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7-Year Old Tabby Cat With a Painful Ear

February 19, 2011
grey striped tabby crabby cat holds his left ear flat and level

Cat Ear Pain

Something is Wrong With the Cat’s Ear

“Abigail’s been scratching and shaking her head for a few weeks now.  We thought it was earmites, so we bought some earmite medicine online.  But it didn’t seem to help and she hates it,” said the skinny grey tabby cat’s mom.

Abby’s golden eyes peered out of the green plastic cat carrier at Doc Truli.  She wasn’t coming out of there on her own.

“Let’s get the top off of this carrier and see what’s in those ears,” said the Doc.

Doc and Abby’s mom removed the top of the carrier.  Abigail looked around with a surprised expression.  (Most cats remain calm and become much easier for the veterinarian to examine with the carrier top removed, rather than the cat extracted through the doorway.)

Tru Tip

If your cat won’t come out of the carrier at the vet’s office, take the top off!

Indoor Cats With No Direct Contact With Other Animals Are Unlikely to Have Earmites

Abigail stayed indoors 100% of the time.  The family had no other pets.  No visitors came by the house.  The odds of earmites in this 7-year-old indoor cat were none and none.  Earmites spread by direct contact. Abigail had no contact with other animals.  Plus, ermines prefer higher body temperatures than human levels.  Like a cat, dog, rabbit or ferret.

Over-the-counter medication stings and burns infected, sore ears.  The typical brown chunky discharge that people associate with earmites can also be caused by yeast or bacterial infections.  A microscopic examination of the ear exudate diagnoses the infection accurately.

All ear medication can cause hearing loss or complete deafness.  Even sterile saline can irritate the middle ear if the eardrum is not intact.  Your veterinarian can examine the eardrum and the ear canal and make an educated decision about which cleaners and medications might be most effective and safest for the ear.

Other Otitidies

Yeast Otitis Externa

Abigail’s ear cytological microscopy examination revealed too many yeast organisms.  Some appropriate medicated cleanser, some medicated drops, some careful ear medicine application and Abigail was back to normal in a week!

Bacterial Otitis Externa

Bacterial infections can also cause brown smelly discharge from the ears.  Cleaners and medications for yeast often will not work for yeast infections.  Many ear medication formulas include anti-yeast and anti-bacterial medicine because the primary problem, the sore, debilitated ear skin lining the ear canal, needs to heal before a different infection fills the that ecological niche.  In other words, if you treat for yeast, and the ear is still sore and inflamed, an opportunistic bacterial infection could take hold.

Otitis Media

Recent research has shown a bacteria infection can cross through the thin layers of the eardrum and infect the middle ear, even without an actual identifiable hole in the eardrum.  A middle ear infection could fill the inner ear with pus.  A radiograph (X-Ray) of the skull can help identify middle ear infections.  Your veterinarian can help diagnose a middle ear infection.

(Doc Truli made up the plural of otitis: otitidies, pronounced oh-ti-di-tees)

Next time your cat has brown chunky discharge coming from the ears, especially a protected, spoiled indoor-only cat, do not assume earmites.  They are very actually uncommon in a protected, adult, indoor cat.

More About Pet Carriers

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary permalink
    January 31, 2016 12:40 pm

    This was a wonderfully helpful article thank you very much. I have tried everything with the vet but they never seem to be able to get my cat back to normal for long. I will try your ideas for this instead, and hopefully I’ll have her on the mend. Thanks again for your information and the time put into it.

  2. February 19, 2011 11:30 pm

    Great post! Yes, I think most pet owners have heard of ear mites but none of the other reasons cats can have ear problems…so they often treat with, as you said, harsh and irritating medications, when it’s not ear mites at all.

    Cornish Rex and Devon Rex have real issues with yeast overgrowth and I educate people who get cats from me, how to recognize and maintain healthy ears and skin in this breed. But, at the cat hospital where I work, we see cats of all shapes and sizes with malassezia otitiis. I often explain it to clients that the ear is a dark, warm place and once yeasts get cooking in there…it’s like sourdough starter, hahameow!

    I have had a few kitties have to go on oral meds to work from the inside out (fluconazole, itraconazole) and had one clients kitty was diagnosed with allergies that once we got treated, the ears cleared up also.

    • February 20, 2011 11:52 pm

      I saw a little white short-haired barn cat that got thick brown malassezia (yeast) otitis in response to eating fresh picked catnip. Her anal sacs also filled up within a day of the catnip.

      I like the sourdough starter analogy! I like to think of yeast and the fermented odor of it as kitty beer!


  1. About the ears — how often have you seen an infected ear in your kitty? | Mythicbells Persian Cats & Kittens

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