All cats scratch their ears occasionally whenever they have an itch. After all, have you ever tried ignoring an itch? It’s almost impossible, and cats have far less self-control than us humans. If their ears feel itchy, they can’t resist giving it a good ol’ scratch.
However, excessive scratching is a sign of illness. If you see your cat scratching its ears until they bleed, this is a definite indication that things have gone too far. No cat should be that itchy all the time! They may have ear mites, an ear infection, or another condition that needs treatment.
In this article, I run through all the possible causes of your cat’s obsessive scratching in more detail. I also list the other symptoms for each so you can identify which applies to your pooch. By getting to the root of the problem, you get one step closer to finding a solution.
Why Is My Cat Scratching Its Ears Until They Bleed?
Why is my cat scratching its ears until they bleed? It’s a very good question – doesn’t scratching to the point of breaking the skin hurt your cat? Doesn’t this make the situation worse?
Indeed, you’re right; scratching and bleeding will make your cat’s ears itchier. Therefore a vicious cycle of scratching commences. As such, you can be pretty sure this behavior is caused by an underlying medical condition that needs treatment. Your cat isn’t simply scratching for fun.
Here we look at all the possible causes of this behavior and why this manifests as excessive scratching, itching, and bleeding.
1. Ear Mite Infection
Ear mites are one of the most common parasitic infections in cats. These small creatures live inside cats’ ears and feed on their ear wax. Their presence inside the ear causes intense itchiness, and your cat will scratch uncontrollably at their ears in an attempt to get these pesky parasites out.
Other symptoms of ear mites include the following signs:
- Shaking their head as if trying to get the mites out
- The skin inside and around the ears is red and inflamed
- Ear wax has an unpleasant odor coming from it
- Your cat’s ears look dirty and are full of brown wax
- There might be black crusts on the inside of the ear
Unfortunately, it can be hard to diagnose ear mites at home despite these symptoms. This is because many of these are clinical signs for other feline ear conditions. It is also important to differentiate between dirty cat ears vs ear mites. While a little wax is normal, dark wax or large quantities of the stuff could point to an ear mite infestation. Diagnosis and treatment from a vet is your best option.
2. Bacterial and Fungal Ear Infections
If your cat keeps shaking its head but no mites are present, it might have an ear infection. Outer ear infections have almost identical clinical signs to mite infections. They cause localized inflammation, leading to red and itchy skin. Therefore, your cat will scratch obsessively.
A build-up of wax is also common for cats with outer ear infections. This is the body’s way of trying to reject the pathogen and remove it from the ear canal. However, your cat will also need prescription medication (antibiotics or antifungal treatment for bacterial and fungal infections, respectively) to help fight off the condition.
If your cat doesn’t manage to fight the infection, it can travel down into the middle ear. These infections are more serious and have to be treated with injectable or oral medication. Timing is of the essence here – if the infection travels further into the inner ear, it can cause permanent hearing loss.
3. Atopic Dermatitis
Cats can suffer from a range of allergies much as humans can. For example, your furry friend might be sensitive to pollen, grass, dust mites, mold spores, cigarette smoke, cleaning products, and more. In fact, allergies are highly likely if your cat keeps scratching but doesn’t have fleas, ear mites, or any other parasitic infection.
When cats come into contact with allergens, their skin becomes dry and inflamed. In turn, this causes excessive itching and scratching. The medical terminology for this skin inflammation is “atopic dermatitis”, and the head and ear are the two most commonly impacted areas.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for allergies. Some cats are simply more sensitive to allergens than others, and there is nothing you or a vet can do to change their normal immune response. Therefore, your best option is to pinpoint the allergen responsible and limit it from your environment.
For example, you might try to:
- Stop smoking cigarettes inside the home
- Switch to pet-friendly cleaning products and air fresheners
- Clean your house regularly to remove allergens
- Keep your cat inside during hayfever season
- Invest in an air purifier to remove airborne allergens
4. Trauma and Open Wounds
Cats are curious creatures that get themselves into trouble all the time. This can lead to small cuts and wounds on your cat’s face and ears. After all, cats walk headfirst through everything. If they bright past a thorny bush or spikey surface, their ears can get small scratches and wounds.
Conflict with other cats can also cause trauma to the ears. Oftentimes, there will be other signs your cat has been in a catfight. For example, if your cat has scabs on its neck but no fleas these could have formed from small scratches on the skin. Increased territorial behaviors are also common as your cat likely feels as if its opposing cat has encroached on its space.
Regardless of what caused the cuts, the wounds will become itchy. This is part of the natural healing process and happens as a scab forms over the open cut. When your cat scratches the itch, they will knock the scab off, re-open the wound, and cause them to bleed.
Unfortunately, this is detrimental to the healing process. The body will have to produce a new scab, and the open wound is once again prone to infection. Therefore, you should clean and sterilize injuries as soon as you notice them and put a cone collar on to prevent scratching while the injury heals and itching subsides.
5. Insect Bites and Plant Stings
Insect bites and plant stings are mainly an issue for outdoor cats. The outside world is full of creatures that can hurt your cats, such as bees, wasps, midges, mosquitos, and more! Plants such as nettles can also irritate the skin and create a stinging sensation.
These insects can bite your cat anywhere on their bodies, and plants will sting any area they touch. However, ears are a common site for both. The ears stick up from your cat’s head and thus are available for any insects that come along. Plus, cats lead with their heads when walking and could easily push nettles or other stinging plants out the way with their ears.
Bites and stings elicit an immune response. In turn, this causes redness, swelling, and itchiness that your cat won’t be able to resist scratching. The scratching causes the situation to worsen, leading to more localized inflammation and scratching to the point of drawing blood.
The best thing you can do for your cat is to gently wash the ear with soapy water. You can also use an ice pack to help reduce swelling and inflammation. However, don’t bother taking your cat to the vet – they can’t do anything and it’s just a matter of time for the bites and stings to go down.
6. Lodged Foreign Object
Foreign objects can easily get lodged inside your cat’s ears and cause itching and irritation. Your cat will then scratch at its ear obsessively to try and get the object out. This could even see your cat scratching its ears until they bleed in a desperate attempt to stop the itching.
All kinds of objects can work their way inside cats’ ears. Small pieces of dirt, blades of grass, or other plant matter are common examples. Outdoor cats come into all these things regularly when on their outdoor adventures. Insects and other bugs could also work their way inside your cat’s ears.
Indoor-only cats aren’t exempt though! Your cat could pick up fluff or other bits of dirt from inside your home with their ears. Alternatively, small parts from cat toys or pieces of string can easily work their way into the ear canal during a play session if you’re not careful.
Take a look inside your cat’s ears – can you see a foreign object there? If so, you can try and gently remove it with tweezers. You might need to enlist the help of a friend as most cats will try to wriggle free. If you cannot see anything, never poke inside your cat’s ears. You could push the object down deeper or cause additional damage. In these cases, call your vet who can flush the ear safely with water to remove the foreign material.
7. Inward-Growing Ear Fur
Take a minute to look closely at your cat’s ears. As you will see, the outside of the ear is covered in a thin layer of fur. Some cats, especially long-haired breeds like the Maine Coon or Highlander, have long fur growing from the tips of the ears known as “ear tufts”.
The inside of the ear is smooth and virtually hair-free in comparison. There might be some “ear furnishings” inside the ear, which grow outward and play an important role in preventing dirt, bacteria, and debris from entering the ear canal. However, compared to the outside of the ear, hair is very thin.
Some cats have fur that grows in the opposite way, growing inwards towards the pinnae and the ear canal. This can cause a chronic tickling feeling which causes your cat to scratch its ears obsessively. Have a look at your cat’s ears and see if your think inward-growing hair could be the cause.
If so, you can trim the overgrown hair to help alleviate symptoms. However, remember that the hair inside the ear serves an important role in protecting against infection. As such, only trim the very ends away or your could open up a whole host of other ear-related issues.
8. Polyps in the Ear
Small tissue growths can form inside the ear known as polyps. They are non-cancerous and don’t cause any major issues; however, they are uncomfortable for your cat. Polyps always start growing inside the middle ear. Therefore, cats with polyps scratch and itch their ears to try and remove the source of irritation.
Polyps have similar symptoms to ear mites and other conditions on this list. However, polyps gradually become larger and larger and grow downwards into the ear canal. At this point, other additional clinical signs also become apparent, such as:
- Keeping the head tilted to one side
- Walking around in circles
- Struggling with balance and spatial awareness
- Difficulty breathing (where the polys grow down into the throat)
The only way to deal with polyps is to have them surgically removed. The earlier you catch these growths, the smaller they are and the easier they are to take out through the ear. However, if the polys have grown deep into the ear canal and can be seen in the throat, surgery is done through the mouth and up the throat.
A cat scratching its ears is a symptom of hypertension, also known as high blood pressure. This is dissimilar to all other reasons on this list, as hypertension affects the entire body on a systemic level rather than directly impacting the ears.
So, how does hypertension lead cause the ears to feel itchy? Well, this is because the blood in cats with hypertension is bumped around the body more quickly and forcefully. This means more blood flows to the head and can cause a throbbing sensation in the ears. It is this throbbing that irritates your cat and makes them want to itch and scratch.
Other signs include:
- Heart murmurs and/or a rapid heart rate
- Behavioral changes and disorientation
- Weakness and lethargy
- Nose bleeds or blood within the eye
- Pupils that don’t constrict with bright light
Hypertension is a clinical symptom of many conditions, including hyperthyroidism and renal failure. It is also linked to stress and anxiety. Therefore, it is important to get your cat looked at by a vet – they need to determine why your cat has high blood pressure and find a suitable solution.
How to Stop My Cat From Itching Its Ears?
The best way you can stop your cat from scratching its ears until they bleed is to treat the underlying medical condition. Therefore, you should take your cat to the vet so they can offer a diagnosis and effective treatment to combat the cause.
The exact treatment your vet prescribes will depend on the reason for the itching and scratching. For example, cats with bacterial ear infections will be prescribed antibiotics. Those with polyps might need to have them surgically removed. Or cats with allergies might be given antihistamines along with recommended environmental modifications to refuse the presence of allergens in the home.
You must listen to your vet rather than medicating your cat at home. Give your cat the wrong drugs and it could cause more damage than good. For example, flea treatment for kittens under 12 weeks is completely different from flea treatment for adult cats. Whatever medication is used needs to be tailored to your cat and its condition.
While you are waiting for treatment to work, I also recommend putting a cat collar on your feline. This acts as a physical barrier to prevent them from scratching their ears and preventing bleeding. Bleeding and open wounds can become easily infected, making the situation worse! Therefore, much to your cat’s dismay, this is great for them to wear a cone idea until the itchiness has subsided.
A few other tips you might find useful in preventing itchy ears include:
- Use an air purifier to capture and remove airborne allergens
- Always use pet-friendly cleaning products and sprays
- Never smoke inside your home as this can act as an irritant
- Apply preventative parasitic medication to minimize infection
- Keep your cat away from other felines that are carrying infections
- Ensure your cat’s toys and bedding are kept cleaning
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
It can be confusing trying to work out why your cat is scratching its ears until they bleed. This is clearly causing your cat more pain and discomfort! However, cats lack as much self-control as humans. If they have an itch, they will scratch it persistently regardless of the consequences.
So, what causes such intense itching of the ears? If I have to guess one thing, I’d say your cat probably has ear mites. These mites are common in cats and cause intense feelings of itchiness inside the ear. With that said, ear infections, ear polyps, ear trauma, or bites in this region could also be the cause. Even systemic issues like hypertension could be to blame.
Therefore, it is always advisable to take your cat to the vet. They’ll be able to treat the underlying condition and offer advice on preventing your cat from scratching and bleeding. You need to stop the itching, otherwise, the situation will only get worse.