How to Know What’s Wrong With Your Cat’s Ears

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This is a sponsored post by veterinarian Elizabeth Arguelles, owner of Just Cats Clinic at Lake Anne Plaza. She writes weekly on Reston Now.

Cats have sensitive ears and can suffer from a variety of ear problems throughout the ear as a result. Ear issues can occur in any of the four major parts of the ear: the pinnae or the outer ears sitting on the top of the head, the external ear canal, and the middle ear and inner ear. In this article, we examine some of the more common problems associated with each part of the ear. As always, if you suspect any ear problems in your cat, contact your veterinarian for an exam.

Issues affecting the pinnae or outer ears

Wounds or external trauma: By far the most common problems affecting the pinnae are wounds. In the majority of cases, these cuts, scrapes or scratches are a result of fights with other cats. Occasionally, however, your kitty can inflict these wounds to itself when scratching its head.

Fortunately, most of these external traumas are minor in nature. If a bite or scratch is deep enough, though, it can tear all the way through the pinna creating a greater risk for infection, and if deep enough maybe even sutures. With any noticeable cut or scratch on the outer ear, have your veterinarian examine the ear. Abscesses can develop and cause considerable pain to your cat and require immediate medical attention.

Hematomas: Hematoma is a term used to describe a large blood-filled swelling caused by the rupture of a small vessel just under the skin. Though seen more commonly in dogs, hematomas can occur in cats as well. Like wounds, they are usually the result of external trauma, sometimes from fights and sometimes from the cat itself when it scratches its ear too violently. Your vet will determine the underlying cause of the issue and recommend treatment options. In more severe cases, minor surgery may be needed to correct the issue.

Feline scabies: Scabies is a skin disease caused by an infestation of tiny mites. It is fairly common on the ears where the cat has less fur to protect it from parasites. Scabies can cause severe irritation and itching, and is also characterized by hair loss. Your veterinarian will take a skin scrape of the ear and examine it under a microscope to confirm diagnosis. Treatment typically involves isolation from other animals within the household and prescription based shampoo and ointments.

Issues affecting the external ear canal

Ear mites: Ear mites are one of the most common causes of ear infections in cats and are unfortunately very contagious. They can easily spread from one cat to another, making them harder to eradicate.

Fortunately, ear mites are easy to identify, even sometimes being visible to the naked eye as white specks that occasionally move. Like scabies, ear mites cause severe itching. As a result, an affected cat will often shake its head because the skin lining the ear canals has become inflamed. There will also typically be dark, wax-like discharge coming from the ears.

Even if ear mites are suspected, a diagnosis will be confirmed by your veterinarian by skin scrape. Treatment is typically simple involving topical medications. It’s important to remember that you will need to launder any bed spreads, cat beds, or any other fabric in your home.

Bacterial infections: These are often the byproduct of some of the other ear problems listed here, such as ear mites, foreign bodies or trauma, but bacterial ear infections can also occur without any of those underlying causes. When your kitty gets a bacterial or fungal infection, pus forms in the ear canal and emits a very strong odor. Depending on how deep the infection is within the ear or how painful your cat may be, you vet may recommend sedation so your cat will be more comfortable. Based on the type of bacteria, antibiotics will typically be recommended.

Foreign bodies: Though not as common, foreign bodies might get stuck in your cat’s ear canal. This usually causes sudden and severe pain, so an affected kitty will often hold its head to one side. Getting the foreign body out might be tricky and uncomfortable for your kitty, so your vet will likely recommend sedation. Prescriptions medications may be needed to help with any infection or inflammation.

Tumors: Cats, usually seniors, can occasionally develop tumors in the lining of the ear canal. Though they can be benign polyps, these tumors could be malignant. It is important to diagnose and treat this issue promptly. Your vet will likely need to sedate your cat in order to do a full examination of the ear canal and to obtain a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.

Issues affecting the middle ear and inner ear:

We have grouped these two parts of the ear together because the middle ear and inner ear are so close together that a disease affecting one tends to affect the other as well. Because the middle and inner ears help regulate balance, issues in this part of your cat’s body are often characterized by shaky balance. Other symptoms include tilting the head to one side, “sea walking,” or walking with a lean to the affected side.

Diagnosing middle ear diseases varies depending on the suspected problem. Your veterinarian might take an x-ray or, in more serious cases, recommend a CT scan to assess the condition of the middle ears. Sometimes an anesthetized exam will be necessary to look deeper into the ear canal.

 Middle ear infections: Seen more often in kittens than in adult cats, these infections generally occur when bacteria travel through the small tube that connects the nose to the middle ear. Sometimes, however, a middle ear infection can result from an upper respiratory infection. Strong-smelling discharge, redness and loss of balance are some of the symptoms associated with this infection. To diagnose it, your veterinarian will examine the inside of your cat’s ears with an otoscope. Once it is determined that this is the cause, your vet will typically prescribe a course of antibiotics.

Polyps: Benign polyps can develop in a kitty’s middle ear or on the Eustachian tube that connect the nasal passages to the ear. This can affect cats at any age, but it is most commonly seen in young adults. Unfortunately, the cause of these benign growths remains unknown. Depending on the location of the polyp your veterinarian might suggest surgical removal.

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