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Black stuff in cat's ears.

Species: Cat
Breed: short hair
Age: 11-15 years
Hi Dr. Marie. My cat Thelma (who happens to be male and nearly 15) has had an issue with his ears for about a year. Last summer, he was scratching his ears and they were filled with something that was dark red/brown and would flake out of his ears when he scratched. I took him to his regular vet who cleaned out his ears and treated him for mites even though no mites were seen under the microscope. He said the stuff in his ears looked like mites, so he treated it to be safe. Within three days, Thelma's ears were filled up again. His ears were red and inflamed. We went back to the vet. They treated him for mites again (although still no mites were found) and they had me bring in my three other cats to be treated for mites even though none of them were scratching their ears or had any of this gunk in their ears. At the third visit to have his ears cleaned out, the vet prescribed a very potent antibiotic. It didn't help. After the third visit, Thelma developed a hematoma in his ear because he was in such pain after the cleaning of his ears, he wouldn't stop scratching. I didn't have surgery on the hematoma because he was still scratching his ears. I took him to a different vet for a second opinion. That vet also didn't find mites but said the brown/red gunk appeared to be from mites and he suggested I try an over the counter ear wash and baby oil. It didn't help. After nearly $800, I went back to my vet who I respect very much and ask for him to look again. It was at that point that he said this may be something Thelma would have to deal with for the rest of his life, but he gave me a saline-type ear drop to put in his ears every day to help give Thelma relief and clean them out.

The ear drops never cured the problem but definitely seemed to give Thelma relief until recently. He has been scratching so much at the ears that he makes them bleed and then when I put the drops in to try to clean the ears out, it is agony for him because the ears are so raw. The vet has told me that he can't sedate Thelma to look deeper into the ears because he has a severe heart murmur. I am afraid to take him back to the vet because the cleaning of his ears is so incredibly painful for him I don't want to put him through it. I was wondering if you had ever seen a cat with ears that filled up wtih this type of material/dark brown/red gunk when it wasn't mites? I was also wondering if you had any ideas of something that I could use to soothe his ears or give him some relief from the pain/itch that wouldn't burn? Any ideas would be helpful. I always take my cats to the vet but after two vets, several visits and lots of money, I'm out of options. Any advice or help would be appreciated.


Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

Oh, poor Thelma. I'm sorry to hear that you and Thelma have been through such a difficult time.

Ear problems in cats can be frustrating. I'll tell you how I would approach a problem like this. Some of this may be done, but it's also possible that the vets got fixed on the possibility of ear mites and missed a few other steps.

Do you know if a cytology and a culture has been done? These are tests to determine if there is yeast or bacteria in the ears and if so, what medications would be the best to use to clear them up.

It's interesting that Thelma's ears started to get better with the antibiotics. If they didn't clear up totally it's possible that either the ears weren't treated for long enough, or that the infection was a resistant type of bacteria.

What I normally do when I treat an infection is treat for 2 weeks with a product that is good against whatever is there (i.e. yeast/bacteria or combo) and then a few days later I do another cytology test to see if we need to treat for longer.

If this problem is clearing up but not going away completely then there may be an underlying issue with allergies. Switching to a prescription strength hypoallergenic food may help this from coming back once any infection is cleared up.

Additionally I may prescribe some steroid medication which really helps with the itchiness. If this keeps coming back, then a small dose of steroids given orally ever 2-3 days may do wonders. Or, with some cats I will prescribe a steroid medication to put in the ears periodically if they are flaring up.

I wish I could give you an at home solution but it really sounds like more needs to be done medically.

One thing I could suggest is asking your vet for a referral to a veterinary dermatologist. These vets are used to seeing chronic difficult to treat problems like this and are usually very good at getting down to the final answer.

I hope he is feeling better soon!

Dr. Marie.

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Disclaimer: Although Dr. Marie is a qualified veterinarian, the information found on this site is not meant to replace the advice of your own veterinarian. and Dr. Marie do not accept any responsibility for any loss, damage, injury, death, or disease which may arise from reliance on information contained on this site. Do not use information found on this site for diagnosing or treating your pet. Anything you read here is for information only.

Customer reply:

Hi Dr. Marie. They did do a culture and at that time thought that it was a rare infection so they started with antibiotics. I can't remember what the antibiotic was called but the vet said it was extremely potent and could even cause deafness. When it didn't solve the problem, he went back to the idea of mites. I'm going to take him back to the vet to see if I can get a medication that will help with the itchiness. Thanks for your help.


Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

I'm wondering if the antibiotic was amikacin...this can be one that can be toxic to the ear. Were any repeat tests done on the ear? Usually I will repeat a culture about a week after the drugs are finished to be sure that we eradicated the infection.

Another thing that you can ask your vet about is using a medication called Triz-EDTA. This is a solution that you put into the ear about 30 minutes before the regular medication. It helps to make the ear canal more soft and let the medication penetrate deeper.

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Dr. MarieDr. Marie is a veterinarian who practices in a busy animal hospital in Ottawa, Ontario. She created Ask A Vet Question as a resource for good, accurate veterinary advice online. Dr. Marie treats dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, and rats. She has been a vet since 1999.

Is an online vet visit just as good as a trip to your veterinarian? No! But, many times, asking an online veterinarian a question can help save you money. While Dr. Marie can't officially diagnose your pet or prescribe medications, she can often advise you on whether a vet visit is necessary. You can also ask Dr. Marie for a second opinion on your pet's condition.