Dr Reeja George P.*

Childhood memories of the dainty Tom napping beside a dining table, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings, and the dashing Jerry defeated in his tip toeing attempt to savour those delicacies on the dining table by power of those cat ears are part of our lives and that of our kids’ as well! Tales about the uncanny ability of cat’s ears is something that we have all been fed with from childhood. And it’s true. Though she may seem to be napping in warmth of the November morning Sun, don’t underestimate her ears! Cat ears are always on the guard. And more than that, unassuming as they may seem, cat’s ears have a very impressive capacity of detecting sounds in the range of frequencies of as high as 60 000 vibrations per second; much higher than a human ear that catches sounds of up to 20 000 vibrations per second. This is the result of evolutionary process that has worked on cat’s dual needs of fending for itself, as it stalks for prey, and protecting itself from its predators as well.

Why Is Cat’s Ear So Important?

Generally speaking, ear infections are not a major issue for vast majority of cats.  There are, however, quite a few ear problems that could be painful for her, besides posing significant threats to her hearing. If these conditions are not addressed appropriately, they may in the long run cause deafness. So we have to be a little careful when it comes to caring for kitty’s ears.

Cat Ear Basics

An understanding of ear basics is crucial to minimizing the risks of possible ear issues. With regard to the basic structure, a cat ear is similar to the one in humans, and for that matter, to most mammalian ears. Just like us, they have got a part of the ear that is visible externally to eye and this external ear is also called the pinna.  In addition to the part that you can see, external ear also includes first part of a small tube like ear canal that goes deep into the head. And matters do not stop there. The ear continues into the head and its middle part is called the middle ear; it consists of a stretched membrane like structure that actually shivers or vibrates along with other small structures when sound waves come into the ear. Third part of ear – the inner ear – is located very deep in skull and has all the nerves and other paraphernalia that are responsible for deciphering sounds. So to put it very simply, this is a cat’s ear – and yours too for that matter – which in all its seeming simplicity – is also a very fragile system that needs to be handled with utmost care!

Healthy Cat Ear

Cat ears are generally pink in colour, without any tell tale signs of discharges such as crusting on inner aspect of the ear. Cats with healthy ears would generally not spend much time scratching or pawing at them.

External Ear Problems

Sometimes, the skin covering ear pinna can be affected by cuts from fights or it can also get inflamed due to too much exposure to ultra violet rays from the Sun, much the same as humans get sunburnt! This is more common in light or non pigmented, white or ginger coloured cats. The secret is to avoid excessively hot rays of the Sun; this does not mean that she can’t enjoy a day out, just restrict it to the time when the Sun is not so harsh.

Acquired Ear Problems – The Culprits

Basically, ear issues can either be congenital in origin – when you can’t really do anything about it – or acquired when corrective interventions are possible. Acquired ear problems in our feline friends may be caused by a host of reasons, most common of which are allergens, parasites that are lodged on outer part of the body (ectoparasites), or clogging of ear canals with cat fur or ear wax and in quite a number of instances, an external object that accidentally gets into her ear. In many cases, an ear problem may also arise along with other illnesses caused by infectious organisms such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi and by polyps. Whatever the cause may be, end result is irritation of the lining of ear canal, resulting in inflammation and it is called otitis interna. When compared to dogs, the incidence of this condition in a cat is generally not common but in case your cat has a higher incidence that keeps on coming and going on and off, you could suspect that either her immune system is weak or that she has some anatomical defect in ear that makes her more susceptible.

An Enfant Terrible – The Ear Mite

This is a very small parasite that spends most of its life in ear canal resulting in very disturbing irritation of the canal and making it prone to infections by bacteria. The most common ear mite in a cat is Otodectes cynotis. These mites live in cat’s ear and they feed on ear debris. Their whole life, from egg to adulthood, all happens in the ear. These parasites can also wander out of the ear to other parts of cat’s body where they may cause irritation. If your cat has ear mites, she may shake her head frequently, attempt to scratch at her ears and if you check what her problem is, you may find a dark waxy ear discharge that looks quite similar to coffee grounds and is quite characteristic of ear mite induced ear affections in the cat.

Polyps, Grass Seeds, and Foreign Objects

Sometimes, a rough play time in garden grass or some other misadventure may result in grass seeds or other small objects being accidentally lodged in her ear. This can also cause irritation that could lead to secondary infections by bacteria. 

Congenital Ear Problems

Congenital problems are those that your cat has inherited from her parents and are generally associated with a range of defects in development of parts of the ear – from a total absence of ear (atresia) to defective development of ear. Some cats are born deaf.  Unfortunately, this condition cannot be reversed. This condition is more common in white, blue eyed cats. 

Another congenital defect associated with cat ear is a unique condition called the ‘folded ear’ that is characterized by badly formed outer ears that are twisted and flattened so that they bend forward and downward towards front of its head, in a way that cat resembles an owl. This condition is seen in the Scottish Fold breed of cats. This condition is associated with a genetic defect that causes problems with ear cartilage and it also results in defective development of bone and cartilage in other parts of cat’s body (osteochondroplasia), making the cat severely arthritic. It is a very painful condition and cats with this disorder have great difficulty walking and moving around. There are a lot of ethical issues in breeding such animals with genetic mutations because of the pain that they suffer.

How Do You Know She Has A Problem?

In some cases, where kitty has an ear problem, there may not be much external manifestations, except for some difficulty in moving her mouth joints while chewing or opening her mouth. More severe inner ear affections are usually accompanied by the build up of fluid and debris that cause a lot of pain. In these cases, she may paw at her ear or shake her head to dislodge the fluid and in more extreme cases, she may tilt her head to the side of affected ear. In very severe cases, her balance may be affected and she may move in circles. If she is left untreated, ear affections may progress to involve nerves of the face as well as her general system so that she vomits or feels nauseated. It is always better not to wait for things to get to this point. Problem with affections of ear and eye is that, if left untreated, the damages may be permanent and irreversible; your little ball of fur may lose her sight or ability to hear forever. So never delay your visit to a vet if you feel that she’s pawing at her ear and there are tell tale signs of something smelling bad from her ears. Ear cleaning is not usually necessary in most cats, except in those that are prone to wax build-ups.

On An Ending Note

As Sigmund Freud noted, “Time spent with cats is never wasted. That is the effect of having someone to love and spend life with. But you have to take care of her, check her ears for any unusual swellings, colour changes, discharges, and so on.  A small step taken could go a long way in keeping her happy, so that she continues to keep you smiling!

*Associate Professor, Department of Veterinary and Animal Husbandry Extension, College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Mannuthy, Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Thrissur, Kerala 680 651