Tumors can develop anywhere inside and outside a cat’s body, including on and in their ears. There are many types of ear tumors in cats: squamous cell carcinoma, ceruminous gland adenocarcinomas, inflammatory polyps, earwax gland tumors, liposarcoma, and fibrosarcoma.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is an aggressive type of cancer that can appear both on the ear and in the ear canal. This cancer can also occur in other areas, such as the mouth, nose, and eyelids. It is an invasive tumor that destroys soft and hard tissues and can spread to other parts of the body in rare cases. The causes of squamous cell carcinoma are not fully known, but genetics and environmental factors (e.g., UV radiation) play important roles.
What Is Ear Cancer?
Cancer is a group of diseases caused by the uncontrolled growth of cells, which is triggered by mutations, or changes at the DNA level. These affect the genes, thus causing cancer cells to multiply. Other causes of cancer are represented by environmental factors like diet, radiation, infections, etc.
Cancer can occur anywhere in or on the body, including the ears. Most types of ear cancer develop in the skin of the external ear (nasopharyngeal polyps, squamous cell carcinomas, and adenocarcinomas of the ceruminous gland).
SCC is the most common type of ear cancer found in cats. It usually occurs on the tip of the ears, but it can also be found in the ear canal, nose, mouth, toes, or eyelids. Cancers that develop in the middle or inner ear are rare. When ear cancers occur inside the ear, they can also affect the bone structure.
What Are the Signs of Ear Cancer in Cats?
Even though several types of cancer (benign or malignant) can affect your cat’s ears, the clinical signs are similar and can include:
- Ulcers on the tips of the ears (and face, toes, and mouth, in the case of SCC)
- Purple, pink, or white nodular masses on the ear and in the ear canal (if malignant, they can grow, break, become infected, and bleed)
- Chronic or recurrent ear infections
- Waxy, pus-filled, or bloody discharge with an unpleasant smell
- Intense scratching
- Pawing at the affected ear
- Shaking of the head
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Malignant tumors that grow so large that they narrow or block the ear canal
If the tumor develops in the inner ear, your cat may show the following nervous signs:
- Head tilt
- Loss of balance
- Rhythmic, involuntary movements of the eyes (nystagmus)
- Facial paralysis
- Hearing loss
What Are the Causes of Ear Cancer in Cats?
Tumors are caused by mutations that occur at the cellular DNA level. These can be caused by various factors (diet, radiation, infections, etc.) that make the cells multiply abnormally.
The occurrence of SCC is favored by exposure to the sun, with white cats with short hair or those with exposed ear tips being mostly affected. Cats older than 5 years are also more likely to develop SCC.
For ear cancers in general, the mean age for malignant tumors is 11–12 years, and for benign, it is 7 years.
How Do I Care for a Cat With Ear Cancer?
If you notice any lesions on and in your cat’s ears, take them to a veterinary clinic immediately. You should also contact your vet if your pet shows any other clinical signs.
Unfortunately, there are no natural home remedies for treating cancer. Cats should not be left with cancerous lesions because they will not heal on their own. Cancer can spread deep into the ear or other parts of the body and may become impossible to treat. If your cat’s ear cancer is not treatable, euthanasia may be recommended.
What you can do instead is to try preventing ear cancer in the first place.
How Do Veterinarians Treat Ear Cancer in Cats?
After the veterinarian diagnoses your cat with ear cancer (through fine needle aspiration or biopsy), they will recommend treatment. Most veterinarians choose surgical excision of the tumor, whether it is benign or malignant. For benign tumors, surgical removal should be sufficient. For malignant tumors, chemotherapy can be recommended, especially if they have spread (metastasized) in the body. When the vet cannot completely remove a tumor surgically, they can resort to radiotherapy to destroy the remaining tumor cells.
In the case of SCC, the success rate of intervention of any type in cats depends on the degree of extension of the lesions: the smaller the lesion, the greater the chances of healing. If the ear tumor is not treated or the diagnosis is wrong, in a short time, it can grow and affect the deep tissues. At this stage, no treatment would make sense, and vets often recommend euthanasia.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How Long Will a Cat Live With Ear Cancer?
If your cat has been diagnosed with ear cancer (especially SCC in the middle ear), and the tumor has been surgically removed, the average survival time is about 6 months. In cases where the cancer is not so severe, cats can survive up to 4 years. Cats treated only with medication, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy survive an average of 3 months. Cats with neurological signs live an average of 1.5 months.
Is Ear Cancer in Cats Painful?
Ear cancer in cats is indeed painful. The tumor will grow and cause discomfort to your cat, which will start scratching. Excessive scratching can lead to self-mutilation and bleeding. In some cases, tumors can narrow or block the ear canal. Other clinical signs of ear cancer in cats include persistent foul-smelling discharge, shaking of the head, meowing, hearing loss, and pawing at the affected ear.
Is It Okay to Clean Cats’ Ears With Water?
No, do not clean your cat’s ears with water. Moisture creates the perfect environment for bacterial development, and your cat can get an ear infection. Chronic, untreated ear infections can lead to cancer (albeit in exceptional circumstances). Use veterinary ear-cleaning solutions to clean your cat’s ears. Clean your cat’s ears once every 2–3 months if they are clean and healthy. If your cat has an ear problem, follow your vet’s advice.
Ear cancer in cats is quite rare. Cats can develop several types of ear tumors, the most common being SCC and ceruminous gland adenocarcinoma. Clinical signs of ear cancer in cats include pain, discomfort, shaking of the head, and foul-smelling discharge that may be purulent, waxy, or bloody. If the tumor affects the inner ear, neurological signs may also occur. If your cat shows clinical signs or growth on or in their ears (or in other areas of the body), contact the veterinarian. Cancer of the ear, if left untreated, can even be fatal.