Common Causes of Itchy Ears in Cats

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Common Causes of Itchy Ears in Cats

Cats may scratch at their ears occasionally, but when you notice your cat scratching and pawing at her ears a bit more than usual, you should take a closer look. Are there any noticeable changes in or around your pet’s ears? Keep reading to learn what may be making your cat’s ears extra itchy. 

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Are some cats more prone to itchy ears?

Persian cats have a genetic tendency to produce more ear wax than most other feline breeds. This can increase the breed’s risks of ear infections as the excessive wax buildup provides an excellent environment for the overgrowth of organisms that normally live on the skin of cats.

Himalayans and Persian cats are more prone to ringworm (dermatophytosis) that usually affects the ear flaps and causes itching, crusting, and flaking of the skin. Their small ears also make them more prone to ear infections.

Common Symptoms of Ear Problems in Cats

  • Itching that causes cats to scratch and paw excessively at their ears
  • Swollen ears flaps and/or ear canal
  • Ears appear red and inflamed
  • Ears are painful and your cat may not allow you to touch them
  • Tilting of the head to towards the ear that has an issue
  • Frequent head-shaking
  • Ear discharge - brown, black, or yellowish in color
  • Excessive buildup of ear wax
  • Foul odor from the ears
  • Bleeding from the ears
  • Disorientation
  • Behavioral changes
  • Hearing loss - may be partial or complete

Why are my cat’s ears itchy?

Below is a list of the 6 most common ear diseases that may cause itching and head shaking in cats.

1. Ear Mites

Several types of ear mites live in the ears of cats but the most common is Otodectes cynotis. Ear mites are parasites that can barely be seen by the naked eye. These tiny parasites live inside the ear passages and thrive by feeding on the ear wax and oils. Ear mites can reproduce rather quickly. Eggs laid by adult mites hatch within 4 days and develop into adults within 3 weeks.

The main route of transmission of ear mites is through close contact with cats that are harboring the mites. In multi-pet households, all pets are usually treated even if only one is showing signs of ear mite infestation.

To confirm the presence of ear mites, your veterinarian will get tissue swab samples from your cat’s ears and examine them under a microscope. If mites are indeed present, spot-on treatments are usually the most ideal choice because they’re less stressful to administer compared to ear drops. It’s important to follow your vet’s advice regarding the dosage and duration of treatment.

2. Allergies

Hypersensitivity reactions to certain allergens in food or the environment can lead to itchy ears in cats. Food allergies are often the most common reason for recurrent or persistent ear itching. The conditions inside a cat’s ears - warmth, confined space, and darkness can greatly exaggerate the inflammatory reaction caused by food allergies.

When there is inflammation inside the ears, it can lead to an increase in the moisture and temperature inside the ear passages and subsequent changes in the pH of the skin. These can create a perfect environment for yeast and bacteria to thrive and multiply.

3. Infections

Ear infections are fairly common in cats, more so in those with certain medical problems, such as diabetes and feline leukemia. Some feline breeds with small ears are more vulnerable to ear infections as well.

Bacterial ear infections often develop secondary to other ear issues such as ear mites, allergies, trauma, foreign body, etc. However, an ear infection can also occur with no obvious predisposing cause.

Yeast infections often develop concurrently with bacterial ear infections, making the issue more complicated to treat.

Ringworm, a fungal infection, can affect the ear flaps but doesn’t typically affect the ear canal. Nevertheless, ringworm infections are very itchy and are often accompanied by hair loss and inflamed ear flaps.

An important concern associated with ear infections in cats is that they can easily spread from the outer ear to the middle and inner ear. Infections in these parts are very dangerous and can lead to serious problems like hearing loss and neurological symptoms. Thus, early detection, diagnosis, and treatment are very important.

4. Wounds and Trauma

Fighting with other cats can result in ear injuries. Dog attacks or road traffic accidents can also cause wounds and trauma to the ears. Many of these wounds can become infected and sometimes an abscess may develop. All wounds, swellings, and injuries to the ear should be checked by a vet so the appropriate treatment can be given.

5. Foreign Bodies

Sometimes, a blade of grass, grass seed, or a bug gets stuck in a cat’s ear canal. This can irritate the sensitive tissues of the ears which can lead to excessive scratching, pawing at the ear, and other associated symptoms. There may be a need to place your cat under anesthesia so the foreign body can be safely removed.

6. Polyps and Tumors

Abnormal growths may develop within the ear passages of cats. These may be benign polyps or malignant tumors.

Benign polyps are more common among young adults, but cats of any age may develop the problem. A polyp in the middle ear may eventually cause rupture of the eardrum (tympanic membrane) and continue to spread and grow in the external ear canal.

Cases of malignant tumors tend to occur more often in senior cats than younger ones. The most common type of malignancy in senior cats is ceruminous gland adenocarcinoma. The growths appear like multiple small nodules; they are frequently accompanied by secondary infection. It’s often the signs of infection that are noticed first by cat owners. The existence of a tumor tends to be an incidental finding during the ear exam. Aside from a thorough medical exam, your vet may take small tissue samples from the tumor for biopsy.

Read more:

How to Clean Your Cat’s Ears

Common Ear Problems in Cats

Swelling of the Ear (Aural Hematoma) in Cats and Dogs

Need to speak with a veterinarian regarding your cat’s itchy ears or another condition?

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Published: 10/27/2021

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