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Ear Discharge in Cats

By: Dr. Mark Thompson

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Ear problems are one of the most common ailments afflicting cats. Whether due to infection, trauma, parasites or other diseases, ears can be trouble. Most often, the first signs of trouble is the presence of discharge from the ear.
Sometimes, mild discharge is normal. Some cats tend to produce more wax than others. Keeping the ears clean helps prevent problems. For other cats, ear discharge is often a sign of trouble - most often the dreaded ear infection or ear mite.

Cats with ear problems usually start scratching when the trouble begins. The trauma of scratching causes swelling and discharge within the ear canal. The ears may then develop a secondary infection with either bacteria or yeast. Diseases that suppress the immune system and immune skin diseases can also lead to ear problems.

What To Watch For

  • Ear scratching
  • Head shaking
  • Redness, swelling, discharge and odor from the ears


  • A complete medical history. A history is important in determining the underlying disease that is causing the ear symptoms. Expect your veterinarian to ask you about when the symptoms began, whether the animal has had previous ear problems and whether there are other symptoms of skin disease.

  • A complete physical exam. Your veterinarian will give your cat a physical exam, including a thorough exam of the entire skin and an exam of the ear with an otoscope. It is important for your veterinarian to see if the eardrum is intact and healthy to determine if the problem is confined to the external ear or if the middle ear is also affected. Otoscopic exam also allows the veterinarian to look for foreign bodies or mites in the ear and to assess for changes in the health of the ear canal due to chronic disease.

  • Cytological test. A swab of the ear is commonly taken and rolled out on a microscope slide to stain for examination under a microscope (cytology). The slide is examined for yeast or bacteria and inflammatory cells. Unstained swabs may be rolled out in mineral oil to examine for ear mites.

  • A culture to determine the type of bacteria present.

  • In cases of chronic or recurrent ear problems, other diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause of the symptoms may be needed. Bacteria or yeast infection is never the primary cause of ear disease but rather perpetuates the symptoms. Testing may be done for allergies, autoimmune disease or other underlying causes.


  • Ear infections are treated most often with combination drug preparations that contain a broad-spectrum antibiotic, an antifungal to kill yeast, and a corticosteroid to relieve swelling, pain, and inflammation.

  • Ear mites are treated with milbemycin (Milbemite®), ivermectin (Acarexx®) or thiabendazole (Tresaderm®) in the ears or selamectin (Revolution®) topically between the shoulder blades.

  • Thorough cleaning of the ears is necessary to remove debris, allowing the medication to make good contact with the skin of the ear canal.

  • Other treatments are dependent on determination of the underlying cause.

    Home Care and Prevention

    Optimal treatment requires a combination of home and professional veterinary care. Your veterinarian may have you clean your pet's ears as a preventative or as part of therapy for an ongoing problem. It is important not to use cotton swabs in an attempt to clean deep in the ear canal as this is likely to pack debris into the ear canal and against the eardrum.

    Give all medication as directed, and observe your pet closely for recurrence of ear disease. Call your vet promptly is you notice any signs of recurrence. Ear disease is much more easily treated when still early in the disease.

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