Cat pawing at ear. Causes.

It’s obvious that if a cat is pawing at her ear or ears it is because the ear flap (pinnae) or ear canal is irritating or hurting her. The question is what is the cause of that irritation or hurt? Here are some possibilities. If you decide there’s something genuinely wrong don’t hesitate to take your cat to the veterinarian because she may be in great distress. Continual pawing at ears is not the same as occasional washing of the ear flaps with the forearms.

Ear mites: The ear canal can be a great source of irritation and infection. The irritation can be caused by ear mites which are well known and one of the most common health problems and domestic cats. These nasty little parasites cause intense itching resulting in scratching, headshaking and pawing at the ear. Remember that ear mites are intensely discomforting for a cat so please take urgent action. You can only identify ear mites properly by removing some earwax and examining it under a microscope so I wouldn’t try and do self-diagnosis.

Cat ear health problems
Cat ear health problems. Photo in public domain.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Bacterial infections of the ear canal caused by scratches or bites can cause a lot of discomfort and pain. In addition to pawing at the ear a cat might tilt their head or carry her head low on the painful side. The ear will be tender. Ear mites could be the initial cause.

Fungal infection: An ear mite infection may lead to a bacterial infection which may in turn lead to treatment with antibiotics which may in turn lead to a fungal infection which causes discomfort and irritation which in turn leads to pawing at the ear.

If a foreign body or a tick is inside the ear canal this too can cause irritation and subsequent infection resulting in the cat pawing at the ear. Sometimes bits of plant such as grass seeds can become lodged in the ear canal and ticks can first clamp onto the ear flap and then crawl into the ear canal. This can cause the cat to shake her head and/or paw at her ear flap.

Ear polyps may be caused by chronic inflammation or they may be a developmental issue. They can start in the middle ear and grow out the eardrum to the external canal. This causes discomfort causing the cat to shake their head and possibly paw their ear.

Discharge from cat ear mites can be foul smelling
Discharge from cat ear mites can be foul smelling. Image: PoC.

Middle ear infection: An ear canal infection can lead to a middle ear infection when the eardrum is ruptured although this is uncommon. It causes severe pain and the cat might crouch, lowering her head down on the affected side. Balance might be affected and the cat might paw at her ear.

Injury: If the ear flaps become damaged through bites and cuts, the wound can become infected requiring a topical antibiotic ointment. The pinnae may become swollen. There may be an abscess. There may be a blood clot under the skin due to intense irritation and headshaking. Headshaking can be caused by ear mites and/or an ear canal infection. She may be pawing at the ear.

Allergies caused by food or airborn allergens can first show up as itching and redness in the ear flaps and ear canals. The itching may cause the cat to scratch making things worse. She may paw at the ears.

Frostbite and sunburn damages the ear flaps but it seems that a cat will not paw at the ears under these circumstances perhaps because they are too tender. Sunburn can cause a cat to scratch the ear which may lead to skin cancer but this condition does not, it seems, result in pawing at the ear. I’ve listed them here for the sake of completeness.

This is an outline list and no more. It may provide some pointers but as mentioned at the beginning if your cat is pawing at her ears a lot then the only real solution is to see a veterinarian as soon as possible. Pawing means that she is in distress, more than you think so please don’t delay.


Please search using the search box at the top of the site. You are bound to find what you are looking for.

follow it link and logo