Pet InfoRx®
Cat Ear Infections & Ear Mites

Your cat has an ear infection! Now what?

This pet information prescription will help you know what to do, how to make your cat more comfortable, and how to prevent this from happening in the future.


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Ever seen a cat lick their own ears?

Cat grooming paw

Though cats have a reputation for being meticulous groomers, their ears can be a bit tricky for them to keep clean. Cats can get ear infections from painful ear mites, or from out-of-control yeast or bacteria. So, cleaning your cat's ears will help your cat feel their best.

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What Are Ear Infections?

Ear infections in cats – also known as otitis externa – are inflammation and infection of the ear canal lining. They occur when water, bacteria, or yeast are trapped inside the ear canal. On occasion, they are a result of an ear mite infestation or polyps (a small mass in the ear canal). You may notice that your cat's ear may be red, the inside part of their ear is swollen or has dark brown debris, and there may be a foul smell. There are times when you may see a creamy yellowish discharge as well. You may also notice that your cat’s pinna (the outside of the ear) is swollen or puffy.

How Did This Happen?

Your cat could've gotten an ear infection:

  • a bacterial or fungal skin infection
  • because of ear mites
  • polyps
  • if water becomes trapped at the base of your cat's ear canal

How Does This Affect You and Your Family?

Cat with Baby on CouchBecause your cat may be painful, there is an increased risk of them biting as a defense mechanism, particularly if their ears are touched. Be sure that any children in your home are aware that your cat may be more sensitive around their head and ears, and don’t leave them together unsupervised.

Be aware of your cat's possible discomfort when cleaning or treating their ear infection. If you aren’t able to do so safely, stop and talk to your veterinarian about the next steps.

Untreated ear infections may eventually lead to hearing loss, changing the way you and your family communicate with your pet.

What You Should Do If Your Cat Has An Ear Infection

Follow your veterinarian’s instructions to medicate and/or clean your cat's ears. If your vet recommended other medication to treat a potential cause of the ear infection, like ear mites or skin infection, be sure to give it as directed. Only do the things in the list below if your veterinarian instructed you to, since different infections require different types of cleaning or no cleaning at all.

Based on the type of ear infection and the medications prescribed, your cat may need:

  • medicated ear drops administered daily
  • a medicated ear “pack” that dissolves and treats over 1–2 weeks
  • oral antibiotics, antifungals, or anti-inflammatories
  • regular ear cleanings (see the steps below)
  • surgery
  • a recheck examination to ensure the infection has resolved
Cat ears

How to Clean Your Cat's Ears

Tools you will need:

  • a safe and effective ear cleaner – they're not all created equal, so ask a veterinarian for a recommendation
  • some gauze pads, cotton balls, or make-up removal rounds, even tissues will work
  • a towel (see this video for how veterinarians use a towel to gently restrain a kitty)
  • cat treats to reward your kitty with
  • Feliway® pheromone spray on the towel (15 mins before cleaning the ears) or a diffuser in the room (optional, but helpful)
  • VetriScience® Composure treats 15 to 20 minutes before ear cleaning (optional)

Steps to clean your pet's ears

  1. Shake the ear cleaner bottle well before use. Then gently place the tip of the bottle, without touching the ear, into the opening of your cat’s ear (be kind to your pet as the solution can be cold – make sure it's room temperature or, better still, gently warm the cleaner slightly by putting the bottle under warm running water for a few minutes).

  2. Gently squeeze a lot of the cleaner into your pet’s ear until you see the liquid flowing out of the ear canal opening.

  3. Keeping the ear flap held up, and vigorously massage the base of your pet’s ear (do this for a good 10–15 seconds). If your pet's ears are too infected, or if they really don't like having the cleaner squirted directly into their ears, you can soak a cotton ball heavily with the cleaner. Then place the gauze pad at the opening of the ear canal and squeeze it to get the cleaner to flow into the canal. This is less ideal than flushing with the bottle because you may not get enough cleaner into the deeper part of the ear canal.

  4. Keeping the ear flap held up, grab your soft, absorbent material (gauze pad), wrap it around the tip of your finger, and then gently stick that finger into your pet’s ear canal, gently wiping up and out – in a non-scrubbing way – removing as much of the cleaner liquid and ear debris as you can. "Ear debris" is the brownish gunk that you'll notice on the cotton ball. A healthy, clean ear won't have this dark brown stuff coming out of it. As mentioned prior, the debris may be a creamy yellowish substance.

  5. Repeat the flushing and wiping step above as many times as is necessary to get the bulk of the liquid cleaner and ear debris out.

  6. Stand back – your pet will want to shake their head. This is where the towel is helpful because you can dry your cat and yourself after all the cleaner and debris goes flying.

  7. Reward your cat with some yummy treats!

Making the activity of cleaning your pet's ears enjoyable is an excellent goal to have. Because once their ear infection is cleared up, you'll want to do regular ear maintenance – cleaning once a week if possible.

Not that it happens often, but ALWAYS clean your cat’s ear after a bath or if they go swimming. With maintenance cleaning, you need to use an ear cleaner that contains a cleaning and drying agent, such as Otiderm®. Overfill the ear canal with cleaner and massage. BOOM! You are done.

This video tutorial is for dog ear cleaning, but it's a similar process for cats.

Keep Your Cat Comfortable

The best thing you can do is use the medication your veterinarian prescribed and follow their directions for cleaning (but only if they have recommended this).

Make sure to use the medication for the entire length of time prescribed, even if your cat feels better in a day or two. This is important to make sure the infection is fully treated — and doesn’t come back! Avoid touching or rubbing their ears (except for cleaning) until their infection goes away since this may be uncomfortable for them.

When cleaning and applying medications (if needed) to the ear, use caution not to get either into your cat’s eyes. It may be helpful to put artificial tears gel eye ointment in the eye to protect it from irritation if either substance gets into the eye.

If your cat is the type that scratches aggressively at their ears, especially after cleaning, you may need to place an E-collar to prevent additional trauma to their ear and head.

kitten on cat tree very comfortable

How Do You Know Things Are Improving?

You should notice a decrease in your cat scratching and shaking their head. Your pet’s ear should look less red, there should be less dark brown gunk, and the odor should be getting better.

If you're cleaning their ears, the stuff coming out should eventually be a clear or light brown color.

How Do You Know When Things Are Not Improving? What You Should Do.

If your pet is still uncomfortable with no decrease in scratching or shaking after 3–5 days of treatment, you should call your veterinarian and let them know. After a week, if you're still seeing dark brown debris on the cotton ball when you’re cleaning their ears, this also means that the infection is likely still present. If your pet suddenly develops a head tilt to one side or the other, stop all cleaning and medication and get them to a veterinarian right away.

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How to Prevent This from Happening in the Future

Ear infections in cats most commonly happen as a result of an ear mite infestation, a bacterial or fungal skin infection, or because of food or environmental allergies. Especially if your cat goes outside, it’s important to keep them on a regular parasite preventative all year long. It will keep them safe from ear mites, as well as heartworm disease, fleas, ticks, and intestinal parasites. However, each parasite preventative protects against different things, so your veterinarian will advise you on the best preventative for your cat and their lifestyle (indoor-only or outdoor cat, or if there are other pets in your home, etc.).

While cat skin issues from allergies, fungal and bacterial infections are less common than their canine counterparts, if you notice your cat scratching frequently, losing hair, or developing any skin lesions or scabbing, it’s important to talk to your veterinarian before they progress and involve their ear canal.

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