scabs on cat's ears and head
Cat Health and Wellness

Why Is My Cat Scratching Its Ears Until They Bleed?

Cats scratch their ears until they bleed due to extreme itchiness and irritation. Aggressive scratching with sharp, dirty claws is only likely to complicate matters further. That’s why it’s vital that you identify why your cat feels the compulsion to scratch its ears almost constantly.

Infections and mites are the most common reasons for itchy and bleeding cat ears. Other explanations include allergies, hypertension, trapped objects, inflammation from the sun or insect stings.

If your cat is scratching ears to the point of bleeding, you need to start by cleaning up the wound. Leaving the ear bleeding opens the risk of infection. Observe your cat’s behavior and diagnose why its ears are so itchy using the list of possible explanations that are discussed in detail below.

Why Do Cats Scratch Their Ears So Much?

Once the bleeding is addressed, focus on understanding why your cat is scratching its ears. There are many possible explanations:

Ear Infections

Feline ear infections come in three forms:

Otitis externa:An infection of the outer ear
Otitis media:An infection of the middle ear
Otitis interna:An infection of the inner ear

Infections to the middle or inner ear are invariably caused by bacteria. A range of factors can contribute to an outer ear infection. Wherever the infection is located, scratching of the ears is the primary symptom. Other warning signs of an ear infection include:

  • Hot, red ears
  • Shaking of the head
  • Tilting head to one side
  • Lack of balance
  • Drooling from the side of the mouth
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of depth perception
  • Foul odor from the ear
  • Discharge from the ear

Ear infections invariably start with the presence of ear wax. This invites ear mites, which feed on this wax. The wax can also lead to bacterial or fungal infections. These are sometimes referred to as yeast infections.

Mites

Ear mites (otodectes cynotis) are among the most common parasites to affect cats. Ear mites feed on wax in a cat’s ears. In doing so, the soft skin in a cat’s ears will be bitten. This will cause irritation and constant scratching.

While mites are more annoying than dangerous, the infestation must be treated. Left alone, the mites will multiply. This will make your cat miserable, and it will scratch constantly. In addition, ear mites are often linked to bacterial infections in a cat’s inner ear.

Ear mite infestations are resolved using a topical remedy. A treatment that protects cats against fleas and ticks will usually do the trick.

Parasitology Research recommends using a treatment comprised of 10% imidacloprid and 1% moxidectin.

Popular brands such as Advocate or Advantage will meet these criteria. If you clean your cat’s ears regularly, you will remove wax. This makes your cat’s ears less hospitable to mites.

Bacterial and Fungal Infections

According to Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, bacterial or yeast infections do not arise organically. They are a secondary symptom of an existing issue. Most of this time, this will be due to ear mites.

If you have resolved a mite infestation in your cat’s ear, focus on eliminating the infection. This is usually achieved with a dual drug approach. A vet will prescribe ear drops and oral antibiotics.

It can take up to eight weeks for an ear infection to be fully resolved. Prognosis is good, though. Most cats make a full recovery and experience no permanent issues. This is assuming that the ear infection is treated.

The Journal of the American Medical Association explains that untreated bacterial infections can cause Horner’s syndrome.

This is a disorder that attacks a cat’s nervous system. Horner’s syndrome will correct itself in time, but it unpleasant for a cat to live with.

cat ear hematoma

Allergies

If a cat has an allergy, it will lead to dry, itchy skin. Veterinary Dermatology refers to this as hypersensitivity dermatitis. This itching will be near-constant, with the head and ears commonly impacted.

You can run tests to determine the cause of a cat’s allergies. These are often inconclusive and unreliable, though. You may need to undertake a trial and error approach, removing potential triggers.

Food is the likeliest trigger for an allergy in cats. If you have recently changed your cat’s food, switch it back. If not, put your cat on a bland diet for a day or two. If this stops the ear scratching, your cat has developed an allergy to its preferred meal.

Atopic Dermatitis

If you cannot find a food allergy in your cat, consider whether the problem is environmental. Cats can develop an allergy to almost anything. This will, again, lead to itchy skin – including in the ears.

The Canadian Veterinary Journal refers to the skin inflammation caused by this as atopic dermatitis. It is also known as non-flea non-food allergic dermatitis. Common allergies in cats include:

  • Dust mites
  • Smoke
  • Fabric softener
  • Perfume or cologne
  • Air fresheners

There is no cure for allergies in cats. All you can do is remove exposure to the allergen. Identifying it is key to this.

In the short term, you can soothe the itching within your cat’s ears with a topical solution. This will prevent the cat from scratching so much that it draws blood. The following ingredients soothe itchy feline skin:

  • Aloe vera
  • Rosemary
  • Peppermint
  • Pennyroyal

Be careful not to get any of these ingredients inside your cat’s ear. This may lead to infection. Focus on applying the remedy directly onto inflamed skin using a cotton pad.

cat scratching ear and shaking head

Ingrowing Fur

Sometimes, a cat’s itchy ears are caused by fur. The interior of a cat’s ears are smooth and hair-free. The fur of a longhaired cat, in particular, grows quickly. This may result in the hair growing inward, tickling the ear.

Naturally, this will cause irritation to the cat. It will scratch at the ears to relieve this. Doing so will not remove the hair. The cat may keep scratching, never managing to relieve the tickling sensation.

Combat this by trimming overgrown hair around a cat’s ears. You must be careful. The thin tissue of a cat’s ears is easily cut by scissors. If you are nervous about attempting this, hire a professional groomer.

Trauma and Wound Healing

If a cat has a cut or wound in its ear, it will repair itself organically. This will be a slow process. As the skin knits itself together, it will itch. It the cat scratches at this, it risks reopening a wound.

Conflict with other cats is the most common explanation for an inner ear wound. Cats only fight as a last resort. This means they aim to win the fight as quickly as possible. Biting and clawing of the ears is a popular tactic.

Cats can also damage their ears through falls and collisions. There is always the risk that your cat has been struck by a car. Check for signs of concussion in your cat.

If your cat returns home with an ear wound, initially focus on cleaning it up. Ensure the wound is not swollen. This suggests that the cat has an infection. If clear, keep your cat from scratching at the ear.

The best way to do this is by picking up an Elizabethan collar. If this is not an option, cover the ear. If a bandage will not remain in place, fold the ear down and cover it. After a few days, the itching will subside.

Stings

If your cat spends time outside, it may be stung by insects or plants. This will result in an itching sensation.

Bees and wasps are the likeliest culprits. As discussed in the Journal of Physiology, cats will also experience discomfort from stinging nettles. As cats are low to the ground, they may brush past a nettle at ear-height.

Relieving Itching from Stings

Bee stings will remain in your cat’s ear. Do not remove this with tweezers. You will squeeze the stinger, pumping more venom into the cat’s ear. Scrape it away with a credit card. Apply bicarbonate of soda to the sting site. This will neutralize the acid in the sting.

Wasp stings will not remain in place. These stings are alkaline in nature. This means that dabbing a mix of water and vinegar will bring your cat comfort. Reduce any swelling further with an icepack. This will minimize itching.

Stinging nettles will leave tiny needles in the ear of your cat. This will cause constant itching and discomfort. Gently wash the cat’s ear with soapy water and reduce swelling with an ice pack.

Sun Damage

Cats, especially those with light-colored fur, can suffer from prolonged exposure to the sun’s UV rays. As Cutis explains, the sun can cause inflammation within the skin. A cat’s ears will be among the first body parts to suffer in this instance.

Cats can also be prone to sunburn. A cat’s sensitive skin quickly struggles with this. If you have experienced sunburn, you’ll know that it itches. Your cat will scratch its ears to relieve this. As sunburn dries out the skin, bleeding becomes a possibility.

If your cat roams outdoors, limit its time outside during the hottest months of the year. Let your cat wander early in the morning, and later in the afternoon. The sun is typically at its hottest between 12 pm and 3 pm.

You can also apply sunscreen to your cat’s ears as a further precaution. Use a brand that is devoid of perfumes of fragrances. Sunscreen designed for human infants is usually best. The SPF should be in the 15 – 30 range.

how to keep a cat from scratching a wound

Trapped Foreign Objects

Your cat may have a foreign object trapped in its ear canal. Foreign objects cause irritation and potentially limit a cat’s hearing. The scratching is an attempt to remove the object.

Take a torch and look inside your cat’s ear. You may be able to see what is causing the issue. It may something as small and seemingly innocuous as a blade of grass. It could be dirt or grit, which is harder to spot. These materials will work their way further into the cat’s ear.

It is also possible that insects will crawl into a cat’s ear. This will cause a similar reaction to mites. The cat will feel the insect crawling around, and scratch to remove it. Take action before the insect lays eggs.

If you can see an object, attempt to remove it with tweezers. You may need a second pair of hands for this. The cat will likely wriggle. For its own safety, the cat should be restrained. If you cannot see anything, do not prod and poke. You risk causing damage.

A vet can usually remove a trapped foreign body with ear irrigation. This is mild water pressure to the cats’ ear.

Hypertension

Older cats are at an enhanced risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure. This is often a secondary concern. The Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine links hypertension to hyperthyroidism and renal failure. Both these complaints are common in senior cats.

If a cat has high blood pressure, the blood will flow to its head. This will manifest as a throbbing in the cat’s ears. This can create an itching, tickling sensation. The cat will scratch to relieve this.

Hypertension can also be provoked by stress in cats. This makes a cat even likelier to scratch its ears. Cats scratch and groom when feeling anxious. Due to the blood flow reaching the ears, this body part will be targeted.

Keeping a cat calm is a key part of managing hypertension. Your cat will also require daily oral drugs. The more you get your cat’s heart rate under control, the less it will scratch its ears.

Polyps

Polyps are growths in a cat’s ear. These are thick growths of tissue. As per the Journal of Small Animal Practice, polyps start life in a cat’s throat. The polyps grow in the nasopharynx, making their way into the ear.

Despite not being harmful, polyps can be annoying for a cat. The cat will feel the polyp in its ear. It may also restrict hearing. Polyps can also cause wax build-up and impact balance. The cat will scratch, trying to remove this growth.

Polyps are entirely benign, so there is no need to worry about cancer. Due to the irritation they cause, it is still advisable to remove them. This will involve surgery. Your senior cat will need to be healthy enough.

Diabetes

If your cat is overweight, it is at risk of diabetes. This condition comes with a number of symptoms. One of these is a constant itching of the skin. This will include the ears. Other warning signs that your cat is diabetic include:

  • Excessive thirst and increased urination
  • Weight loss, despite increased appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Clumpy and greasy fur
  • Chronic urinary tract infections
  • Vomiting

Itchy ears are annoying, but the condition has other effects. It is pivotal that you reduce your cat’s weight. Your cat will also require drugs to manage the condition, and regular blood sugar monitoring.

If your cat has scratched so much it has drawn blood, the bleeding must be addressed. Use a soft cotton pad, moistened with water. If the ear is still bleeding, apply pressure until it ceases. Use a styptic pencil or powder to close up the wound.

If the cat has opened up a wider cut, sutures may be required. Never attempt this at home. Take your cat to a vet. The cat will be sedated, and stitches applied. Your cat will need to wear an Elizabethan collar until the stitches are removed.