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Symptoms and Diagnosis of Ear Infections in Cats

Recognizing Feline Ear Problems

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Symptoms and Diagnosis of Ear Infections in Cats

Diagnosing the cause of ear infections in cats can be difficult if the cause is not ear mites. Recognizing the infection is the first step for a cat owner.
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Ear infections and other ear problems are a common occurrence in cats.

Symptoms of Ear Infections in Cats

Regardless of the cause of the ear infection, the symptoms of an ear problem are likely to be similar to one another.

  • Cats with ear infections and other ear problems often shake their head or scratch at their ears.
  • You may see hair loss or scabs around the face, ears and neck of your as a result of scratching at his ears.
  • A discharge may be present in the ears.
  • The ears may have an unpleasant odor.
  • Your cat may tilt his head to one side of another as a result of the ear problem.

Diagnosing the Cause of Feline Ear Infections: The Initial Examination

The diagnosis starts with an examination not only of the ears but of the entire cat. This is because some of the causes of ear infections in cats can be more widespread problems that cause symptoms outside of the ears also. The skin and haircoat should be examined in particular.

Besides an overall examination, your veterinarian will perform an examination of your cat's ears with an otoscope. An otoscope allows your veterinarian to examine the inside of the ear canal for symptoms such as redness and inflammation, discharge, masses and polyps, foreign bodies and other abnormalities.

Your veterinarian will also want to examine the integrity of your cat's ear drum if possible. However, if there is discharge inside of the ear canal, it may be necessary to first clean and flush the ear canal free of debris in order to be able to see the ear drum. Depending on the severity of the infection, sedation may be necessary to thoroughly flush the ear canal and examine your cat's ear.

Ear mites are responsible for approximately one-half of the ear infections seen in cats. As an example, ear mites might be one of the first things your veterinarian checks for if your cat has an ear infection.

Ear mites cause a characteristic dark-brown to black colored discharge in the ears that looks a bit like coffee grounds. The presence of this type of discharge is often the first indication that your cat has ear mites. Your veterinarian may also examine the debris from your cat's ears microscopically looking for ear mites.

If ear mites are detected in your cat's ears, the search may stop there. However, if your cat does not have ear mites or if appropriate treatment for ear mites fails to rid your cat of the infection, further diagnosis may be necessary.

Additional Diagnostic Procedures for Cat Ear Infections

Ear cytology involves examining a swab taken from inside of your cat's ear microscopically looking for the presence of abnormal cells, bacteria or yeast in your cat's ears. Ear cytology is often used to guide treatment of an ear infection. The results of this test will help your veterinarian determine which antibiotics, anti-fungal or other medications are best used in your cat's ears.

An ear culture may also need to be performed, particularly if ear cytology indicates a bacterial infection that is not responding well to antibiotic treatment. An ear culture will tell your veterinarian what type of bacteria is present in your cat's ears and test specific antibiotics to determine if they are effective in killing that bacteria.

Because ear problems in cats can be due to more systemic causes, if your cat has not responded to traditional therapies or a more widespread disease is suspected, your veterinarian may recommend further testing. This testing may include:

  • blood testing, including feline leukemia and feline AIDS testing
  • food trials, if a food allergy is suspected
  • effective flea treatment, to rule out flea allergy as a cause of the ear infection
  • testing for atopy (an allergy to something in your cat's environment)
  • fungal cultures, if a fungal disease such as ringworm is suspected of playing a role in the ear disease
  • skin scrapings to rule out other parasitic diseases, such as sarcoptic mange

Learn more: Ear Infections in Dogs and Cats

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