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Cat Ear Infections: Your Questions Answered!

Infections of the external ear canal or outer ear caused by bacteria and yeast are common in dogs, but not as common in cats. Outer ear infections are called otitis externa. The most common cause of feline otitis externa is ear mite infestation.

Why does my pet need an appointment and cytology, can’t I just get some ear medication?

There are several kinds of bacteria and at least one type of fungus that commonly cause ear infections. Without knowing the specific kind of infection present, it is not possible to know which medication to use. Using the wrong medication is pointless and may even make the condition worse.

To determine the type of infection, a sample of the material from the ear canal is taken and put on a slide to look at under a microscope. Culture and susceptibility tests are often used in severe or chronic ear infections to ensure your pet is receiving the right medication.

It is also important that your cat be examined to ensure that the eardrum is intact. Administration of certain medications can result in loss of hearing if the eardrum is ruptured. This can only be detected by a thorough ear examination by your veterinarian.

How are ear infections treated?

The results of the otoscopic and microscopic examination usually determine the diagnosis and course of treatment. If there is a foreign body, wax plug, or parasite lodged in the ear canal, it will be removed. Some cats must be sedated or anaesthetised for this, or to allow a thorough ear flushing and cleaning.

Many cats will have more than one type of infection present (e.g., a bacterium and a fungus, or two kinds of bacteria). This situation usually requires the use of multiple medications or a broad-spectrum medication.

An important part of the evaluation of the patient is the identification of underlying disease. Many cats with chronic or recurrent ear infections have allergies or low thyroid function (hypothyroidism).

 If underlying disease is suspected, it must be diagnosed and treated or the pet will continue to experience chronic ear problems. 

How important is it to treat an ear infection?

Cats with ear infections are in pain, if you have ever had one yourself you would be able to confirm it is not pleasant. If left untreated the infection will worsen leading to not only increased pain but the possibility of rupture to the eardrum, causing an internal ear infection and even permanent hearing loss.

Why does my pet need progress exams for their ear infection?

Each case of infection is different so it is impossible to know the exact length of treatment required to resolve individual infections. 

Without confirming if the infection has totally resolved, your pet is at risk of the infection coming straight back and needing to start treatment all over again, even if their visible symptoms have resolved.

The progress exams will require another cytology to be taken from your pets ear and examined under the microscope to ensure the infection has cleared, or to let us know if treatment is required to continue.

Is there anything I need to know about administering medication in the ear?

It is important to get the medication into the horizontal part of the ear canal (see diagram on front page). Unlike our ear canal, the cat’s external ear canal is L-shaped.

The ear canal may be medicated by following these steps:

  1. Gently pull the earflap straight up and slightly toward the back and hold it with one hand.
  2. Using the other hand, apply a small amount of medication into the vertical part of the ear canal while continuing to keep the earflap elevated. Hold the ear up long enough for the medication to run down to the turn between the vertical and horizontal canal.
  3. Put one finger in front of and at the base of the earflap, and put your thumb behind and at the base.
  4.  Massage the ear canal between your finger and thumb. A ‘squishing’ sound tells you that the medication has gone into the horizontal canal.
  5. Release the ear and let your cat shake its head. Many medications will contain a wax solvent and you may observe debris dissolved in this solvent leaving the ear as your cat shakes its head.
  6. If a second medication is to be used, apply it in the same manner. Typically, you should wait 5-30 minutes before applying additional medications. Be sure to ask your veterinarian for specific directions regarding any ear medication or cleansing agents.

When all medications have been applied, clean the outer part of the ear canal and the inside of the earflap with a cotton ball soaked in some of the medication. Do not use cotton tipped applicators (Q-Tips) to do this, as they tend to push debris back into the vertical ear canal.

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