Common Ear Problems in Cats

cat with large ears

A Few Facts About Cats and Hearing

Cats can hear sounds that we can't. For example, cat hearing ranges from 45-64,000 Hz, but humans can only hear sounds within 20-20,000 Hz. This means that cats can hear lots of high pitched sounds that we can't, but perhaps we can hear a few low pitched sounds that they can't.

When kittens are born, their ear canals are closed and it is thought that they may be not be able to hear for about the first week of their life.

Cats have a great sense of equilibrium, which accounts for their tendency to land on their feet. This is due to their vestibular system located in their inner ear. We also have this system, but we don't usually land on our feet when falling from high places and so ours isn't as highly developed (although it isn't true that cats ALWAYS land on their feet either).

Ear Care for Cats

In general, cats don't need their ears routinely cleaned. As in humans, a little ear wax is necessary for healthy ears. There is a lot of variability in the amount of ear wax cats produce. Some cats produce excessive amounts of ear wax. I have one cat that produces a ton of earwax. If this is the case with your cat you will need to clean your cat's ears.

The best way to clean your cat's ears is to use a damp cotton ball or gauze pad to gently wipe out the ear. Don't use any sort of cleaning solution unless advised by your veterinarian. There are special ear cleaning solutions that you can obtain from your vet if plain water isn't sufficient or you can use a very small amount of mineral oil. Don't use harsh cleaners, such as alcohol, in your cat's ears.

My vet typically gives me Animax for cats with really waxy ears.

To clean dirty ear folds you can use a cotton-tipped swab (Q-tip), but you must be very careful not to insert it into the ear canal. You may damage your cat's ear if you do so. If you insert the Q-tip into the ear canal at the very least you will push wax and dirt further down into the ear canal, which will lead to a wax plug in the ear, or even an ear infection. I think it is best and safest to just use a gauze pad and get out as much dirt and wax as you can with this.

Keep in mind that cats usually don't like having people mess with their ears and so cleaning your cat's ears may be somewhat difficult. What I like to do is spend a few days before I intend to do an ear cleaning by petting the cat, and while doing so, I sort of massage their ears a little as if it is just part of the petting process. Then by the time I'm ready to clean the cat's ears they are already used to me touching their ears. However, it is best not to let them see the cotton ball or the Q-tip. This will tip them off that something unusual is about to occur. In general, if your cat is moving around a lot while you are cleaning his or her ears, then don't use a Q-tip.

Some Common Ear Problems in Cats

Ear Mites

Ear mites are caused by very small insects (Otodectes cynotis) that feed on your cat's ears. A symptom of ear mites is a crusty looking dark brown to black substance in the ear. Usually both ears are affected. Ear mites are very contagious among animals, but humans don't typically get ear mites. Cats that live indoors usually never get ear mites unless they are exposed to another animal that goes outdoors.

Ear mite infections are very uncomfortable in your cat. If your cat has ear mites you will see your cat scratching his or her ears or shaking his head. Ear mites certainly need to be treated by a veterinarian. Not only are they very uncomfortable, but they can lead to serious ear problems and infection without the proper treatment.

To determine whether or not your cat has ear mites your veterinarian will remove some of your cats ear wax and then examine it under a magnifying glass on a dark background. If your cat has ear mites your vet will see small white specks that move. These are the ear mites.

If you have a kitten with ear mites the veterinarian can often put Revolution on your kitten. It will kill fleas on the kitten and also ear mites. If your cat is an adult cat then you will need to put ear medicine in your cats ears. The ears will need to be cleaned out first. You should obtain the ear mite medication from your veterinarian and he or she can show you how to put it into your cat's ears.

Sunburned Ears

Cats can get sunburns on their ears, especially if the cat is white or light colored. If you have a white or light colored cat you should keep it indoors to prevent sunburn (plus keeping your cat indoors is safer in general). In fact, white cats that have spent a lot of time outdoors in the sun often get skin cancer on their ears when they get older. A symptom of skin cancer would be ulcerations or sores on the ears that don't heal.

I have a little Siamese mix that was a stray for a couple of years before I found her. She has a lot of freckling and dark pigment spots on the tips of her ears, and even on her nose, from the time that she spent outdoors in the sun before I found her. These pigment spots are a sign of sun damage to her ears. I will have to be on the lookout for skin cancer as she ages, but hopefully there wasn't too much damage done.

Frostbitten Ears

Cats that are outdoors in severely cold weather are at risk of frostbite on their ears. Cat ears are very thin, especially at the tips, and don't have much fur on them and so ears are very susceptible to frostbite. The symptoms of frostbite are very pale skin that becomes red and swollen after the cat has warmed up. If you think your cat has frostbite you should bring the cat indoors and contact your veterinarian immediately.

Ear Infections

Ear infections in cats can be caused by several different things. One of these is ear mites as mentioned earlier. Other causes include bites or scratches on the ear that become infected. Symptoms of ear infections in cats are pawing at the ear or head shaking. These are typical of outer ear infections. If your cat exhibits these symptoms take your cat to the veterinarian for a checkup. Your cat may need antibiotics (topical and oral depending on the severity). If left untreated it could turn into a middle ear infection or even an inner ear infection, which is the most serious.

Feline Deafness

White cats with blue eyes sometimes have congenital deafness. Keep in mind that not all white cats with blue eyes are deaf, but some of them are. Typically the high risk of deafness in white cats doesn't include cats that are white due to a Siamese heritage.

Cats can also become deaf or hard of hearing as they age (just like us).