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Home Care of the Cat with an Ear Infection

By: Dr. Debra Primovic

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An ear infection, also known by the medical term Otitis Externa in Cats (which means inflammation of the outer ear), is a common condition that may affect more than 20% of all cats. In fact, it is one of the top 20 reasons cats go to their veterinarian.

Below are some common questions cat owners ask about ear infections. The focus of this article will be "what you can do at home".

What Is an Ear Infection?

An ear infection is an infection of the ear canal. Most commonly it occurs in the outer ear but it can also extend to the inner ear.

What Causes Ear Infections?

Several factors can predispose cats to ear infections including infectious problems such as ear mites, allergies, trauma, tumors, foreign material in the ears, and generalized skin diseases.

A common question pet owners ask is, "How can I treat an ear infection at home?"

Home Treatment of Ear Infections

Specific treatments of ear infections are dependent on the underlying cause. Here is the general approach to treating ear infections:

  • Be able to hold your cat to evaluate the ear. If you notice blood or extreme redness and irritation, the best thing to do is to see your veterinarian. Many infections require prescription antibiotics.

  • If your cat is shaking his head and/or has ear discharge and you can not take your cat to your veterinarian (which is recommended), then you may try the following:

  • Administer only prescribed medications. Please check with your veterinarian before giving ANY medications to your cat. Do not put anything in your cat's ear that was not made for the ear.

  • One issue with ear infections is that they can have different underlying causes. For example, ear infections can be caused by any of the following: ear mites, fungal organisms and/or bacteria. Many cats with ear infections have allergies as a predisposing cause. To be most effective, the medications for each cause can be different.

  • If possible, clean the debris from the ear. Use a commercial ear cleaner, which you can get at your veterinarian's office or at many pet stores. Here are some tips on how to clean your cat's ear.

    - Restrain your cat. Start by wrapping your small cat in a large thick towel with just the head exposed. Or, if you have someone help by holding your cat's body and legs.

    - Clean the ear lobe. Using a cotton ball, paper towel or gauze sponges moistened with water. Gently rub the large pieces of dirt, wax and debris off the ear lobe. Repeat on the opposite ear.

    - Clean the cartilage of the ear. After most of the debris has been removed with the moistened cotton ball, use a cotton swab (Q-Tip®) moistened with water to gently remove the pieces of debris trapped within the cartilage of the ear. Be very careful not to place the swab down the ear canal. This will stimulate head shaking and can lead to ear trauma. It is safest to clean only the parts of the ear you can see. If there is significant wax just inside the ear canal, you can briefly place the tip of the Q-tip into the ear canal to remove the debris. However, and this is important, you should ALWAYS be able to see the cotton tip of the swab.

    - After cleaning the ears, it is a good idea to offer a treat. This will help make the next ear cleaning session a little smoother.

  • For deeper cleaning, you can use an ear-cleaning solution. To use, flush a small amount into your cat's ear. About a teaspoon is adequate for most cats. Gently massage the base of the ear. You should hear a swishing sound in most cats. Then dry as directed above using a cotton ball or gauze sponges.

  • Many organisms that live in the ear prefer an alkaline environment. One inexpensive ear solution you can make at home is a 50% water and 50% white vinegar mix. This will not treat ear mites (and ear mites are very common in cats).

  • This is important! If the ear infection continues at any time, or if other symptoms are noted, call your veterinarian promptly. If your pet is not eating, acts lethargic, is vomiting or is having diarrhea, or if any other physical abnormalities begin, it is important to see your veterinarian. Your pet needs your help and the professional care your veterinarian can provide. If your pet is having the clinical signs mentioned above, expect your veterinarian to perform some diagnostic tests and make treatment recommendations. Recommendations will be dependent upon the severity and nature of the clinical signs.

    When Is an Ear Infection an Emergency?

    An ear infection is an emergency when your cat is in pain, you cannot touch or look in your cat's ear, the ear is red and swollen, and/or your cat has a head tilt. All ear infections should be examined and treated by a veterinarian.

    Great Links for More Information

    For more details or related topics, go to: Otitis Externa in Cats, Ear Mites in Cats, and How to Clean Your Cat's Ears


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