Why are my cat’s ears scaly and scabby?

Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I have an 8-month old, black and white, short-haired cat named Whiskey. He seems to be having a problem with his ears: they are very scaly. He is constantly growing new skin in his ears, but it sheds in little pieces afterwards. Just like a scab that falls off, only to be replaced by another scab. And his ears always feel rather warm.

He has been tested for all the usual stuff like fungus and mites but nothing has been found. We have also changed his food to a hypo-allergenic food, but no changes either. Our vet has consulted a skin specialist which has suggested that a biopsy be taken in his ears and sent to the closest vet university for analysis. That procedure is very costly and to be added up to the price of all the other tests done before.

I was wondering if anyone has ever had a cat with scaly, shedding ears before, as nobody around here seems to have seen this kind of problem before.


Siouxsie: Gee, Danielle, that is a mystery. It sounds like your vet has done all the tests to eliminate the common causes of skin issues, so now you’re left with wondering why on earth Whiskey’s ears are still in such rough shape.

Thomas: There are a couple of other reasons why a cat’s ears might be scaling and scabbing, though. First, if Whiskey goes out, he may have gotten frostbitten. Cats’ ears are not covered with as much fur as the rest of our bodies, so it’s easy for cold exposure to cause frostbite.

Dahlia: What happens in frostbite is that the exposed area gets so chilled that the blood vessels contract and cut off blood flow to the skin. The skin then begins to die and can flake off (in mild cases) or turn black and gangrenous (in severe cases).

Siouxsie: You didn’t mention whether you live in a cold area–although you did write this letter in December–or if Whiskey goes outdoors, so we can’t be certain that a cold injury could cause this problem. You also didn’t mention how long Whiskey has been suffering from this skin issue.

Thomas: Another thing that can cause flaky skin and excessive warmth of the ears is sunburn. Cats with white ears are much more likely to get sunburned than those with darker-colored ears. The best way to prevent sunburn is to keep your kitty from going outdoors or basking in sunny spots between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., particularly during the season when the sun’s rays are strongest (summer in the northern hemisphere; winter in the southern hemisphere).

Dahlia: One problem that can develop in cats with white ears who are repeatedly exposed to the sun is skin cancer, which may be why your vet has suggested a skin biopsy. One of the first cats who claimed Mama as her own was a mostly-white calico named Iris. Iris loved to go outside and bask in the sun, just like any good country cat would. But when Iris was about 15, she began developing flaky spots, and then black lumps, on the edges of her ears.

Siouxsie: As you can probably tell from this story, cancer is much more likely to occur in older cats. We think it’s pretty unlikely that an 8-month-old kitten would develop skin cancer, but the biopsy would be a good idea just to be on the safe side.

Thomas: We had Mama look up skin problems in her trusty Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, and she discovered one other possibility. Folliculitis is an infection of the hair follicles. Scaling is the most common sign of folliculitis, although it can also occur with a condition called miliary dermatitis (red bumps and itchiness on the skin). Folliculitis is generally treated with medicated shampoos or, in severe cases, antibiotics.

Dahlia: Your vet is certainly aware of all these other possibilities, as is the skin specialist. There’s a very good reason that the specialist recommended a biopsy. You certainly want to rule out cancer, and if the cause of the flaking is folliculitis (which can also be determined by the biopsy), your vet can set up treatment for that condition.

Siouxsie: We understand your concern about the cost of a biopsy and the money you’ve already spent trying to figure out what’s wrong with Whiskey’s ears. But frankly, if this were happening to one of us, Mama would certainly pay for the procedure–if nothing else, just to know that no other serious problem is occurring.

Thomas: If the biopsy comes up negative for any diseases, you might consider working with a holistic veterinarian. Many people have had good luck using homeopathy and other alternative treatments to manage chronic conditions that don’t respond to traditional veterinary medicine.

Dahlia: Conventional veterinarians vary in their level of acceptance for holistic medicine, but by and large the profession is becoming more open-minded about it as they see these alternative treatments working to ease their patients’ suffering.

Siouxsie: You’ll want to talk with your veterinarian and see if he or she would be willing to share Whiskey’s test results with a holistic practitioner. Hopefully the answer will be yes. And the answer is more likely to be yes as long as you’ve taken the diagnostic and treatment steps your vet has recommended.

Thomas: If you have friends or acquaintances who are interested in holistic medicine, you might ask them if they know of any holistic vets in your area. Also ask if they’ve used that vet and how they felt about his or her work and attitude toward the animal and his or her person.

Dahlia: Another resource, if you live in the United States or Canada, is the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. The AHVMA has a directory of all its member practitioners, which you can access by going to the AHVMA website and clicking the “Find a Holistic Practitioner” button at the top of the home page.

Siouxsie: Keep in mind that the directory only lists practitioners who are members of this organization. Not all holistic vets are members of the AHVMA.

Thomas: Virtually all holistic veterinarians have been trained in conventional veterinary medicine. They have gone to vet school, gotten a D.V.M. (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) degree, completed internships and residencies, and are licensed to practice veterinary medicine in their home state or province. In fact, we’re pretty sure it’s not legal here in the U.S. to call yourself a veterinarian unless you have a D.V.M. degree. But if you’re not a veterinarian, you could call yourself, for example, a veterinary homeopath or a practitioner of veterinary acupuncture.

Dahlia: Holistic vets also undertake specialized training to supplement their veterinary education. They may attend homeopathy school (these do exist), take extensive courses on chiropractic medicine, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine or Western herbology, Bach flower remedies, massage, and other alternative healing practices.

Siouxsie: What this all boils down to, Danielle, is that we’d strongly recommend that you take that next step and get Whiskey a skin biopsy.

Thomas: If the biopsy doesn’t yield any organic cause for his condition, you might consider working with an alternative practitoner as well as your regular vet to try and find a treatment for Whiskey’s scaly ears.

Dahlia: Good luck, Danielle and Whiskey! Please let us know how things turn out.

  • Salina

    Hi- just read about Whiskey’s ear condition. My cat has the same thing and I was doing a web search before calling the vet. Did you ever find out what the problem was? My cat is a one year old, orange tabby. She has no other symptoms, and her ears don’t seem to bother her. She doesn’t scratch, she just has a thick, scaly skin inside and outside of both ears.

  • Jennifer

    My cat, Ella, a calico, has the same thing! I, too, was searching the Internet hoping some ointment would solve the problem and trying to avoid a costly trip to the vet. Ella is 3, goes outside, loves to bask in the sun and shade, most likely has a few fleas, but shows no signs of ear mites or skin condition other than the outside tips of her ears which are furless, scaly and a tiny bit bloody. I’m baffled.

  • jamie

    My cat has the same issues and the vet doesn’t seem to know what it is either. my other cat has not contracted it nor has any of my 3 dogs. have you ever gotten an answer or has anyone been able to tell you what to do? your help would be really appreciated.

  • Stephanie

    My cat is a calico and also has the same problem. I just noticed it yesterday but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t had it longer. She is an indoor only cat and has rough/scaly/dark edges to her ears on both sides. My dog and other cat do not have the problem. Wondering if anyone has any info.

    • Pat Wisniewski

      it could be bacteria. my cat had crusty ears and a local vet scraped her skin and said it was a bacteria

  • Helen Nordo

    This is absolutely amazing. I have had four tortoise cats (1 just passed away at 8 yrs.) they are highly sensitive to skin problems, just as two of the above comments, they are extremely allergic to fleas & with this very hot weather, the fleas are outdoors & now the cats are fearful of going out. No matter how I control their flea problem there are these large crusty patches of “scabs” down their back, under the neck & MOSTLY on the lower part of the ears. I avoid removing the scabs since they simply come right back. They are constantly grooming & the problem gets better in the cold weather; however, I do believe my “Willow” (my favorite) passed since she was sensitive to everything. I hate fleas, they are everywhere in warm weather & hard to control outdoors since I have a lot of land. I am struggling with the one cat who has mites in her ears & I must clean them out every day, nothing has helped, not even medicine, just keeping the ear clean is the best treatment. I have had cats all of my life but I will never have cats with mixed colors, for some reason they are “highly sensitive” to everything, when I had to leave the cats with my daughter, when I had a heart operation in 2004, the runt Willow brooded so much (I was not aware of this) that she ate very little. I let my daughter take care of the cats until I could get back on my feet; however, the damage was already done. Willow was so attached to me that I do believe she felt a tremendous loss & her lack of eating weakened her. I finally brought her here but she was already experiencing kidney failure. She died peacefully in my arms, purring almost to the end. Had I known this cat was so sensitive I surely would have kept her with me but she had grown attached to a male cat “Shadow” & I didn’t want to separate them. Now Shadow is brooding for Willow. I think, when my dear friends are gone, I will never have another cat (although I will always feed the strays) I go through an emotional roller coaster when they die & (this is important) I have had MORE cats die at the hands of the veterinarians than through natural causes so you see, when you are a cat lover, you are at an impasse, you take a chance either way but here’s my advice (I’m a senior so I can advise you right?) if the cat is very old (14 to 16) don’t continue to take him to the vet unless he has heart problems, etc. The natural process of aging will happen & no vet will be able to extend his life although he will extend his bank account. Please learn from this. I have had several cats so traumatized by the visits and/or staying at the clinic, that, especially when they are old, it can kill them. That sweet smile you see on your vet’s face will disappear when you leave the office. If a cat gets bitten & pus forms, it will break, keep it clean & he’ll be just fine, remember, when you take your cat to the vet, they NOW take the cat in the back & God knows what they inject him with. One of my cats was tranquilized, without my knowledge, & came home running in circles & cowered from me for a month. I tried to sue certain vets. for improper treatment of a 20 yr. old cat where he inserted a needle into his jugular vein ( so that he could get a blood sample) nothing was wrong with the cat…he was just OLD. So please be careful, the MOST important thing you can do for your cat is love it to death. The TRULY need & depend on you, they can’t say it but, they suffer when you ignore them or leave them in a strange place. I will tell you another shocker. I was so desperate to help one of my cats years ago, that I took her to the University of Penna. Animal Hospital in Philly. As soon as I stepped in the office they wanted $300.00 up front. The cat was happy before I went there purring looking at me with those beautiful green eyes…trusting me. I knew she was sick & I wanted the best for her. When I left I felt secure that they would find out why she was so sick..they told me they wanted to run some tests…I went to visit her the next day, she was so happy to see me..I wanted to take her home but they wanted her to stay so I agreed..They said the tests they had run wouldn’t come back till over the weekend, so I waited & prayed (as the bill got bigger ) I got a call late at night that my cat was not doing well..I rushed into Philly & saw her laying on a cold cement floor..I brought her favorite furry robe & she looked at me & weakly tried to knead into the robe..My God, I thought, what have I done, she was dying & I was helpless..so I did the thing I had hoped would never happen. I had her put to sleep. I was sick for months over what I allowed these people to do. They sent me a bill for $2,000.00. The actually kept that cat there to make a big bill, not caring that this traumatic isolation would kill her..Please, I know from many bad experiences, if you truly love your cat, treat it like your child, they are very intelligent & know your every emotion, they can be jealous, they can be clinging but..that is what you want..you want that love so earn it by giving them the best life they deserve. Use the internet to get advice on how to treat minor problems & if there is no need, avoid the vet. I have a 14 yr. old male cat that has never been to a vet. & he is healthy..but getting old..just as we are. Age is inevitable, it is how we treat it that counts, the same is with people, eat well, watch your weight, stay happy & you live as long as me…79 yrs. God Bless You & your darling cats. Cat people are the nicest, I really relate to them. Good Luck! Helen Nordo

    • Pat Wisniewski

      OMG your advice is so right on, thank you Helen for the GREAT advice. vets killed my precious jack-chi. she wasn’t even two years old. i’ll never get over it. anyways i feed homeless cats and had my colony all fixed thru neuter scooter then brought one of them in the house bcs she’s a runt and was dying. the neuter-scooter vet gave her a lot of free care but now she has moved to another state. after this kitten was finally cured of a URI then she got the crusty ears and a sore paw so i took her to a regular vet. two hundred dollars later she’s not any better but the vet did scrape the skin and declared it a bacterial infection. i guess the paw gets infected from rubbing the ears. she has had a couple of rounds of antibiotics and EnteDerm ointment rubbed daily on the ears. you can buy entederm on line if interested. I’m also soaking the paw in empsom salts. she starts to get better then it all comes back again. so she’s presently on all the treatments i just mentioned. i’m going to try coconut oil if the antibiotics don’t work. just thought it might help someone out there to know it might be a bacterial infection that’s making your cats ears crusty. but then again if it’s a bacteria seems like the atb would have worked by now. btw Helen I have an old cat that is healthier than any of those in the wild colony. nothing bothers her. the first ten years of her life she wouldn’t go outside and now she loves it. go figure.

  • Helen Nordo

    I wanted to add some further advice, aside from writing a book, sorry, remember to ALWAYS leave fresh water for your cat. It must be cleaned every day or they won’t drink. Water is more important than milk, remember many cats are eating dry cat food & this will affect their stools, I do believe my one cat died because she was constipated & I didn’t know it, although she had a habit of lying under our car which was leaking anti-freeze (a sure killer) We found it out later after she was gone. Dry cat food should never be their only diet. When your cat ages, he will lose some teeth or they will rot, you must be aware of this, if you can scrape the tartar off yourself, it is better, do it when he is young or he won’t like it. I used to do it & when I forgot, the teeth started to rot..they can’t brush, right? Also, I like Purina kitten chow as they age since, if they are having trouble with their teeth, they cannot eat large pieces of dry cat food. Oh & remember to buy a flea comb & once every often, comb through to look for insects, if they are outdoor cats, ticks will snuggle in even around & on their eyelids. It is easy to just flick them off, don’t go to the vet! To remove a tick, it is easy, it won’t hurt the cat, you can use tweezers; however, I’m so used to it, I use my fingers, just pull, it will hold on but, eventually,will give way. Flush it down the toilet, you don’t want that thing around, they like people too, I know. Now with this computer age, you have a tendency to ignore your little darling, so set aside some special time, when you are not on the computer, to let that little one know you love him/her. Be careful around steps, they can curl themselves around your ankles & innocently let you trip. It happened to me & I almost broke my wrist..so be careful, no matter how young you are. We old gals, (ahem) I say that jokingly, have to watch ourselves or our cat will wind up without an owner. Whenever I go for a walk in the woods, the cats follow me & my husband, they are like little children. One of them is afraid of the horse next door since he seems to love our garden & will come over every so often..I don’t like it because he does a lot of destruction and..I’m afraid of horses…they are…BIG! Try to remove your cat’s fur so that, when she licks she doesn’t collect furballs (another killer). In the summer, they will shed the most so be prepared, they will usually cuddle up to you so that you will pet them, thereby remove their fur. They are so smart! Don’t leave rubberbands around, long pieces of thread, whatever, they eat things. If they bite you, remember, it’s something you have done. I wondered why my one cat would nibble at me whenever I pet her belly…they don’t like you near their private parts…males especially, I mean..c’mon it’s a man thing! Some cats will nibble your nose when you kiss them, that’s a good thing so don’t worry, they don’t have lips right? If you are worried about your furniture, you can buy some two way tape at Pet Smart or any other pet store. You apply it to the place where your cat has chosen to scratch & whamo, like magic..no more scratching, they hate sticky stuff. I don’t like to declaw a cat & never have only I wish I had found out about this tape, I lost a lot of nice furniture but sprays seldom work. Also, keep the litter clean, whenever it is dirty, don’t wait until the next day or he will go in a corner & once this starts, well..it’s your fault. I always place a large bath towel on the ground, rug, whatever, then the litter pan so that when they cover their “stuff” the litter will land on the towel & you can pour it back into the litter pan. It seems like a lot of work but it’s worth it for that darling creature. If you have breakable nic nacs, move them away from windows or tops of bureau, cats like to jump & don’t care about your nic nacs. If you must be away for a day or two, always leave the AC or heater running. I left a cat in my attic, by accident, & she almost died. If they get constipated, you’ll know, they will strain, etc. Buy a cream laxative from the pet shop, get him used to it early, he will try to spit it out so hold his mouth closed while you tip his head back. Also, a little bit of margarine daily left along with their catfood will be a quick fix. I don’t use butter myself so the cats love to lick up the “Smart Balance” as a matter of fact, they love it. I hope I have covered everything. I have learned a lot over the years, my love of cats goes way back, they know when you are sick & will tip toe up to the part of your body that is hurting..especially if you have bandages, they know you are not well..& will, actually worry over it. I try not to lose my temper, they hate to be yelled at but I never do like they did years ago, hit them with a newspaper, your hands, a brush, etc. that went out years ago before people understood how important an animal is to a human. They make great companions, & when you are feeling low, they are always there for you so..do the right thing..always be there for THEM! God Bless You & your little friend/friends. Helen Nordo (a cat lover)

    • Sue Jones

      Very nice…I can tell you are an animal lover…..thank you

  • will

    hey we live in the country and my cat looks like a simineese,but was born from a callico so we kept her as an inside cat and she has started getting this black and pussy ear crud coming from her ears, id just like to know if any one knows what to do about it?? ive tryed eveything from proxide to earmite meds none of the other outside cats have a problem?

  • Chelsey

    My 7 month old cat has flaky ears on the inside and just starting on the out side edges. He had ear mites so I treated him and 2 days after I finished the treatment the flaking started. It doesn’t seem to bother him but I notice when it flakes his long beautiful fur falls out! He stays inside and our other cat doesn’t have any problems. They sit in the sun a little bit when it come in a certain window so I don’t think its sunburn and I know its not mange. I’m hoping to avoid a visit to the vet. Can anyone help?

  • Jen

    My cat had this condition shortly after I got her. The vet was clueless as to what caused it. I had her tested for ringworm, which came back negative. The vet prescribed this clear liquid that seemed to be a slightly oily rubbing alcohol type substance that I rubbed into my cat’s ears twice a day. She hated it, as I think it probably stung a bit. Her ears looked horrible! They were bright red and full of scabs and crud, and it really happened overnight. I really don’t know if the medication helped or not, but after several weeks, the scabs and redness started to go away until her ears her completely back to normal. She also had a badly infected nail during this time, which also healed up (although it’s never quite gotten back to normal). My best guess is that it was either a fungus of some sort or just the stress of being in a shelter, foster homes, and finally into my home, that just manifested into a physical condition.