Ear foreign bodies in cats

Ear foreign bodies in cats are unusual but not unheard-of. Including parasites as ‘foreign bodies’ makes the condition much more common! Any cat can be affected but cats who go outdoors will be at greater risk.


Ear foreign bodies happen when something works its way into your cat’s ear canal and gets stuck there. Once lodged, the object will either stay put or work its way deeper into the ear. Grass seeds and parasites are the most common ear ‘foreign bodies’. They cause irritation in the ear, which may be intense. Other complications include infection, a damaged eardrum, or aural haematoma. Always consult a vet if your cat is shaking their head, rubbing or showing other signs of ear irritation.


What are ear foreign bodies in cats?

Your cat’s external ear comprises the vertical and horizontal canals. The opening of the ear leads to the vertical canal.

  • An ear foreign body refers to something trapped in the vertical or horizontal ear canal.
  • Hair around the ear’s entrance usually protects the inside of the ear. But sometimes it funnels foreign bodies, such as grass seeds, into the narrow ear canal.
  • Once inside an ear canal, a foreign body is unlikely to come out by itself.

Things likely to get stuck in your cat’s ears include:

  • Grass awns
  • Parasites: ear mites, occasionally fleas
  • Blades of grass or straw
  • Seeds
  • Beads, gravel or sand

Medium to longer-term problems:

  • Irritation of the ear canal stimulates formation of ear wax
  • Irritated, inflamed ear and accumulation of wax lead to ear disease


How can I tell if my cat has an ear foreign body?

Sharp or hard foreign bodies, such as grass seeds:

  • Sudden onset: often during or shortly after being outdoors
  • Symptoms of intense ear irritation: head shaking, rubbing, pawing, whimpering or crying
  • Becoming quiet and dull, going off food
  • Holding head to one side

Mites, fleas, and smooth or softer foreign bodies such as paper or cotton wool

  • Mild to moderate irritation: scratching, rubbing
  • Less abrupt onset, but doesn’t go away.

Unidentified and untreated ear foreign bodies lead to ear disease:

  • Build-up of wax and discharge at the entrance to the ear canals
  • Smelly ears
  • Redness and swelling


Which cats are most at risk of ear foreign bodies?

Lifestyle and preventive treatments all influence how likely your cat is to get an ear foreign body.

Risk factors include:

  • Having mid-length to longer hair that traps grass seeds or burrs.
  • Exploring or hunting in long grass.
  • Playing with wool, paper, or beads in the house.
  • Not having regular anti-parasite preventive treatment.
  • Having existing ear or skin disease that predisposes to rolling and rubbing ears on the ground for relief.


Complications of ear foreign bodies

  • Ear infections
  • Aural haematomas from head-shaking
  • Burst eardrum: also called tympanic membrane, separates the outer ear from the middle ear.
  • Otitis media: signs include head tilt, pain, Horner’s syndrome, and difficulty eating.


How do vets diagnose ear foreign bodies in cats?

Sudden onset of intense ear irritation during or shortly after being outdoors raises suspicion of an ear foreign body.

Your vet will usually make or confirm a diagnosis by examining your cat’s ears with an otoscope, a special tool with a light source and magnification.

More specialist tests:

Video otoscopy

  • Examining the ear canals through a special camera.
  • Requires sedation or a general anaesthetic. Your cat is relaxed and comfortable or fast asleep.

Vet treatment

What’s the treatment for ear foreign bodies in cats?

Even if your vet can see a foreign body, your cat’s ear canal will likely be too small to allow safe removal when they are awake.

The vet may advise:

  • Sedation or a general anaesthetic to relax your cat for the procedure. And to keep them still.
  • Anti-inflammatory painkiller medicine if the ear is painful.
  • Specific treatments for complications such as an ear infection or aural haematoma.
  • Antiparasitic treatment, such as ear drops and/or spot-ons if the ‘foreign body’ is ear mites.

Ear flushing:

  • To remove small foreign particles, such as sand or gravel.
  • Requires deep sedation or general anaesthetic.
  • A safer option where the foreign body is close to the eardrum.

Video otoscopy:

  • As well as looking inside the ear, this equipment has tools to grasp and remove small foreign bodies.
  • Allows safe removal of objects next to or on the surface of the eardrum.
  • Your cat will have a general anaesthetic for this procedure.

Home treatment

How to help a cat with an ear foreign body at home

Call a vet as soon as possible if your cat shows sudden intense ear irritation. Ear foreign bodies can be extremely distressing.

If your cat shows symptoms suggesting something is trapped in their ear:

  • Check at the entry to the ear canal to see if anything is visible.
  • Remove any visible loose irritants.
  • Try to soothe the ear with drops of olive oil or baby oil in the ear canal – but be prepared for the head-shaking and wall-splattering with oil and debris afterwards!


Tips for preventing ear foreign bodies in cats

  • Keep small beads and similar craft materials away from cats.
  • Check your cat’s ears when they come indoors. Remove grass, twigs, seeds or burrs promptly.
  • Consider trimming some of the hair that could be trapping things close to the ear.
  • Keep up-to-date with anti-parasite treatment.

When to worry

When to worry about ear foreign bodies in cats

Call a vet as soon as possible if your cat:

  • Develops intense head-shaking or ear-rubbing. Especially after being outdoors.
  • Develops a head tilt or balance problems after having an irritated ear.


Joii can help with advice on:

  • Antiparasitic treatments for cats.
  • Treating simple ear irritations at home.
  • Diagnosing and treating skin allergies.
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