If your cat is persistently pawing at their ear flaps (but not washing them), I believe you will need to see a veterinarian as soon as possible. Be aware that your cat is in discomfort, perhaps extreme discomfort due to itchiness and irritation, and as a responsible cat caregiver you need to remove the discomfort. These symptoms can be caused by a number of health problems which I list below (it is not intended to be comprehensive). I can remember many years ago my mother having two Siamese cats one of which, a female, whose name was Suki, had what I believe now to be an allergy to food because her ear flaps were blistered causing irritation. At that time, I was ignorant of these matters but reflecting on it my mother certainly let her cat down because she did nothing about it. And I did nothing too.
- Parasites such as the head mites and the ear mites cause irritation and/or infection. Itching is the predominant sign. If the ear is itchy a cat is going to paw at the area to try and alleviate the itching. I’ve written a lot about the ear mites so please click on this link to see some articles.
- Bacterial otitis externa are bacterial infections in the ear canal caused by scratches to the skin or cat bites. The scratches can be a form of self-mutilation due to the presence of ear mites. These infections cause discomfort and discomfort can lead to pawing at the ear.
- Yeast or fungal otitis externa. Another infection of the ear which can be caused by an alteration in the natural bacterial flora due to prolonged use of topical antibiotics. The ear becomes inflamed and painful. The cat might try and alleviate the pain by pawing at it.
- Foreign bodies or ticks in the ear canal cause irritation and a possible subsequent infection which once again will cause a cat to paw at their ear and head shake to try and alleviate the irritation.
- Ear polyps are another ear health problem which can be related to chronic inflammation and they start in the middle ear and either grow out to the eardrum to the external ear canal or internally to the auditory canal. The cat will shake their head and they may head tilt. They may rub their ear with their paw.
- Allergies perhaps caused by an allergy to a type of food that the cat is eating have symptoms including itching and skin redness of the ear flaps. The allergy might be caused by something they have been inhaled. The allergy may affect the ear canals as well as the ear flaps. A suffering cat will try and get rid of the itching by pawing.
- Sunburn will cause inflammation i.e. a reddened ear flap which will cause the cat to scratch at the ear resulting in an open sore or ulcer. Squamous cell skin cancer may develop in the ulcerated area. The cat may paw at the area.
- Swollen ear flaps are due to an abscess or haematoma (a blood clot below the surface of the skin). Abscesses are commonly due to fights between cats. The haematoma may be caused by an itchy ear resulting in the cat shaking their head violently and pawing at the ear.
In all cases, when a cat paws at their ear it is because there is irritation in that area and they want to remove it. Bad cases of itching are worse than simple irritation. They can be quite debilitating and cause a lot of distress in a cat. They try and resolve the matter to pawing but if the infection is in the ear canal this will not help.