When you see your cat shaking its head, there is usually one main culprit – ear mites! These tiny pests are pretty common in cats and live inside their ears, living off the ear wax and sebum. If your cat is scratching and shaking its head, chances are you need to ward these pesky mites off!
However, if your cat keeps shaking its head but no mites are visible or you’ve been able to rule mites out, it can leave us scratching our heads as to why. Not knowing what is up with our kitties can be stressful and, unfortunately, this behavior is usually due to another medical condition that affects their ears, such as a small injury, ear infection, or growth.
You must figure out what is wrong quickly and speak to a vet if you think your cat has a serious medical condition. This way your cat can start treatment and you can stop worrying about your little furball. To help you out, I explore all the reasons as to why a cat keeps shaking its head but there are no ear mites in sight in this article.
Reasons For Excessive Head Shaking in Cats
Before I list the possible reasons why a cat keeps shaking its head when it doesn’t have mites, I want to draw your attention to the subheading of this section. Specifically, pay attention to the word “excessive”; head shaking in cats is only an issue when it happens frequently. An occasional shake of the head is nothing to worry about, so if this is what you’re dealing with then sit back and relax.
The type of head-shaking that indicates something is wrong will be much more frequent. You will have suddenly noticed your cat shaking their head more than usual. Moreover, when suffering from a health condition, you’ll often see a cat scratching its ears and shaking its head, or shaking its head and sneezing in combination.
So, now I’ve got that out of the way, here are the seven most common reasons other than ear mites why your cat can’t seem to keep her head still.
1. Outer Ear Infection
Outer ear infections are most frequently mistaken for mites, and for good reason – untreated mite infestations are the most common causes of outer ear infections in cats. This means that both have the same symptoms, causing your cat to keep scratching its ears and shaking its head.
The physical signs of a mite infestation and an ear infection are also remarkably similar. Both will cause the ears to become red and inflamed and you may see a yellow or black discharge come from the infected ear. Additionally, a buildup of wax and loss of balance are other common symptoms.
One way to distinguish between the two is by watching your cat sleep. Does your cat twitch in her sleep? If so, she could well have mites or another parasitic infection such as fleas. However, if no mites are in sight, the infection is usually the sign of another underlying health condition.
Other common causes of ear infections include:
- Immune system diseases, such as FLV or FIV
- Autoimmune diseases
- Excessive bacterial and/or yeast growth
- Thick hair or fur in the ear
- Improper ear cleaning and wax buildup
- Polyps or tumors in the ear canal
- Allergies such as pollen or dust allergies
Thankfully, if your cat does have an outer ear infection, it is easy to treat. Your vet will be able to look into the ear canal and determine what is causing the infection, before providing appropriate treatment. They will usually also clean their ears and trim the fur to help prevent the return of the infection.
Although an outer ear infection in itself won’t cause your cat much more than itching and irritation, it’s vital to get it checked out as soon as possible. If left unnoticed, the infection can travel into the middle ear and finally the inner ear where it has the potential to cause hearing loss.
2. Middle Ear Infection
As briefly mentioned, a middle ear infection occurs when an outer ear infection works its way deeper into your cat’s ear canal. The small size and open shape of cats’ ears mean that outer ear infections work their way into the middle ear pretty quickly.
These infections have the same symptoms as outer ear infections too – the ear will be red and inflamed with foul-smelling discharge and excess ear wax. As with before, take your cat to the vet as soon as you notice these symptoms. When inspecting the ear, your vet will be able to inform you of how far into the canal the infection has traveled.
When the middle ear has been reached, it is common for oral or injectable antibiotics to be administered to fight the infection. The infection needs to be eliminated quickly before spreading to the inner ear where it can cause permanent hearing loss.
Polyps are another explanation as to why your cat keeps shaking its head and scratching its ears. These are small benign growths that develop inside the middle ear. In addition to shaking their head and scratching their ears, other symptoms include:
- Rubbing the ear against objects or surfaces
- Increased sensitivity when the ear is touched
- Foul-smelling odor coming from the ear
- Bloody or greeny-yellow discharge from the ear
Over time the polyps will increase in size until eventually rupturing the eardrum and growing deeper into the ear canal. At this point, you may notice other symptoms, such as your cat keeping its head permanently tilted, walking in circles, or struggling with balance. If the polyps extend into the throat they may cause difficulty breathing.
The only way to deal with ear polyps is to surgically remove them. Where the polyps have grown deeply into the canal and can be seen in the throat, this can be done with forceps through the mouth or the ear. Where the polyps are only in the middle ear, a surgical operation called a ventral bulla osteotomy is required.
4. Aural Hematoma
When a blood vessel within the ear becomes damaged, blood can swell into a cat’s earflap and form a blood-filled sac. This is known as an aural hematoma. When a cat damages the vessel, the aural hematoma will usually form quickly and the earflap will rapidly become swollen, sore, and heavy.
In response to this, it is normal for a cat with an aural hematoma to keep shaking its head and scratching its ear. You will also visibly be able to see the swollen ear flap. It will be red and painful, hot to touch, and will cause the ear to droop down under its weight.
If you notice your cat suffering from an aural hematoma, you need to take them to the vet. The blood-filled sac needs draining, and this is never something you should attempt at home. Initially, the vet will try using a needle and a syringe but if the swelling returns the vet may suggest surgery.
5. Foreign Bodies
Still not figured out why your cat keeps shaking its head when no mites are visible? It could be something as simple as getting a foreign body stuck inside the ear canal. Cats love to explore and often their curious nature can get them into a spot of bother!
Examples of things that could be stuck inside your cat’s ear include pieces of grass or dirt. Even small bugs can accidentally fly inside and cause your kitty discomfort. In an attempt to dislodge whatever has worked its way into their ears, your cat will keep shaking its head until it wriggles its way out.
Sometimes, the foreign material will end up too deep inside your cat’s ear canal and no amount of head shaking and scratching will get it loose. If your cat looks like they’re struggling, take a torch and peer inside their ear. Can you see anything in there that doesn’t belong?
If you can easily see the object that is causing them bother, you can try to pull it out gently with tweezers. However, do this with extreme care – if your kitty suddenly jolts its head or you put the tweezers too deeply inside the ear canal it can cause more harm than good. You can always take a trip to the vet if you’re nervous or can’t see anything obvious hiding inside their ear.
For outdoor cats, ear injuries are one of the most likely answers to our question. Cats can easily injure their ears simply by exploring the outside world. For example, brushing past an abrasive surface or prickly bush can leave minor scratching on the skin that stings and itches.
Cats are also highly territorial creatures. If another cat is within their territory, don’t be surprised if your kitty ends up in a catfight. Going well, the fight ends with no major injuries. However, sometimes scratches and bites from other felines can be more serious.
When a cat gets an ear injury, their bodies and immune system will work to try and heal it. This will cause their skin to itch, similar to how a scab that forms after an open wound feels itchy to us. This itchy feeling means your cat keeps shaking its head and scratching its ear as the wound heals.
Inspect your cat’s ear: Does the wound look minor or major? If only a superficial scratch, clean it up and leave it to heal naturally. However, for any wounds that look as if they’ll take a while to heal, it’s advisable to take your cat to the vet. They’ll be able to clean the wound to prevent infection and put in stitches if necessary.
Just like humans, many cats suffer from allergies. These occur in a range of different forms, including allergies to grass, pollen, mold, kitty litter, or even other cats! Coming into contact with these allergens could irritate the skin around your cat’s ears and face. Insect bites and flea bites can also trigger an allergic reaction that manifests as itchy and inflamed skin.
To deal with this intense itchy feeling, it is common for cats to shake their head frequently. Additionally, while the skin may look red and irritated, you won’t notice any other signs I’ve already mentioned, including foul discharge and excessive ear was. This makes allergies easy to distinguish from the other ear-related issues on this list.
Instead, you should look out for other common allergy symptoms. For example, if your cat keeps sneezing but seems fine, is wheezing or coughing, or has started snoring more than usual, allergies are a likely cause. In fact, if your cat is shaking its head and sneezing, allergies could be to blame.
You should take your cat to the vet if you think it has an allergy. They will run some tests to try and establish precisely what is triggering the allergic response. They may also suggest you try different food, hypoallergenic cat litters, or flea treatments to see if this helps ease their symptoms. For severe cases or when the allergen cannot be removed from the home, antihistamines may be prescribed.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
Ear mites are the most likely reason for head shaking, but ruling this out can leave us feeling stumped!
However, several other ear-related medical conditions can cause a cat to keep shaking its head and scratching its ear. Your cat may have contracted an ear infection, need surgical removal of inflammatory polyps, or have an aural hematoma. These all need prompt treatment from a vet.
Even more minor issues such as a foreign body being stuck in the ear or an injury should be seen by a professional. While these issues may fix themselves, they are often the cause of ore serious ear infections. So, if your cat suddenly keeps shaking her head, my sole advice is to keep calm and call up your veterinarian. With the right treatment, they’ll be on the road to recovery in no time.