"Cats' hearing apparatus is built to allow the human voice to easily go in one ear and out the other."
-- Stephen Baker
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Cat Ear Care Products
About Your Cat's Ears
A cat's ears are amazing structures. They can pick up the sounds of a mouse squeaking in the dark of night, your particular car's engine as it rounds the corner to come home, and the sound of a can opener being operated from the other end of the house.
While most cats have upright ears, some breeds, such as the Fold and Curl breeds, have ears that fold over flat onto the head. Some cats have a tuft of hairs that stand up on the very tips of the ears. This is called "lynx tips" because it is a standard feature of wild lynx cats.
The part of the ear that usually sticks up is called the "ear flap" or pinna. Inside it is a funnel-shaped area into which the ear flap directs sound waves. The cat's relatively long ear canal makes a 90-degree turn before reaching the its inner ear, which is actually located inside the skull.
In addition to hearing, a cat uses the ears to communicate through body language. A relaxed cat tends to hold the ears forward and slightly sideways. If something captures a cat's attention, the ears will be straight upright and facing the object of interest. This may be a bird or squirrel through the window, an unusual sound, or you coming through the door. A nervous cat might twitch the cars, or could indicate something irritating them. Be wary of any cat who's laying its ears back flat! That kitty's mad, fearful, or annoyed, especially when the posture is accompanied by a growl or hiss.
32 muscles in each ear allow the cat to rotate each one independently up to 180 degrees to zero in on suspicious noises. My little Vixen, who has always loved listening to music, used to love positioning herself in the "sweet spot" of my living room, cocking one ear toward each speaker to get the best mix of the music. Cats are known for finding the auditory sweet spot in any room.
While a cat does groom itself regularly, including the ears, there are ear care duties that you must also perform regularly. Problems such as ear mites, infections, or a buildup of ear wax can actually cause your cat to go deaf if left untreated!
Inspect your cat's ears weekly. Start doing this while the cat is young, and it can become a pleasant experience to which the cat will look forward. Make sure your cat is calm when you begin. You will likely want to hold the cat on your lap, or have someone else hold more aggressive cats while you do this. Talk softly, positively, and calmly to your cat while inspecting the ears. Explain what you're doing; even if your cat doesn't understand the words, your emotions and the pictures in your head as you're talking will get through. Treats given before and after ear inspections will also sweeten the deal for kitty.
Grasp the tip of the cat's ear and gently pull it back so you can see inside the ear. Redness, discharge, or heavy brown deposits are signs of trouble. Saturate a cotton ball (not a swab) with an ear cleaning solution, or use a pre-moistened ear wipe, and clean out the portion of the ear you can see. Be careful not to go to deep into the ear, as this could cause damage to its sensitive inner area. A heavy wax buildup can usually be cleared with a product specifically designed to remove it; follow instructions on the product for best results. If there is much debris in the ear, you may need a second cleaning to get it all out.
If you notice any odor coming from your cat's ears, this could be the sign of infection. Have your veterinarian take a look. The same goes if you notice any blood in the ear, lumps, redness, or swelling.
To put drops in the ear, hold your cat's head so that you can use a thumb to hold the ear back, then drop the medicine into the outermost part of the open ear canal. Most drops have you compressing the base of the ear to massage the solution around in the ear before swabbing it out with a clean cotton ball. (Again, not a swab.) Your cat will usually start shaking his head to expel the liquid even before you try to dry it out...so wear old clothes when you do this!
Other drops or ointments are medicated to address such problems as ear mites or infections. It is usually a good idea to clean the cat's ears before using these preparations. Follow your veterinarian's instructions on how to apply such products.
In some severely dirty ears, you may use a cotton swab to clean all the dirt out of the ear crevices, but never insert it further into the ear than you can see. This could rupture the cat's eardrum, impact wax into the ear canal, or push debris further in, possibly causing deafness.
If your cat's ear is red, or if kitty is scratching the ears or shaking his head, this could be a sign of infection or an abscess in the ear. Ear infections in cats can be caused by bacteria, yeast, or foreign matter caught in the ear. They may be accompanied by a pus-like discharge in the ear. The repeated scratching could cause hematomas (ruptured blood vessels) in the ears. Untreated, these problems can migrate into the inner ear and cause more serious problems, including deafness.
Scratching the ears and shaking the head could also indicate an ear mite infestation, especially if you notice a lot of dark brown debris in the cat's ears that resembles coffee grounds. Have your veterinarian take a look to determine the cause, and use a product specifically designed to address that problem.
White and hairless cats can actually get sunburned on their ears! If the cat repeatedly gets sunburned, it can cause the skin to thicken and may cause discomfort that makes the cat scratch and shake its head. Eventually, the can can develop a type of skin cancer, just like people exposed to too much sunlight.
If you live in a cold climate, a cat's ears may get frostbitten in below-freezing winter weather. Keep your cats indoors, or provide a source of heat, in very cold weather to protect them from this problem.
Male cats who fight may often come home with ear injuries. Getting your male cats neutered will keep them from roaming and fighting, reducing the likelihood of this problem. However, some may still get into territorial fights with other cats if left outside at night. Ear injuries must be treated by your veterinarian, as they have a tendency to heal on the outside, while still festering underneath. This can cause dangerous abscesses in the ear canal that can cause your cat to lose his hearing, or even have balance issues.
You may see community cats in your town that have had the tip of one ear removed; this is a common practice called "ear tipping" in Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs to indicate that the cat has been spayed or neutered and vaccinated. While some people try to charge that homeless cats pose a public health threat, cats in active TNR programs have been vaccinated and do not pose any threat of infecting nearby humans with rabies or other communicable diseases.
Yes, a cat's ears are truly amazing. Keep them that way with regular ear care!
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Here's a post from the Old Maid Cat Lady blog that you may find informative:
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