The Delicate Feline Ear
Understanding that a cat’s ears play an essential role in its overall well-being, groomers should be prepared to contribute to their feline clients’ aural health.
It is hard to believe, but each tiny cat ear is made up of 32 muscles. That is a lot of muscle in such a small area. These muscles allow for independent movement and directional hearing, which means that a cat can turn one ear toward a sound while looking the other way. In addition to hearing, the ears serve another important element of a cat’s survival. The vestibular apparatus consists of several fluid-filled canals that contain specialized nerve cells and receptors. The fluid acts as a balancing agent, playing a vital role in helping the cat gain equilibrium when in a free fall.
As groomers, we need to be exceptionally gentle when cleaning cats’ ears. The hair in and around the ears serves the same purpose as the fine hairs in our own ears—they help prevent particles and debris from entering into the ear and down the canals.
Ordinarily, we do not trim the hairs that are protruding from the ear. If the hair is littered with wax and debris, gently comb through with a flea comb to break it. Then dampen a cotton ball with an alcohol-free ear cleaner and wipe the hair until the debris is removed.
The ear tufts (hair on the tips of ears) of Maine Coons and Norwegian Forest cats shouldn’t be trimmed because it’s a part of their uniqueness. However, groomers can trim the tips of Persians, Himalayans and Exotics with blunt scissors. This enhances the overall build of the head. Cats can twitch their ears as you handle them, so practice caution when using sharp instruments around them.
If a cat’s ears are dirty or have a buildup of wax, we must resist the urge to dig in or flush them out as we would with dogs. It is important to know that flushing a cat’s ears can cause permanent damage and should only be done by a veterinarian. If the eardrum was compromised from a previous infection, any fluid placed in the ear may cause the cat to lose the ability to equalize itself. If you have seen a cat with a permanently tilted head, it may very well have been caused from damage of the inner ear.
Otitis externa (ear infections) are not very common in cats. Persians are the most likely breed to suffer from them. This is due in part to the structure of their heads. The Persian and Himalayan breeds are brachycephalic. Their ears, nose and throat are very close together, similar to their canine counterparts the Pekingese and Pug. These breeds are also prone to breathing problems.
When cleaning the ears, the use of cotton balls is preferable to using cotton swabs, which can actually push wax and debris further down the ear canal. There are many ear-cleaning products on the market to choose from. Only use ones that do not contain tea tree oil, essential oils, benzoyl peroxide or alcohol, as these ingredients are toxic to cats.
When evaluating a cat in your care, look for these signs of infection:
• Scratching and pawing of the ear or surrounding area
• Ears that are sensitive to touch
• Shaking of the head
• Tilting of ear or head
• Loss of balance and equilibrium
• Redness or swelling of the outer ear or ear canal
• Bleeding in the ear
• Black or yellowish discharge
• An unusual amount of brown wax
• Hearing loss
Otodectes cynotis (ear mites) are another cause for concern. These parasites feed on tissue, debris and the natural secretions of the ear lining. Cats with these mites will exhibit the mite’s waste, dead ear tissue, wax and fluid in their ears. This unpleasant mix resembles coffee grounds. While gently wiping the ear with a nonalcohol-based ear cleaner will help remove some of it, medication is needed to eradicate the mites. The cat’s ears may be very itchy and inflamed. The cat may show its discomfort by shaking its head and scratching the infested area. It’s important to treat the back nails as well, because they can have mites on them too.
If you see any of the above signs, recommend a veterinarian appointment for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Caring for the delicate feline ear is paramount to the cat’s health. As professional groomers, we need to evaluate the condition of the ears as part of the overall grooming process. Keep in mind that we cannot diagnosis, but we can recommend and highly suggest a veterinarian visit based on our assessment.
Kim Raisanen is president of the Professional Cat Groomers Association of America.