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My Cat Keeps Scratching Their Ears

 
By Laura García Ortiz, Veterinarian specialized in feline medicine. November 21, 2021
My Cat Keeps Scratching Their Ears

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Ear problems are relatively common in cats. Felines may experience itching, pain or discomfort to various degrees. As they are very hygienic animals, we should not confuse regular cleaning of their ears for scratching. When a cat has a serious problem with their ears, they will keep scratching at them, sometimes until their ears become raw. In these cases, we might see wounds develop. These can lead to secondary infections and the cat may suffer hearing loss if the problem remains untreated.

At AnimalWised, we look at the reasons why my cat keeps scratching their ears. We understand which pathologies cause ear scratching as a symptom and find out what treatment options are available for them.

You may also be interested in: Why Does My Dog Scratch Their Ears So Much?

Cat scratching ears due to mites

The most common reason a cat keeps scratching their ears is due to mites. Ear mites on cats can proliferate relatively quickly and spread easily from one animal to another. Despite being named for their presence on canines, the most common ear mite which affect cats is Otodectes cynotis. These mites can affect any cat, regardless of their health status or whether they live indoors.

Cat ear mites are found in large quantities in the ears of cats, sometimes from a very young age. The cycle of these parasites lasts a total of 3 weeks and occurs within the ear. This cycle begins from the laying of eggs until the death of the adult mite. Unlike some parasites which die soon after leaving their host, these ear mites can live for 10 to 20 days after doing so.

These parasites feed on the cat's ear wax. As they feed, they bite the sensitive skin of the cat's ear canal and cause irritation. In turn, the cat feels their ears become itchy and they start to scratch to relieve said irritation. With repetitive scratching, it is easy for the cat to break the skin around the ears and cause wounds. Secondary bacterial infections are common, especially if the cat's immune system is run down.

Treatment of ear mites in cats

To kill these mites, topical antiparasitic products should be used, such as ivermectin for cats. This can be combined with insecticidal products such as fipronil which can kill parasites around the ear. To help regenerate the damaged epithelium, it is necessary for the cat to maintain proper ear hygiene. We can help with regular cleaning of the cat's ears with sterile swabs and suitable cat ear cleaner. Learn more with our guide to cleaning a cat's ears.

Although ear mites are the most common, there are various ear problems in cats. You will need to take your cat to the veterinarian for diagnosis and the correct administration of treatment. Below we provide some of the reasons for cat ear scratching which are not mites.

My Cat Keeps Scratching Their Ears - Cat scratching ears due to mites

Allergies

While cats can cause allergic reactions in humans, they are also susceptible to allergies themselves. Many can lead to skin problems in cats such as inflammation and itching. The main causes of allergic reactions in cats are:>

  • Food hypersensitivity: occurs as a result of an allergy to some dietary protein, such as chicken or turkey. It is diagnosed by following an elimination diet for several weeks. This disorder predisposes cats to otitis, in addition to causing itching and redness of the skin. Digestive signs such as vomiting and diarrhea are also common.
  • Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD): some cats can be sensitive to the proteins in saliva that fleas produce when they bite to feed. It can most commonly be seen on the neck, but they can also scratch their ears, tail, hindlimbs and other areas. Lesions can appear which lead to dry skin, scabbing and hair loss (alopecia). Often the cat loses hair in patches. Unlike some smaller mites, fleas on cats are visible to the human eye. Treatment is deworming with external dewormers.

If your cat has been dewormed, but is still scratching, there could be another underlying cause. Take a look at our article on my cat is acting weird after flea treatment for more information.

Atopic dermatitis

Allergens do not only occur in food or the saliva of fleas. Environmental allergens can lead to a cat's ears being itchy. If the cat has a sensitivity to it, allergens can occur in almost anything. However, some of the most common are air fresheners, dust, pollen, perfumes or chemicals found in hygiene products. Atopic dermatitis is a type of skin inflammation which arises from allergic reactions. Its clinical symptoms include:

  • Pruritus (itchiness)
  • Symmetric alopecia
  • Miliary dermatitis (papulocostrus)
  • Skin lesions
  • Ulcers on the neck and face

Treatment

Treatment of atopic dermatitis in cats should include corticosteroid or cyclosporine therapy to reduce itching and inflammation. We may also require medications to boost the cat's immune system. It is also important to remove the allergen from the cat's environment or prevent access to it.

Otitis

Otitis is inflammation of the ear canal. There are various causes of feline otitis and the condition can be either primary or secondary. For example, secondary bacterial otitis can occur if the cat has a foreign object stuck in their ear canal. Along with inflammation, the cat's external ear canal can become red, purulent and itchy, leading to the cat scratching their ears.

External otitis occurs frequently in kittens. As they are still developing their immune system, they are at higher risk. They can become weak, develop fever and experience pain. Bacterial otitis can also arise as a consequence of the mite Otodectes cynotis.

Sometimes, instead of external otitis, a middle ear otitis can occur due to Pasteurella multocida, a bacterium that can be isolated in the pharynx of 94% of cats. It reaches the middle ear and infects it through the Eustachian, tube a structure that connects the tympanic bulla and the pharynx.

The clinical signs of otitis in cats include the following:

  • Pain
  • Bad smell
  • Head shaking
  • Ear scratching
  • Tilting the head
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Secretions
  • Hot ears
  • Lack of balance
  • Vomiting

Treatment

To treat these types of feline otitis, specific antibiotic or antifungal treatment should be administered. Maintaining proper ear hygiene is also important. In severe cases of otitis or when the ear canal has been damaged, a surgical operation may be necessary.

My Cat Keeps Scratching Their Ears - Otitis

Wounds

Trauma to the ears can lead to scratches and open wounds. This trauma can be caused by the scratching itself. When one of the problems detailed above leads to itchy ears, the cat can cause trauma with their claws when they scratch to relieve themselves. As the wounds heal and the tissue regenerates, this can cause irritation which can exacerbate the wounds even further. This provides a heightened risk of secondary infections.

Cats can experience trauma from various injuries such as falls, traffic collisions and fighting with other cats. You will need to take the cat to a veterinarian in case they need antibiotic treatment. The cat will also need the wounds to be sterilized and they may require a cat e-collar to stop them from accessing the wound.

My Cat Keeps Scratching Their Ears - Wounds

Tumors

Cutaneous epitheliotropic lymphoma can cause itching and self-induced lesions on the ears, as well as the rest of the face and neck. Another tumor that can cause scratching of the ears in cats by injuring them is feline squamous cell carcinoma. In both cases, it is common to observe that the cat scratches their ear raw and causes wounds. It is essential to check them and go to the veterinary clinic as soon as possible.

Treatment

Treatment of these tumors may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, electrochemotherapy and surgery. In tumors affecting the horizontal portion of the ear canal, resection of the ear canal may be necessary.

Since many of the causes that explain why a cat scratches its ear a lot require veterinary treatment, it is essential to see a specialist to obtain a better prognosis.

Many of the problems which cause the cat to scratch their ears can also result in the cat's ears feeling warm. Take a look at our video below to learn more about this feline phenomenon:

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to My Cat Keeps Scratching Their Ears, we recommend you visit our Other health problems category.

Bibliography
  • M. Bardagui, L. Ordeix. (2016). Feline atopic dermatitis . Available at: https://www.portalveterinaria.com/articoli/articulos/26140/dermatitis-atopica-felina.html
  • Gemfe, Avepa. Diseases in the ears. Available at: https://www.avepa.org/articulos/oidos.html

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