Due to the structure of their ears, cats are particularly vulnerable to ear infections and ear mite infestations. Unfortunately, these two conditions share many of the same symptoms so it can be difficult to tell them apart.
Ear mites look like tiny white flecks dancing around in your cat’s ear. Also, they produce a grainy, black ear discharge. Ear infections (bacterial and yeast) produce a light-colored or bloody discharge.
Both conditions can lead to deafness if left untreated. We’ll look at treatments for ear mite infestations and ear infections. We’ll also show you how to keep your cat’s ears clean and healthy.
Ear Mites vs. Ear Infection
If your cat has itchy, sore ears, you might be wondering: Is it mites or an ear infection? According to Science Direct, mites (Otodectes cynotis) are the most common cause of feline ear disease.
But mites are not always to blame for itchy ears. Instead, your cat might have another type of ear infection. Strictly speaking, mites are a parasitic ear infection.
But when we talk about “ear infections,” we’re usually referring to a bacterial or fungal overgrowth inside the cat’s ear. A variety of factors can cause these overgrowths.
It’s crucial to differentiate between ear mites and bacterial/fungal ear infections because they require different types of treatments.
Ear Mites (Mange) in Cats
Ear mites (mange) are a common parasite in cats. These mites tend to infiltrate the ear because they feed off the wax inside the ear canal. Cats with overactive sebaceous glands and waxy ears are more likely to contract ear mites.
Ear mites are just about recognizable to the naked eye, if you look closely. They look like tiny white/yellow flecks dotting around from side-to-side.
A single ear mite will live for about four weeks, but the infestation isn’t over once they’ve perished. Mites lay thousands of eggs (each one hatches 3-4 days after it is laid). The infestation will only get worse if no treatment is provided.
Are Feline Ear Mites Life-Threatening?
Although not life-threatening, ear mites can cause a lot of harm to your cat. If left untreated, ear mites will progress through the following stages:
- The mites will begin to feed off the wax in the outer ear
- If not treated, the mites will move towards the middle ear and, eventually, the inner ear. Repeated trauma to the middle ear/inner ear is a risk factor for cancer.
- If many mites enter the inner ear, this may eventually perforate your cat’s eardrum. This can lead to deafness. It can also lead to secondary bacterial infections or a hematoma (a blood pocket).
So, ear mites are more than itchy ears. They must be treated early to avoid permanent damage.
How Do Cats Get Ear Mites?
Cats get ear mites through contact with other animals – usually other cats, dogs or ferrets. For that reason, cats who play outdoors or who live with other animals are more at risk.
Cats with waxy ears are particularly likely to get mites. In addition, Himalayan and Persian cats may be more vulnerable because they have small outer ears.
Ear mites (Otodectes cynotis) cannot spread between cats and humans. Mites can cause a skin rash in some people, so you should be careful when handling your cat during treatment.
Very occasionally, humans may get ear mites, but Otodectes cynotis is not the culprit. Instead, the house dust mite (Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus) can cause be behind the problem.
Symptoms of Ear Mites
Ear mites can cause the following symptoms:
- Constant head shaking (to try and alleviate the itchiness)
- Open wounds or scabs at the back of the ears where the cat has tried to scratch
- Black discharge (cerumen) – this has a waxy, grainy appearance and looks similar to coffee grounds
- Unpleasant odor coming from the ears
- Redness and irritation
- Ears may be more flattened than usual (some breeds of cat can droop the ears slightly to try and find relief)
- Unsteadiness and disorientation
Ear mite infestations take hold quickly so symptoms can come on very suddenly.
Diagnosing Ear Mites
Ear mites are a microscopic parasite. The naked eye can see them if you have good close-up vision. However, because they are located inside the ear, they can be challenging to spot.
If your cat is secreting a black, grainy discharge from her ears (and has some of the above symptoms), this is suggestive of ear mites.
When taking your cat for a diagnosis, the vet will probably use an otoscope (magnifying device) to confirm the infestation. Ear mites can lead to secondary bacterial/fungal infections, so your vet may diagnose an additional ear infection.
Ear Infections in Cats
An ear infection is any bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic organism that affects the body. The term “ear infection” is most commonly used to refer to a bacterial/yeast overgrowth in the ear canal – which is what we are referring to here.
So, how do you spot a bacterial or yeast overgrowth? Unfortunately, the symptoms are quite similar to an ear mite infestation, so it can be difficult to tell the two apart. Symptoms include:
- Shaking/scratching the head
- Red, sore, and inflamed ears
- Additional flu-like symptoms (runny nose, coughing and wheezing)
- Weight changes/appetite changes
- Ear discharge (may be thick or bloody but not usually black)
- Disorientation/difficulty walking straight
- Unpleasant odor
So, there are a couple of differences: bacterial/yeast ear infections don’t tend to produce black discharge whereas ear mite infestations do. Also, bacterial/yeast infections sometimes cause flu-like symptoms whereas ear mite infestations generally don’t (though they may cause lethargy).
Ear infections are usually secondary to an underlying illness or injury.
Contagious viruses are often the cause of ear infections in cats. Viral infections such as feline calicivirus (FCV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) severely compromise the cat’s immune system. This means the cat is much more susceptible to bacterial or fungal ear infections.
If a systemic virus is causing your cat’s ear infection, you’d most likely see signs of an upper respiratory tract infection (coughing, sneezing, runny nose) as well as the ear infection.
Diabetes weakens the immune system, so it leaves the cat vulnerable to any infection. Diabetes can specifically affect the ears because high blood sugar is thought to cause damage to the small blood vessels inside the ear.
This can lead to poor circulation and leave the ear vulnerable to infection. If left untreated, diabetes-related ear infections can lead to deafness.
Injury to the Ear
As you would expect, cutting or injuring the delicate skin inside the ear increases the chances of a localized infection. Cats fighting over territory can cause injuries and cuts. Also, blades of grass and small stones can occasionally become lodged in the ear.
If a cat has a ruptured eardrum, they are much more likely to develop an inner-ear infection. Unfortunately, ruptured eardrums are often caused by viral infections (and the sneezing that accompanies them), so it can form a vicious circle of infection.
A ruptured eardrum also increases the risk of feline ear cancer. Perforated eardrums can heal given the right conditions.
Other Feline Ear Conditions
There are some additional ear conditions that are not necessarily linked to a bacterial or fungal issue. These conditions are mentioned here because they produce some quite similar symptoms, such as redness, inflamed ears, and itching.
Allergic responses occur when the cat’s immune system feels (unnecessarily) threatened by something in the environment. In response, the immune system releases a protein (usually IG1) to fight off the perceived threat.
This immune response can cause symptoms such as itchy skin and breathlessness. Itchy skin is often most prevalent on the top of the cat’s head and ears, so allergies can sometimes be confused for ear mites or other infections.
Tumors (cancerous or benign) may start to grow inside the ear canal. Ceruminous gland adenocarcinoma is a tumor that grows in the space between the middle ear and the outer ear.
Squamous cell carcinoma tends to occur on the outer tips of the ears (pinnae). Cats who’ve been exposed to a lot of sunshine may develop this condition.
According to Cornell, symptoms of ear tumors include redness, bleeding from the ear, hair loss, deafness, and ulcerated skin.
Treatments for Ear Mites
If your cat has ear mites, there are different treatments available. Firstly, your vet will probably clean your cat’s ears and apply a cerumenolytic substance directly into the ear. This is a softening agent that helps to break down the wax in the ears.
After this, your vet may prescribe ear drops to be applied into the ear, or a spot-on treatment to be applied to the cat’s withers (the gap between the shoulder blades).
Your vet may recommend an anti-parasitic spot-on medication such as Selamectin (trade names: Revolution or Stronghold). Selamectin is applied to the cat’s withers, not into the ears.
It is an FDA-approved anti-parasite medication that kills ear mites and mite eggs, fleas, flea eggs, roundworms, and hookworms. According to Wiley, it is considered one of the most effective treatments for ear mites in cats
Alternatively, you may be given ear drops (containing anti-parasite, cerumenolytic, and soothing ingredients) to administer directly into the cat’s ears. According to The Blue Cross, ear drops are generally less effective than spot-on flea/mite treatments.
This is because eardrops do not usually kill the mites’ eggs. This means the treatment has to be given for at least three weeks. Also, some cats do not tolerate ear drops very well.
Although spot-on treatments are faster-acting, not all cats are suited to drugs like Selamectin. As such, ear drops may be the better option for some kitties. Your vet will be able to advise on the most appropriate ear mite treatment for your cat.
Treatments for Ear Infections
Treatments for other types of ear infections can vary. As mentioned, ear infections are often secondary to other conditions (such as diabetes or FIV) so these underlying conditions should be dealt with first.
Then, the infection will be treated with an appropriate antibiotic or antifungal medication. This may be topical or oral, or a combination of the two. Ear mite infections that develop into a secondary bacterial/fungal infection will also require this treatment.
In rare cases, ear disease can cause the lining of the ear canal to become very thick. Surgery may be required to remove this excess tissue.
Can Ear Infections Cause Hematoma?
Both mite infections and bacterial/fungal infections can lead to a condition called aural hematoma. A hematoma occurs when the blood vessels underneath the skin break. This breakage is most often caused by excessive scratching.
Once the blood vessels have been broken, blood seeps into the space between the ear cartilage and the skin that lines the ear. This causes a swollen patch of blood in the ear.
A hematoma usually requires surgery. You should take your cat to the vet immediately to prevent ear disfigurement.
Should I Clean My Cat’s Ears Routinely?
It is not necessary to clean your cat’s ears at home. If your cat has developed ear mites or another ear infection, your vet may wash her ears. Ear washing should only usually be done by a professional because the ears are incredibly delicate.
This advice might seem confusing because there are several over-the-counter “ear cleaning washes” for cats. These are antibacterial cleaners that claim to safeguard against feline ear disease.
Some also contain sugar to prevent bacteria from sticking to the inside of the cat’s ear. They are designed to be used once a week to protect against feline ear infections.
Many vets are unhappy about the use of these over-the-counter ear washes. In some cases, owners may rely too heavily on these washes and not visit the vet for a proper diagnosis.
Moreover, cleaning a healthy cat’s ears is not usually necessary. These washes may create unnecessary trauma for the cat. In some cases, over-washing may cause an infection.
So, it’s best to leave the ear washing to your vet. Your vet will tell you if your cat’s ears do need routinely washing at home.
Keeping Your Cat’s Ears Healthy
Ear washing is usually not necessary, but there are some other things you can do to promote good ear health. These include:
- Check Your Cat’s Ears Regularly – Especially if she spends lots of time outdoors. A healthy ear should be light pink, and there should not be lots of visible wax.
- Think About Sun Damage – Limit your cat’s time in the sun or apply feline sun cream if you live in a sunny location. When applying sun cream, focus attention on the tips of the ears. If you have a white or light-colored cat, you should keep them inside during the hottest part of the day and only let them out at dusk.
- Keep your Cat Close to Home – If your cat spends time outdoors, try to contain her in the garden. This reduces the likelihood of getting bitten or contracting a disease from another animal.
- Routine Flea Treatments – If you choose a product containing Selamectin, this helps to protect against ear mites, too.
- Wash Bedding Regularly – This may improve allergies if your cat is prone to allergies.
- Weight Management & Healthy Diet – A healthy cat is less likely to get diabetes and will also find it easier to groom themselves. These factors can help to protect against ear infections.
Getting the Right Treatment
We’ve reviewed the differences between an ear mite infestation and a bacterial/yeast ear infection. We’ve also discussed some other conditions that affect the ears such as allergies and tumors.
Though all these conditions share many of the same symptoms, there are notable differences. One sign unique to ear mite infestations is black, grainy ear discharge.
Bacterial/fungal ear infections can produce discharge, but this is more likely to be bloody, or light in color with a thick pus-like texture.
If you’ve got good eye-sight, ear mite infestations can sometimes be seen with the naked eye. Nevertheless, ear mite infestations do sometimes develop into secondary bacterial infections so there’s a chance you could be dealing with both conditions.
In any case, both conditions require immediate treatment by a vet. Although some ear infection products are available over-the-counter, they might not be appropriate or effective treatments for your cat. It’s best to take tailored advice from your vet.