Ear infections in cats: Causes, symptoms, and how to treat them

May 24, 2024 - 4 min read

The information in this article has been reviewed by Dr. Rebecca MacMillan on May 23, 2024 . Although it may provide helpful guidance, it should not be substituted for professional veterinary advice.

A cut out of a cat scratching it's ear, with bubbles floating next to it, in each bubble is an illustration of a germ or parasite

Can cats get ear infections?

Yep. When it comes to ear infections, cats are unfortunately not immune. While less common than ear infections in dogs, feline ear infections can still cause discomfort for your furry friend and, left untreated, could potentially result in deafness.

Here's your comprehensive guide on how to treat your cat's ear infections and prevent them from recurring.

What causes ear infections in cats?

A diagram with a cat in the center scratching its ear, and around the cat are bubbles that say Parasites, Bacterial & fungal, Polyps or tumors, Foreign bodies or wax buildup, and Allergies

Ear infections in cats can arise from a variety of underlying causes, each of which requires a specific treatment approach. From tiny parasites to unusual growths, understanding the root cause helps your feline friend get the proper care.

Here's a closer look at the most common culprits:

  • Ear mites (parasites): Ear mites ("Otodectes cynotis") are a common cause of external ear infections and are more commonly seen in kittens and outdoor cats. These little parasites often irritate the ear canal and lead to secondary bacterial or yeast infections.

  • Bacterial and fungal infections: Bacteria and fungi naturally inhabit a cat's skin and ears, but overgrowth can lead to inflammation and infection in the ear canal. This is more likely to occur in cats with a weakened immune system or underlying allergies.

  • Allergies: Environmental allergens, food, and even fleas can trigger secondary ear infections in cats with allergies. Allergies are often investigated after ear mites and other causes for infection are ruled out, especially when your cat's having recurrent ear problems.

  • Foreign bodies or wax buildup: Objects like grass seeds or excessive wax buildup can lead to infection due to irritation and blockage of the ear canal.

  • Polyps or tumors: Unusual growths, such as polyps or tumors, can also cause recurrent infections in cats, particularly in the middle ear.

Types of ear infections in cats (external, middle, and inner)

Ear infections in cats can affect different parts of the ear, leading to varying symptoms and complications.

Here's an overview of the three main types:

Type of ear infection Location Causes Symptoms
External ear infections (otitis externa) The outer portion of the ear canal, extending from the ear flap to the eardrum Ear mites, bacteria, yeast, allergies, foreign bodies, excessive wax buildup Scratching or rubbing ears, head shaking, discharge (often resembling coffee grounds), redness and swelling
Middle ear infections (otitis media) Between the eardrum and the inner ear Inflammatory polyps, neoplasia (tumors), extension of external ear canal infection into the middle ear Head shaking or tilting, sometimes a loss of appetite or reluctance to chew, pawing or scratching at the ears, discharge, foul odor
Inner ear infection (otitis interna) The innermost part of the ear responsible for balance and hearing Untreated middle-ear infections Severe head tilting, loss of balance or coordination, nausea or vomiting, hearing loss or deafness

Signs of ear infection in cats

Ear infections can be uncomfortable and even painful for cats. Since our feline friends are often masters at hiding discomfort, you'll need to be attentive to subtle signs.

From excessive scratching to noticeable discharge and head tilting, understanding the symptoms can help you catch and address an ear infection early. Here are the key signs to watch out for:

Cat scratching its ears

Scratching or rubbing ears

Excessive scratching of the ears or rubbing them against furniture or the floor is a clear sign of discomfort.

Head shaking or tilting

Frequent head shaking or tilting to one side may indicate an ear infection. If your cat’s head is persistently tilting or they are struggling with their balance, then this could indicate an issue with their inner ear.

Discharge (ear mites vs infections)

Ear mites appear as tiny white dots that are usually found in excessive amounts of ear wax, which looks a lot like coffee grounds. One study suggested that around 23% of cats with mites are also affected in areas beyond the ear canals, for instance, on their chin.

When it comes to bacterial infections, you'll probably see a gray, yellow, or green discharge. Fungal infections may cause a brown or black discharge, which has a characteristic yeasty odor.

Regardless of the type of discharge, you should consult your veterinarian for a definitive diagnosis and the best treatment options!


A foul odor emanating from your cat's ears is a classic sign of an ear infection. This unpleasant smell typically results from an overgrowth of bacteria or yeast in the ear canal.

Redness and swelling

Inflamed, swollen, or warm ear flaps and canals are all hallmarks of ear infections.

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How to treat a cat's ear infection

If your cat exhibits any signs of an ear infection, see your vet ASAP for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Untreated infections can lead to serious complications, including hearing loss or the spread of infection to other parts of the body.

After an initial checkup, your vet will likely use an otoscope to inspect your cat's ear canal and may take samples to test for bacteria, yeast, or ear mites.

Your vet may also clean your cat’s ears to remove debris, wax, and discharge. If your cat's especially anxious or their infection is extensive, they might need sedation.

veterinarian holding cat

Depending on the cause, your vet may prescribe medicated cat ear drops, which could include the following ingredients:

  • antibiotics for bacterial infections

  • antifungals for yeast infections

  • anti-parasitic medications for ear mites

  • antiinflammatories to reduce redness and itchiness

Your vet may also suggest an ear cleaner, systemic anti-parasite treatments, anti-inflammatory medications and/or antibiotics, depending on their findings.

Follow your vet’s instructions for regular ear cleaning and complete the full course of prescribed medications to prevent recurrence.

Can you treat your cat's ear infection at home?

While there are preventive steps you can take at home to keep your cat’s ears clean and healthy (more on that later), treating an ear infection without veterinary guidance isn't a good idea.

Ear infections can be caused by different issues like bacteria, yeast, fungi, or ear mites, each requiring a specific treatment, and it's difficult to tell which one your cat has.

Attempting to treat a cat's ear infection at home with over-the-counter products or home remedies could worsen the condition or delay proper treatment. Always consult your veterinarian if you suspect your cat has an ear infection, so your cat has a better chance of a speedy recovery.

What about chronic or recurring ear infections (infections that won’t go away)?

For infections that won’t go away or keep recurring, your vet may suspect an underlying condition like polyps, tumors, or a compromised immune system. Additional diagnostic tests, like imaging or biopsies, might be needed. Surgery could be required to remove growths that cause recurring infections.

Preventing ear infections in cats

1. Check on your cat's ears regularly

Check on your cat’s ears during your regular grooming sessions. Our cat grooming guide has more details about how to keep your cat clean and healthy.

2. Control allergies

If allergies are the issue, your vet can help you get to the bottom of it and reduce the risk of recurring (and more serious) infections.

3. Prevent parasites

Make sure your cat is on a flea and tick preventative that also protects against ear mites!

Caring for our feline friends means prioritizing their overall health and wellbeing. To protect your cat from unexpected bumps, scrapes, and illnesses, it's important to have coverage in place before it's needed.

With ManyPets cat insurance, you can have peace of mind knowing you're better prepared to give your furry companion the treatment they need, whenever they need it.*

*pre-existing conditions excluded. See your policy for details.

Leanna Zeibak
Content Manager

Leanna Zeibak is a Content Manager at ManyPets. In her spare time, she paints pet portraits and bakes far too many chocolate chip cookies.