Do Cats’ Sensitive Ears Actually Feel Pain?


Ear pain in cats can significantly impact their quality of life. An earache makes cats irritable, affects their sleep, and causes them to shake or scratch their head repeatedly. Understanding whether cats feel pain in their ears is important for pet owners to recognize signs of discomfort and seek veterinary treatment. This article explores the anatomy of the feline ear, signs of earaches, potential causes, risks if untreated, diagnosis methods, and prevention tips to keep cats comfortable and pain-free.

Anatomy of the Cat Ear

Cats have a complex ear anatomy that allows them to hear a wide range of sounds. The ear is divided into three main sections – the outer, middle, and inner ear.

The outer ear consists of the ear flap (pinna) and the ear canal. The pinna is a curved, funnel-like structure that collects sound waves and directs them into the ear canal. The canal is lined by hairs and wax producing glands that protect the deeper structures. It leads to the eardrum.

The middle ear contains the eardrum and tiny bones called ossicles. The eardrum vibrates in response to sound waves and transmits these vibrations to the ossicles which amplify the vibrations before passing them to the inner ear. The ossicles include the malleus, incus, and stapes bones.

The inner ear contains the cochlea for hearing and the vestibular apparatus for balance. The cochlea is a snail-shaped structure filled with fluid and contains hair cells that convert vibrations into nerve signals that travel to the brain to be interpreted as sound. The vestibular apparatus includes semicircular canals and otolith organs that sense head position and movement.

For more on cat ear anatomy see:
Ear Structure and Function in Cats – Cat Owners

Evidence That Cats Feel Ear Pain

There is strong evidence that cats feel pain in their ears. The ears contain many nerve endings and are highly sensitive. The outer ear consists of the pinna which has a rich network of blood vessels and nerves according to PetMD (

Cats show clear signs of pain and discomfort when their ears are injured or irritated. They may shake their head, scratch at their ears excessively, and avoid letting their ears be touched. According to one Quora user, cats can definitely feel pain if their ears are pulled or handled roughly ( The behavioral response indicates the cat is likely experiencing pain or discomfort in their ear.

Causes of Ear Pain in Cats

There are several common causes of ear pain in cats:


Ear infections are one of the most frequent causes of ear pain in cats. Infections are often caused by bacteria, yeast, or ear mites. These infections lead to inflammation and irritation in the ear which is very painful for cats [1].

Foreign Objects

Foreign objects like grass seeds or foxtails getting lodged in the ear canal can cause significant pain and irritation. As the cat tries to scratch at its ear, this can drive the object deeper into the canal and cause trauma [2].


Physical trauma to the ears from scratches, bites, or blunt force can lead to ear pain. The delicate tissue and cartilage of the cat’s ears are very sensitive. Damage to these structures activates pain receptors and causes discomfort.


While less common, tumors or polyps in the ear canal can press on sensitive nerve endings and cause intense localized pain. These growths may originate from the ear canal itself or could invade from other sites like the nose or throat.

Signs of Ear Pain in Cats

Cats with ear pain often exhibit noticeable symptoms and behaviors. Some common signs of ear pain in cats include:

  • Head shaking – Cats may shake their head repeatedly in an attempt to relieve irritation or discomfort in their ears.
  • Scratching/rubbing at ears – Frequent scratching or rubbing at the ears is a telltale indicator that a cat is experiencing ear pain or irritation.
  • Discharge – Ear infections often lead to discharge coming from the ears. This discharge may be yellow, black, brown, or bloody.
  • Redness/swelling – The inner ear and ear canal may become red, inflamed and swollen when infected or irritated.
  • Bad odor – Infected ears frequently give off a foul, pungent odor not typically associated with healthy ears.

Cats experiencing these symptoms should be examined by a veterinarian to diagnose and properly treat the underlying cause of the ear pain, as prolonged discomfort and infection can lead to permanent damage.

Risks of Untreated Ear Pain

Allowing ear pain in cats to go untreated can lead to several serious risks and complications.

Chronic pain is one major risk. Cats are adept at hiding signs of pain. An untreated ear infection or other cause of ear pain may persist for a prolonged period, leading to ongoing discomfort and suffering for the cat.

Further injury or damage is another risk of leaving ear pain untreated. For example, an untreated infection could worsen and spread deeper into the ear canal or inner ear, potentially causing permanent hearing loss.

Hearing loss is perhaps the most serious risk. According to veterinarians, left untreated, ear infections in cats can result in partial or total deafness. The delicate structures of a cat’s inner ear are vulnerable to damage from inflammation and infection. Allowing these conditions to persist can destroy hearing ability.

In addition to pain and deafness, untreated ear issues may lead to balance problems, facial nerve paralysis, or spread of infection to the brain. Catching and promptly treating the cause of ear pain is crucial for a cat’s health and quality of life.

Diagnosing Ear Pain in Cats

To properly diagnose the cause of a cat’s ear pain, a veterinarian will perform a thorough ear examination and may recommend additional tests. The key diagnostic steps include:

Veterinary Examination

The vet will start by looking in the ear canal with an otoscope to check for signs of infection or inflammation. They will also palpate the ear and surrounding area to check for pain or swelling. Diagnosing the cause of ear pain often requires sedation or anesthesia so the vet can fully visualize the ear canal.

Otoscopic Exam

An otoscopic exam allows the vet to closely inspect the ear canal and eardrum using an instrument called an otoscope. This magnified view can reveal foreign objects, ruptured eardrums, masses, parasites, and other issues causing pain (

Imaging Tests

If an underlying cause cannot be identified with an otoscopic exam, the vet may recommend imaging such as X-rays or CT scans. These imaging tests can reveal bone changes, tumors, or other abnormalities that could be the source of a cat’s ear pain.

Treating Ear Pain in Cats

There are several treatment options for cats suffering from ear pain. The most common include medications, surgery, and home care.


Antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs are commonly prescribed to treat bacterial and yeast infections causing ear pain (Ear Infection in Cats – Causes, Symptoms & Treatments). Steroid medications may help with swelling and inflammation. Ear mite infections are treated with medications that kill mites, such as selamectin. Most medications are administered orally or topically as ear drops or ointments.


Surgery may be required in severe or chronic cases of ear infections, such as removing the infected tissue lining the ear canal or inserting ear tubes to help drain fluid buildup (Ear Infections in Cats: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention). These procedures require general anesthesia and are only used when other treatments have failed.

Home Care

There are several things cat owners can do at home to help ease ear pain and promote healing. Cleaning the ears gently with a cotton ball and approved cleanser can help remove built-up debris and wax. Applying warm compresses on the ears may also provide relief. Preventing water from getting in the ears when bathing is important. Follow any at-home care instructions from your veterinarian.

Preventing Ear Pain in Cats

There are some steps you can take to help prevent painful ear infections in cats:

Regular ear cleaning can prevent the buildup of wax or debris that can lead to infection. Using a veterinarian-approved solution, gently wipe the outer ear with a cotton ball daily or weekly (1). This helps remove dirt and excess wax.

Avoiding trauma to the ears is also important. Things like overly vigorous head rubbing, foreign objects getting stuck in the ear canal, and exposure to loud noises can all injure the sensitive structures of the ear (1). Handle your cat’s ears gently and keep small objects out of reach to prevent issues.

Check your cat’s ears often for early signs of problems. Redness, swelling, discharge, odor, and head shaking or scratching at the ears are indications that your cat may have an ear infection starting (2). Alert your vet promptly if you notice anything unusual so treatment can start right away.

With regular ear cleaning, trauma prevention, and close monitoring, you can often catch ear problems early and prevent a great deal of discomfort and pain for your cat.


In summary, cats can absolutely feel pain in their ears due to the complex anatomy and innervation of the feline ear. Signs of ear pain in cats may include head shaking, scratching or rubbing at the ears, discharge or odor from the ears, redness and swelling inside the ear, and behavioral changes. Left untreated, ear infections and other causes of ear pain can lead to permanent damage and hearing loss. It’s important for cat owners to routinely check their cats’ ears and be aware of any signs of discomfort or infection. Seeking prompt veterinary diagnosis and treatment as soon as ear pain is suspected is crucial to relieving your cat’s pain and preventing complications. With proper care and preventative steps, ear pain can often be avoided or addressed before becoming a major issue.

The health and comfort of a cat’s ears is an important aspect of their overall wellbeing. Being attentive and proactive regarding a cat’s ear health will help ensure they live a long and happy life.

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