (sebum) and wax, which can combine with hair, moisture, and debris to become a feeding ground for yeast and bacteria. When these build up, it can lead to inflammation of the ear canal, and the associated symptoms.

“Your cat’s ear canals are mostly vertical, which makes it easy for debris and moisture to build up and cause infection.

The three types of ear infections in cats

Vets classify ear infections according to the part of the ear that’s affected: 

  • Otitis externa: infection in the outer part of the ear
  • Otitis media: infection in the middle part of the ear
  • Otitis interna: infection in the inner ear

Inner ear infections can be very serious. Left untreated, they can lead to loss of hearing and balance. Infections in the outer or middle ear are more common, and can be caused by an immune disorder, or an abnormality in the structure of the inner ear.

Diagnosing and treating cat ear infections

Your vet sees dozens of cats each year that are suffering from ear infections, and will recommend the best and most effective treatment.

He or she may use a swab to take a sample of the discharge or pus coming from your cat’s ears – a painless process called an ear cytology that can establish whether there are mites, yeast or bacteria present. 
It may not be possible to prevent feline ear infections, but your vet will give you tips on the best way to reduce the risk.

Want more information about cat ear infections?

For expert advice on ear infections in cats, contact your local vet. To find your nearest recommended vet or pet clinic, use our Find a Vet page.