In A Cat’s Ear: Understanding The Cat Ear Yeast Infection

top of an orange cat's head showing just the forehead and ears

Last updated on February 1st, 2024 at 10:16 pm

by Dr. WL Wilkins, DVM, PhD

Cats, like dogs, can also be prone to a rather uncomfortable ailment – ear infections. One of the causes of ear infections in cats is an overgrowth of yeast.

The organism that causes cat ear yeast infections in cats is normally found in small numbers in a cat’s ears. However, when the environment in the ear is disturbed, for example, due to allergies or other conditions such as skin disorders, it can cause an overgrowth of yeast.

These infections can lead to discomfort, itching, and potential complications if left untreated. While these infections can be uncomfortable and painful for cats, there are steps you can take to manage the problem and bring relief.

In this article, we’ll go over the signs of an infection, potential causes, prevention tips, and treatment options so that you can help your cat stay healthy.

What Is A Cat Ear Yeast Infection?

A cat ear yeast infection, scientifically known as otomycosis, is an infection caused by the overgrowth of the fungus Malassezia pachydermatis in the ears. This organism is part of the normal flora of healthy ears, but in some conditions can overgrow and cause an infection. This fungal infection can lead to inflammation, discharge, and discomfort in affected cats.

Why Do Cats Get Ear Infections?

While outer ear infections (also called otitis externa) are less common in cats than they are in dogs, they are common enough to be a troublesome issue for both pets and their owners. Like dogs, cats can have underlying issues that increase their risk for getting ear infections.

Understanding why cats are prone to ear infections is essential in preventing and managing these uncomfortable conditions. Often there is an underlying cause that leads to the infection. So what is it that put cats at risk?

Ear Mites

An ear mite infestation is the most common reason why cats get ear infections. These are tiny parasites that can infest a cat’s ear canal, causing irritation and secondary infections. Cats that frequently come into contact with other animals, especially strays or outdoor cats, are more at risk.

Ear Anatomy

Cats have a unique ear structure, with a vertical external ear canal that makes it easier for debris, dirt, and moisture to become trapped. The shape of their ears can hinder the natural self-cleaning process, increasing the risk of infection.

Moisture and Humidity

Moisture, whether from bathing or environmental factors, can accumulate in a cat’s ear canal, creating an ideal breeding ground for bacteria and yeast. Cats that spend time outdoors or have frequent exposure to damp conditions are at a higher risk.

Earwax Buildup

Earwax buildup can obstruct the ear canal and create a welcoming environment for pathogens. Breeds with fuzzy ears that make it difficult to keep the ear clean, like Persian cats, may be more prone to ear infections.

Allergies

Allergies can disrupt the normal balance of ear flora. Cats with allergies, whether to food, pollen, or other environmental factors, can experience increased itching and inflammation in their ears, making them more susceptible to infections.

Weakened Immune System

A weakened immune system, due to age, illness, or stress, can compromise a cat’s ability to fend off infections. Chronic diseases like diabetes or feline leukemia virus (FeLV) can also increase the risk.

Foreign Bodies

Cats are curious creatures, and they may get foreign objects into their ears while exploring, leading to irritation and infection. Long-haired cats may also get hair stuck in their ears, leading to discomfort and increased risk of infection.

Previous Infections

Cats who have experienced ear infections in the past may be more susceptible to recurrent episodes. Inadequate or incomplete treatment can leave the ear vulnerable to reinfection.

Other Causes of Cat Ear Infections

Besides yeast, there are other types of infections that can occur in a cat’s ears, and some may be more serious than others.

  • Bacterial Infections: Bacterial infections in cat ears can happen on their own, but are also sometimes caused by yeast infections. Cats can have mixed infections involving both bacteria and yeast at the same time.
  • Fungal Infections: The Malassezia pachydermatis yeast is part of the fungi family and is the most common cause of fungal infections in pets. But other members of the fungi family, such as Aspergillus or Candida species, are occasionally involved.
  • Allergic Dermatitis: Allergic dermatitis is an allergic reaction that can cause inflammation and itching in the ears. It often has the same appearance, and if left untreated can lead to infection by yeast or bacteria.
  • Parasites: Parasites, such as ear mites, can cause infection and inflammation of the ears which can also lead to yeast or bacteria infection if left untreated.
seal point sphynx cat with head tilted to the side
Cat with head tilt caused by an inner ear infection

11 Signs Of An Ear Infection In Cats

Cats are masters at hiding discomfort, but there are several signs that may indicate your cat has an ear infection. These signs should not be ignored, since untreated ear infections can cause pain and potentially lead to more severe problems.

Here are some symptoms of ear infections to look out for:

  1. Ear Rubbing, Scratching, and Head Shaking:
    • If your cat frequently scratches or rubs its ears against objects and shakes its head, it could be trying to relieve itching or discomfort.
  2. Ear Discharge:
    • Keep an eye out for any excess wax production or visible debris coming out of your cat’s ears. Discharge can be yellow, brown, or blackish in color.
  3. Redness and Swelling:
    • Inflamed, red, or swollen ears may indicate an infection. The more severe the infection, the more extensive the area of the ear that becomes involved.
  4. Unpleasant Odor:
    • An unpleasant or foul odor coming from your cat’s ears is a common sign of infection. It’s often caused by the presence of bacteria or yeast.
  5. Tilting Head or Holding it to One Side:
    • If your cat seems to be tilting its head to one side or holding it at an odd angle, it could be a sign of inner ear infection (otitis media) affecting balance. Inner ear infections can result from severe cases of outer ear infections.
  6. Unusual Behavior:
    • Cats with severe ear infections may exhibit changes in behavior. They might become more irritable, lethargic, or reluctant to be touched around their ears.
  7. Loss of Balance or Coordination:
    • Inner ear infections can affect your cat’s balance and coordination. You may notice your cat stumbling or falling over.
  8. Vocalization:
    • Some cats may meow or cry more than usual when they have ear pain. They are trying to communicate their discomfort.
  9. Resisting Ear Touching:
    • Normally, cats enjoy having their ears gently touched or rubbed. If your cat suddenly becomes sensitive or resistant to ear handling, it may be due to pain.
  10. Scratched Ears:
    • Inspect your cat’s ears for visible scratches, wounds, or scabs. These can be a result of excessive scratching due to discomfort.
  11. Loss of Appetite:
    • Ear infections can make eating uncomfortable for your cat. If they suddenly lose interest in food, it could be related to their ear problem.

If you notice any of these signs in your cat, it’s essential to seek veterinary care as soon as possible. Ear infections can be painful and may lead to more serious issues if left untreated.

cat ear yeast infection side by side photo of a normal clean ear and a dirty ear with mild yeast infection that are both on the same cat
Sphynx cat ears: one is clean, healthy ear (left) vs. ear with mild yeast infection, slight reddening with black debris and discharge (right).

Diagnosis

Veterinary diagnosis is the best way to confirm your cat has a yeast infection in its ear. Your vet will perform a physical examination of your cat’s ears and check for signs of inflammation or discharge.

Your cat’s medical history is also an essential part of the evaluation, as it can provide valuable insights into the onset and progression of the condition.

In addition, your vet may also take a sample of the ear discharge. This sample is then carefully examined under a microscope, allowing the vet to identify the type of microorganisms present, including yeast.

In some cases, a more detailed analysis called an ear culture may be recommended to determine the specific type of yeast and assess its sensitivity to different medications, ensuring the most effective treatment approach.

If the ear infection is severe, or does not respond well to treatment, or if your cat is having recurring infections, blood tests may be conducted to assess your cat’s overall health and rule out any systemic issues.

If allergies are suspected as a contributing factor, allergy testing may be recommended to identify potential allergens triggering the infection.

In cases where the infection is believed to have extended deeper into the ear, imaging studies such as X-rays or CT scans may be necessary to evaluate the extent of the infection.

Treatment

Treatment of cat ear yeast infections focuses both on treating the ear infection as well as correcting the underlying problem that resulted in the ear infection in the first place.

Before beginning any treatment, your cats’ ears must first be thoroughly cleaned. This ensures that any applied medications can penetrate well, making the treatment more effective.

The primary treatment for most cat ear yeast infections usually involves the use of antifungal ear drops or ointments specifically designed to combat the yeast overgrowth in your cat’s ears. Oral medication may be prescribed in more severe or persistent cases.

Along with antifungal treatments, your vet may also recommend other medications to help reduce inflammation and irritation, as well as antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections.

These medications must be administered exactly as instructed, both in terms of dosage and duration. Failure to do so can result in the yeast infection not being completely eliminated, leading to a recurrence of the problem.

When ear mites are present, your vet may also prescribe an anti-parasitic medication. This may be in the form of ear drops, but there are also single application topical (spot-on) treatments that are effective in killing not only ear mites but other parasites as well.

If allergies are suspected as a cause of the infection, medications to control itching and inflammation may be prescribed. Your veterinarian also recommend dietary changes, if food allergies are thought be be a contributing cause.

Cats that have ears that are sore and raw from scratching may need to use an e-collar (plastic cone) to prevent them from damaging their ears further until the medication has time to work.

In addition to initial ear cleaning and medication, regular ear cleaning is an important part of treatment. Cleaning helps remove excess wax, discharge, and debris that can contribute to the infection or impede the effectiveness of the antifungal treatment.

Your veterinarian will demonstrate the proper technique for cleaning your cat’s ears, and you’ll be responsible for maintaining a regular cleaning schedule at home.

Ear infections can sometimes be caused by tumors, foreign objects, or polyps in the ear canal. In such cases, surgery may be required to address these underlying conditions and provide the necessary treatment.

cat ear yeast infection - image of a vet holding an orange cat and cleaning its ears with a cotton swab

Prevention

Preventing cat ear yeast infections requires a proactive approach to cat health and ear hygiene. Here are some things that you can do to help prevent these infections:

  • Regular Ear Cleaning: Regularly clean your cat’s ears to remove excess wax, dirt, and moisture that can create an environment conducive to yeast growth. Use a veterinarian-approved ear cleaning solution and follow the cleaning instructions provided by your vet.
  • Avoid Excess Moisture: Minimize your cat’s exposure to excess moisture. Keep their ears dry when bathing them, and make sure their living environment is free from dampness or humidity.
  • Maintain a Healthy Diet: Feed your cat a balanced and nutritious diet. A well-fed cat is more likely to have a strong immune system, which can help prevent ear infections.
  • Allergy Management: If your cat has allergies, work with your veterinarian to identify and manage allergens effectively. Allergies can lead to ear irritation, making infections more likely.
  • Regular Veterinary Check-ups: Schedule routine check-ups with your veterinarian to monitor your cat’s ear health. Early detection of potential issues can help prevent infections from worsening.
  • Insect Control: Protect your cat from ear mites and other pests by keeping them indoors or using veterinarian-recommended flea and tick prevention methods.
  • Proper Grooming: Maintain your cat’s grooming routine to prevent matting and excessive earwax buildup, which can contribute to infections.
  • Limit Ear Trauma: Be gentle when handling your cat’s ears, and avoid introducing foreign objects that could damage the ear canal.
  • Clean Living Environment: Ensure your cat’s living environment is clean and free from dust and allergens that can exacerbate ear problems.
  • Good Hygiene Practices: Wash your hands after handling multiple cats, especially if one has an ear infection, to prevent cross-contamination.

Why Does My Cat Get Multiple Ear Infections?

Recurring or chronic ear infections can be frustrating for both pet owners and their feline companions. Why do ear infections reoccur?

One common reason for a recurrent infection is incomplete treatment during the initial infection. In such cases, there might be some yeast or bacteria that remain in the ear canal that start to grow again once treatment is stopped.

Underlying health issues, such as allergies or chronic conditions, or a weak immune system can make them more susceptible to recurrent infections.

Certain cat breeds with unique ear structures and anatomical factors are also prone to repeat infections due to poor air circulation and increased moisture retention in the ear canals.

Environmental factors, like outdoor exposure or mold-prone surroundings, can further increase the risk of recurrence.

Neglecting regular ear hygiene, transmission from other infected pets in a multi-pet household, medication resistance, and stress are additional contributors to recurring ear infections.

The key to preventing these frustrating recurrences is to address underlying causes, maintain good ear hygiene, manage any chronic conditions, and consult with your veterinarian to develop a tailored prevention and treatment strategy.

Cat Ear Yeast Infection - a cat ear with black debris and discharge, orange cat

Final Thoughts

Although cats do not get ear yeast infections nearly as often as dogs do, when they do occur they cause significant discomfort and irritation for our feline friends.

Understanding the causes, signs, and effective treatment options for these infections is critical for maintaining your cat’s ear health. Knowing what to look for and seeking prompt veterinary care can help prevent complications and ensure your cat’s comfort.

If your cat is prone to these infections or has underlying health conditions that increase the risk, work with your veterinarian to develop an effective prevention plan. With the right approach, you can help protect your pet’s ears from infection and discomfort.

Disclaimer: This article is intended for information purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. Always consult your veterinarian if you have specific concerns about your pet’s health.

Sources:

Author

  • Dr. Wendy Wilkins DVM PhD.

    Dr. Wendy Wilkins is an experienced veterinarian and epidemiologist with over 20 years of expertise. She holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree and a Doctorate in Epidemiology from the University of Saskatchewan. Throughout her career, Dr. Wilkins has excelled in clinical practice, academia, research, and regulatory veterinary medicine. She is a respected voice in knowledge dissemination, delivering factual information in a readable and understandable manner through articles, books, and public engagements.

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