The Dangers of Untreated Ear Infections in Cats


Ear infections are a common health issue for cats. An estimated 20-30% of cats will develop an ear infection at some point in their lives. Ear infections occur when bacteria, yeast, or mites invade and inflame the external ear canal. Left untreated, ear infections can become very painful and pose serious health risks for cats.

It’s important to treat ear infections in cats as soon as possible. Prompt treatment can prevent the infection from worsening and spreading deeper into the ear canal where it is much harder to treat. Catching and treating an ear infection early also helps relieve pain and discomfort for the cat. Allowing an ear infection to persist can lead to permanent damage of the ear canal or eardrum, impaired hearing, development of polyps or cysts, equilibrium problems, or even facial nerve paralysis in severe cases.

With proper inspection, diagnosis and treatment, most ear infections in cats can be cured. A vet should be consulted to correctly identify the cause and prescribe appropriate medication. With timely treatment and care, ear infections do not have to pose an ongoing problem for cats.


Ear infections in cats are often caused by an overgrowth of bacteria, yeast, or ear mites in the ear canal. Some common causes include:

  • Bacterial infections – Bacteria such as Staphylococcus, Pseudomonas, and Proteus can cause infection and inflammation in the ears.

  • Yeast infections – An overgrowth of yeast like Malassezia is another frequent cause of feline ear infections.

  • Ear mites – The mite Otodectes cynotis is highly contagious between cats and can lead to intense itchiness and infection.

  • Allergies – Allergies to food, flea bites, pollen or other environmental allergens can cause inflammation and discharge.

  • Foreign bodies – Grass seeds, dirt, or other debris stuck in the ear canal can obstruct airflow and provide a breeding ground for microbes.

Thick hair growth inside the ear canal, high humidity, underlying illnesses, and excessive moisture can also increase the risk of bacterial and yeast overgrowth in the ears.


Some common symptoms of an untreated ear infection in cats include:

  • Excessive head shaking and scratching at the ears 1
  • Redness and swelling inside the outer ear
  • Brown, yellow, or bloody discharge from the ears 2
  • Unpleasant odor coming from the ears
  • Loss of balance or head tilting
  • Hearing loss

These symptoms indicate irritation and inflammation inside the ear canal. As the infection worsens, the cat may shake their head, cry out in pain, and scratch their ears until they bleed. Immediate veterinary attention is required at the first signs of an ear infection.


If left untreated, an ear infection in cats can lead to several serious complications. The infection can spread deeper into the ear canal and puncture or rupture the eardrum (VCA Animal Hospitals). A ruptured eardrum can cause permanent hearing loss and impaired balance. Otitis interna, an inner ear infection, can also damage parts of the inner ear like the vestibular system, resulting in Horner’s syndrome, head tilting, circling, a lack of coordination, and difficulty walking or standing (VCA Animal Hospitals).

The infection may spread down the ear canal and affect the middle ear or inner ear, leading to more inflammation, soreness, and pain for the cat. Untreated infections that spread to these delicate internal structures often cause permanent damage. The infection can destroy inner ear structures that control balance and hearing, resulting in irreversible deafness, loss of equilibrium, disorientation, and lack of coordination (Mooresville Animal Hospital). In severe cases, the vestibular system can be damaged, leading to a head tilt.

If not resolved, the infection can become chronic. A chronic ear infection is more difficult to treat, often requires long-term medication, and can permanently alter the cat’s quality of life. Prolonged inflammation and infection in the ear canal can also calcify and narrow the canal, making medication delivery challenging (Tucson Vet).


Veterinarians diagnose ear infections in cats by performing a thorough physical exam of the ears. They will use an otoscope to look inside the ear canal for signs of inflammation, discharge, debris, and redness. An otoscope is a handheld tool with a light and magnifying lens that allows vets to visualize the ear canal.

To identify the exact cause of the infection, vets will take a sample of the ear discharge/debris using a cotton swab. This sample can then be examined under a microscope or sent for cytology – the microscopic examination of cells. Cytology allows vets to see yeast, bacteria, or mites if present. The type of microbe present helps determine the appropriate medication for treatment.

In severe cases, sedation may be required to fully examine and collect samples from the ear canal. X-rays or other imaging tests may also be recommended if there are concerns about tumors or growths in the canal. Vets can diagnose most ear infections through a physical exam, otoscopy, and cytology of a swab sample from the infected ear.





Treating an ear infection in cats usually involves medications, ear cleaning, and sometimes surgery if the infection is severe. Here are some typical treatment options:

Medications: Vets often prescribe antibiotic ear drops or ointments to treat bacterial infections. These may include gentamicin, neomycin, polymyxin B, or enrofloxacin. Antifungal medications like miconazole may be used for yeast infections. Corticosteroids like hydrocortisone help reduce swelling and itching.

Ear Cleaning: Gently cleaning debris and discharge from the ear canal with a vet-recommended cleanser can help medication penetrate infected tissue. Cleansers may contain salicylic acid, acetic acid, or chlorhexidine.

Surgery: If the infection is severe and does not respond to other treatments, a vet may surgically flush and clean the ears. In extreme cases, a total ear canal ablation surgery may be done to remove the ear canal.

Home Care

There are some steps cat owners can take at home to help care for a cat’s ear infection and keep their cat comfortable until the infection clears up.

It’s important to keep the ears clean and dry. Gently wipe out any debris or discharge from the ear canal with a cotton ball dampened with mineral oil or an ear cleaning solution recommended by your veterinarian. Don’t use q-tips, which can cause injury. Be very gentle, as the ear canal may be painful.

For pain relief, you can apply a warm compress over the ear for 5-10 minutes several times a day. Only use warm, not hot water. This can help reduce inflammation and discomfort. Your vet may also recommend giving your cat an over-the-counter pain medication like acetaminophen (make sure to carefully follow dosage instructions).

It’s important not to put any other medications or remedies into your cat’s ears without checking with your veterinarian first, as these could make the infection worse.


There are several steps cat owners can take to help prevent ear infections in their cats:

Routine cleaning is important for preventing ear infections. Gently wipe out dirt and debris from your cat’s ears weekly using a cotton ball dampened with a veterinarian-approved ear cleaning solution. Be sure to only clean the visible parts of the ear canal and do not insert anything into the vertical ear canal, as this can damage the eardrum.

Avoid exposing your cat to irritants that could lead to inflammation and infection in the ears. Things like cigarette smoke, perfumes, dust, and pollen can be problematic. Keep your home well-ventilated and clean to minimize irritants.

Check your cat’s ears regularly for any signs of ear mites, which are a common cause of ear infections. Ear mites can often be detected as black debris resembling coffee grounds in the ears. Your veterinarian can recommend an effective ear mite treatment.

Keeping your cat’s ears clean, avoiding irritants, and checking for mites can go a long way in preventing painful ear infections.


The prognosis for a cat’s ear infection is generally good if treatment is started promptly, according to the VCA Animal Hospitals ( With appropriate treatment, most ear infections in cats can be cured. However, if the underlying cause remains unidentified and untreated, the infection may recur.

Leaving an ear infection untreated can lead to permanent damage and serious complications. According to Bond Vet, if treatment is delayed, the infection can spread from the outer ear to the inner ear, potentially causing irreparable harm ( An untreated infection may also rupture the eardrum or damage the bones of the middle ear. In severe cases, untreated ear infections in cats can lead to deafness, facial nerve paralysis, vestibular syndrome, or even meningitis if the infection spreads to the brain.

However, with prompt veterinary attention and proper treatment, most cats make a full recovery from ear infections. Following up with any underlying conditions, like allergies, and providing good ear care can help prevent recurrent infections.

When to See a Vet

It’s important to take your cat to a veterinarian promptly if any signs of an ear infection are observed for a full examination and proper diagnosis: \n
Some key things that warrant a trip to the vet include noticeable signs of head tilting, loss of balance or disorientation, intense itching or scratching of the ears, or any discharge or odor coming from the ears. Redness, swelling, or tenderness of the outer ear is also a cause for concern.

Getting an evaluation done right away allows the vet to diagnose whether a bacterial or fungal infection is present and determine the underlying cause. This enables appropriate treatment to be prescribed before the infection worsens or leads to complications. Prompt diagnosis also prevents pain and discomfort for the cat.

In addition to an ear exam, the vet may wish to take a sample of the discharge from the ear canal and examine it under a microscope to identify the type of microorganisms present. They can then prescribe antibiotic or antifungal ear drops, ointments or pills to treat the infection.

While some home remedies may provide temporary relief, a vet visit ensures proper treatment and follow-up care. This gives the cat the best chance of overcoming the ear infection quickly and fully.

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