Otitis Externa (Ear Infections) in Cats

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Overview of Ear Infections in Cats

Otitis externa, commonly known as an ear infection, is characterized by inflammation of the soft tissue components of the external ear canal. It can affect cats but is more common in dogs. Ear infections can also target the middle or internal ear canal – for more information go to Otitis Interna in Cats

Below is an overview of ear infections in cats followed by in-depth information about the diagnosis and treatment of this condition. 

Several factors may predispose your cat to ear infections, including:

  • Abnormal ear conformation or anatomy such as nasopharyngeal polyps (more common in young cats)
  • Water or hair in the ears
  • Allergies
  • Trauma
  • Tumors (common in elderly cats)
  • Foreign material in the ears
  • Parasites
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Generalized skin disease

    Infections are caused by fungus, bacteria or parasites. Laboratory tests can help to determine which of these is the cause in your pet. Ear mites (Otodectes) may cause approximately 50% of infections in young cats. Other common cause in cats are nasopharyngeal polyps in young or middle age cats and neoplasia (cancer) of the ear in senior cats.

  • What to Watch For

    Common signs of ear infections may include:

  • Scratching or rubbing the ears
  • Head shaking
  • An abnormal odor or discharge from the ear
  • Pain when you manipulate the ear
  • Diagnosis of Otitis Externa in Cats

    Veterinary care should include diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause and help guide subsequent treatment recommendations. Tests may include:

  • Complete medical history and physical examination with special attention to the ears and skin
  • Cytology, which involves taking a sample of the ear discharge or any masses and examining it under a microscope. The discharge if evaluated for the presence of mites, yeast organisms or bacteria.

    Some pets may require additional diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause of the abnormalities. Pets with recurrent ear infections, those who respond poorly to treatment, pets with generalized skin abnormalities, or those with other health problems may need additional diagnostic tests. These may include:

  • Culture and sensitivity involves taking a sample of the ear discharge and sending it to a laboratory to identify the specific bacteria present. The bacteria are exposed to multiple antibiotic samples to determine what will kill them most effectively.
  • Radiographs (X-rays) may be recommended to determine the health of the ear canal and bone and to evaluate the extent of involvement. Some cases of otitis externa (inflammation of the OUTER ear) can progress to otitis media (inflammation of the inner ear).
  • Complete blood count (CBC) and biochemical profile to check for factors that may contribute to the infection as well as to determine if a concurrent disease is present
  • Allergy tests to determine if your pet is allergic to things that may irritate the ears, as well as the skin
  • Treatment of Otitis Externa in Cats

    Treatments for otitis externa may include the following:

  • Cleaning the ear. This can be accomplished by placing solutions in your pet’s ear at home or by having the ears cleaned by your veterinarian. Moderate to severe infections may require sedation and in-hospital flushing.
  • Topical therapy. It usually consists of an ear medication that you place in your pet’s ear once or twice daily. The specific medicine and directions will depend on the cause of the infection. It is extremely important to follow your veterinarian’s directions carefully.
  • Systemic therapy with glucocorticoids (steroids) to decrease pain and inflammation.
  • Antibiotic therapy in cases of severe bacterial infection or ulceration
  • Antifungal therapy in cases of severe or recurrent yeast infections
  • Anti-allergy therapy
  • Home Care and Prevention

    Optimal treatment requires a combination of home and professional veterinary care. Be sure to have your veterinarian or his/her staff show you how to place medication into your cat’s ears.

  • Do not use cotton swabs in the ear; these may push infection and/or discharge deeper into the ear canal. Clean the ears before applying medication.
  • Return to your veterinarian for follow-up examinations as suggested. Repeated cytology may be recommended to monitor therapy.

    At home special care of your cat’s ears can help to maintain healthy ears. Dry the ears after bathing or swimming and check ears for foreign matter.

    Also, at the first sign of scratching, head shaking, pain, swelling, odor, or discharge, have your cat’s ears checked by your veterinarian.

  • In-depth Information About Ear Infections in Cats

    Other medical problems can lead to symptoms similar to those encountered in otitis externa. It is important to exclude these conditions before establishing a definite diagnosis. Examples are:

  • Atopy is caused by an allergy. Cats with itchy skin disease caused by an allergy commonly have otitis externa.
  • Autoimmune disease, such as systemic or discoid lupus erythematosus or pemphigus
  • Contact allergy
  • Food allergy
  • Foreign bodies such as foxtail awns
  • Ear disease like cancer, hyperplasia or polyps
  • Parasites like ear mites, which are responsible for 50 percent of otitis in cats
  • Polyps
  • Seborrhea
  • Trauma
  • Tumors. The following have been reported: squamous cell carcinoma (more common in cats than dogs), histiocytomas, sebaceous gland adenomas, adenocarcinomas, basal cell tumors, mast cell tumors, chondromas, chondrosarcomas, trichoepitheliomas, apocrine gland adenomas, fibromas, fibrosarcomas, and papillomas.
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