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Ear Infections in Cats

Picture of a white cat

Our feline friends can have two types of ear infections – the ones that affect the external components of the ear and the ones that affect the interior of the ear. Infections of the outer ear canal can be caused by yeast or bacteria and are more commonly seen in our canine companions. Cats can have infections of the external ear canal, but it usually involves an ear mite infestation. 

Otitis interna is also somewhat uncommon, but it does show up in cats more often than infections that affect the external ear canal. In this article, we will look at the clinical signs of both, how they can be treated, and what prognosis they have. 

Otitis externa

External ear infections in cats aren’t as common as some cat parents might imagine. If they do happen, however, the cat will scratch her ears or shake her head in a desperate attempt to remove the debris or the fluid that could have accumulated inside the canal. 

One or both of the ears become inflamed and red. In some infections, there could be a foul smell coming from the cat’s ears. Yellow or black discharge can sometimes be seen in cats that have ear infections.

Diagnosis

As you might know, there are medications that you can get for your pets without needing a prescription from the vet. However, we would advise against using ear drops on your cats without knowing the exact cause of the infection. While it might be true that the most common cause of external ear infections in cats consists of ear mites, you should take your cat to the vet so that they actually look inside the ear. 

The vet will use an otoscope, a device specifically made for analyzing the interior of animals’ ears. An otoscope is basically outfitted with a lens system, as well as a light, and so the interior can be visualized conveniently. This will enable the veterinarian to notice tumors, foreign material, the exact type of discharge, and even the actual mites if there are any. 

If the cat refuses examination, especially if she experiences any pain, she might have to be sedated. 

A sample from the material found inside the external ear canal can be taken and analyzed under the microscope. This gives the vet the opportunity to diagnose the condition correctly. Culture tests can be performed, as well, and they are used to determine the exact treatment that the cat needs. 

Treatment

Foreign bodies can be removed mechanically by the vet, in which case the cat definitely needs to be sedated. 

For cases where there is a fungal or bacterial infection, the cat can be prescribed specific medications. It’s quite common for a cat to have several types of germs in her ear, so usually, she needs to undergo treatment with a combination of drugs, not just one. 

It’s very important for the cat to take all the treatment (without any interruptions) as otherwise, it might not be effective, and the ear infection could come back and fail to respond to the same medications. 

Cats are typically quite resistant to ear infections, but they can experience them frequently if they have a problem with their immune system, if they have an unusual shape of the ear canal, or if they live in an environment where they are constantly under the risk of getting an ear mite infection. 

Prognosis

For external ear infections, you will be happy to know that, if the cat receives treatment in due time, nearly all cases can be resolved effectively. The underlying cause needs to be addressed, however, if there is one because otherwise, the cat will experience a recurring ear infection. 

Otitis interna

If a cat ends up having ear mites inside the external ear canal and the infection isn’t treated rapidly, this can eventually end up affecting the inner ear, as well. Most inner ear infections actually occur when there is one in the external ear canal or when a polyp is growing in the middle ear. Foreign objects can also cause bacterial infections in the inner ear. 

Clinical signs

While some cats paw at the affected ear or shake their heads in an attempt to remove an imaginary or real foreign body, some cats will show almost no symptoms besides difficulty chewing or pain when they open their mouths. There are also cats that might have some trouble maintaining their balance as they walk, and that’s because the inner ear and the cerebellum both play an equally important part in ensuring an animal’s balance.

Cats that have otitis interna might also not be able to hear on the side of the affected ear (or both, if they are both affected). Some cats can develop a head tilt and can fall, lean, or roll toward the affected side. 

In the acute phase of an inner ear infection, the cat can vomit, drool from one side of the mouth, have a hard time eating, or even drop food from her mouth. In severe cases, the cat’s eyes can be affected, as well, so she might have eye discharge. Redness in the affected ear is common, and discharge that has a foul odor can be noticed, as well.  

Treatment of Ear Infections in Cats

Compared to otitis externa, otitis interna is a serious medical condition and should be treated as such. If the cat can’t eat or drink normally, hospitalization is highly recommended as she needs to receive the nutrition and fluids that she requires intravenously. 

Treating the primary infection is crucial, and the vet will prescribe the correct medication only after the correct diagnosis was made. For this to happen, the cat might have to be sedated so that the vet can take samples for bacterial culture, look at the ear tissue in-depth and adequately clean the ear. 

Some of the typical antibiotics that work in cases of otitis interna are clindamycin, amoxicillin-clavulanate, enrofloxacin, or cefpodoxime. Due to the severity of the medical condition, the treatment is administered for a minimum of 6 weeks and a maximum of 8 weeks. Antifungal medication can be prescribed if the infection is of a fungal nature.

If the cat can’t eat or drink on her own, the cat parent will have to hand feed her or give her liquids using a syringe (without the needle). Many cats can become nauseated when reaching down into the food dish. 

Prognosis

While it is considerably harder to treat compared to an external ear canal infection, an inner ear infection can be cured when it is caught and diagnosed in due time. However, if it is not, it can become so severe that it can spread to the animal’s brain. 

The cat can also become deaf in the affected ear or lose part of her sense of balance. Fortunately, these cases are rare as the majority of cats that receive treatment for otitis interna respond well to the medication. To make sure that the infection doesn’t recur, you might have to give your cat medications for as many as two to four months.

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