Otitis Externa (Ear Infection) in Cats

What is otitis externa?   Causes   Symptoms   Diagnosis   Treatment

cat ear infection

What is otitis externa?

Otitis externa refers to an inflammation or infection of the outer (external) ear canal. It is one of the most common medical conditions veterinarians treat in cats. It is a somewhat difficult condition because while symptoms are usually the same, there are many causes of otitis externa in cats, which are listed below. Finding the cause of the infection is important to properly treat the condition.

The condition may start from within the external ear canal or from the ear pinnae. It classified as primary or secondary.

Primary otitis externa begins with irritation to the ear resulting in inflammation and a build up of wax in response. This creates the perfect environment for bacteria and yeast to take hold.

Secondary otitis externa is due to bacteria or fungi taking hold due to the above-mentioned inflammation. Incorrect ear medication administration can also contribute to secondary otitis externa.

What are the causes of otitis externa in cats?


  • Ear mites – Believed to account for up to 50% of all causes of otitis externa. Ear mites are spider-like parasites which live in the ears causing intense itching and inflammation.
  • Tumour.
  • Trauma, usually caused by scratching.
  • Foreign body, such as a grass seed, dirt.
  • Allergies – There are four types of allergies to affect cats. Inhalant, food, contact, and insect (particularly flea bite hypersensitivity).
  • Nasopharyngeal polyps – Benign growths originating from the mucous membrane of the nose and back of the throat.
  • Autoimmune disease such as pemphigus complex.
  • Drug reactions.
  • Other parasites such as feline scabies (notoedric mange) and demodicosis.


  • Bacterial infection, the most common being staphylococci followed by streptococci and Escherichia coli.
  • A fungal infection caused by Malassezia.
  • Administration of ear medication inappropriately.

Otitis externa causes considerable pain and discomfort to your cat and veterinary attention must be provided as quickly as possible. Left untreated, otitis externa can lead to a permanent narrowing of the ear canal along with changes to the cartilage of the ear canal.


The most common symptom associated with an ear infection is intense pruritis (itching), one or both ears may be affected, the ear pinna may also be involved.

Other symptoms of otitis externa may include:

  • Head shaking.
  • Unpleasant odour from the ears.
  • Tilting of the head.
  • Discharge from the ear.
  • Inflammation (redness and/or swelling).
  • Behavioural changes (irritability, depression).
  • Waxy build-up in the ear.
  • Pain when touched in the area.


The difficulty for veterinarians with this condition is determining if the cause has led to secondary infection or if infection is the original cause.

Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination and obtain a medical history from you. He will examine the ear with an otoscope to check for signs of infection, tumours, foreign objects etc. Questions he may ask include when did symptoms first occur, are they in one or both ears, is it seasonal or all year, what flea and tick treatments are you using,  what food is your cat eating, has he had exposure to chemicals or irritants? These questions can go a long way to determining the possible cause.

He will need to perform some diagnostic tests some of which may include:

  • Culture and sensitivity testing to check for bacterial or fungal infection.
  • Examination of the ear discharge.
  • Radiographs to evaluate for tumours.
  • Biopsies.

How is it otitis externa treated in cats?

Treatment depends on the cause. The primary goals are to clean the ears, reduce inflammation and resolve infections which may be present.

  • The ears will need to be cleaned, depending on the severity this may be done at home or by your veterinarian. Some cases are so painful, your cat will need to be sedated before his ears are cleaned.
  • Antibiotic drops or oral tablets will be prescribed for the bacterial infection.
  • Antifungal medication for Malassezia.
  • Anti-allergy therapy in the case of allergies. This usually involves avoiding the allergen by diligent flea control, changing your cat to a hypoallergenic diet etc. Antihistamines may be prescribed to help alleviate symptoms. In some cases, if the allergen can’t be avoided, it may be recommended your cat undergo hyposensitsation therapy.
  • Polyps will need to be surgically removed.
  • Removal of foreign body, this is usually relatively straightforward with either the use of forceps or irrigating the ear with a saline solution.
  • Glucocorticoids to reduce inflammation.
  • Immunosuppressive drugs may be required to manage autoimmune diseases.
  • Anti-parasitic medication such as Revolution, lime sulfur dips and Amitraz (which is toxic, so must be used with caution) to treat ear mites, feline scabies, and demodicosis.