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Cats are brilliant self-groomers and are great at keeping themselves clean, including their upright and expressive ears. However, sometimes ear wax builds up inside our cat’s ears. A little ear wax is healthy, whereas a lot can indicate underlying medical issues and impact their hearing.
Things can get a little confusing though, as brown wax in the ears is often mistaken for ear mites and vice versa. Ear mites are the most common cause of ear issues in cats which feed on the ear wax. This can cause cats to produce more wax, so you can see where the confusion arises!
In this article, I look at dirty cat ears vs ear mites and how you can tell the difference between the two. It’s important to know the difference so you know when there is an issue and what treatment your cat needs. Plus, I share other tips on keeping your cat’s ears as healthy as possible.
What Are Cat Ear Mites?
Ear mites are a common parasite that infects a cat’s ears. In fact, most cats will suffer from an ear mite infestation at some point in their lives.
Kittens are particularly at risk as their immune systems are still developing. In the same light, older felines or cats with compromised immune systems are more likely to contract an ear mite infection. There are concerns that Scottish Folds and other cats with small ears are also more prone to developing ear mites, but there is little
These teeny tiny parasites live inside cats’ ears and feed on the dirt and ear wax found inside the ear canal. This causes more ear wax to be produced and it will build up in your cat’s ears. The ear mites themselves are tiny and can only be seen under a microscope.
Signs & Symptoms of Cat Ear Mites
As ear mites are not visible to the naked eye, it can be difficult to spot cats with mite infestations. However, there are thankfully some common symptoms to look out for. If you see any of these symptoms – especially in combination with one another – you might want to take your cat to the vet to confirm the diagnosis:
- Your cat keeps shaking its head as if to try and shake the mites out
- They’ll paw and scratch at their ears much more than usual
- The inside of your cat’s ear will look dirty and full of reddish-brown wax
- You might notice black crusts form inside your cat’s ears
- All wax inside the ears will have an unpleasant smell
- The inside of the ears and skin around them look red and inflamed
Bear in mind that these symptoms don’t necessarily mean your cat does have ear mites. Many of the symptoms are true for other feline ear conditions. For example, if a cat keeps shaking its head but no mites it could be because of an ear infection, polyps in the ear canal, or a foreign body lodged inside the ear passage.
There is also a chance that your cat is shaking its head for non-medical-related reasons. For example, cats shake their heads when eating. This is more likely to indicate that your cat is having difficulty eating or suffering from a dental disease than from ear mites. Indeed, as mites are too small to see with the naked eye, you’ll need to take your cat to the vet to confirm they do have an infection.
Treatment of Cat Ear Mites
If it is confirmed that your cat has ear mites, don’t panic! Treating ear mites is relatively straightforward, but can take a little time to clear the infection completely. Also, ear mites are highly contagious, so if you have any other pets you’ll have to treat them all. Otherwise, the infection will keep being passed between your pets and never properly irradicated.
The first step is to clean the ears and remove all ear wax and dirt that has built up in the ear canal. Because ear mites feed on this wax, cleaning the ears will remove their food source so eventually all die. This will also get all the dirt out of the way so that you can apply the treatment directly to the infected area. This way, it becomes more effective.
You can purchase an ear cleaning solution and clean out your cat’s ears at home. However, I’d recommend asking your vet to do this instead. Flushing the ears incorrectly can cause the ear mites to get pushed further into the ear. This can make them harder to irradicate and the parasitic infection will become worst. There is also a risk of bursting your cat’s eardrums.
After the ears are cleared of all wax and dirt, you can then use medication to treat the ear mite infection. All mite medication is usually in the form of ear drops. You need to put a couple of drops inside your cat’s ears and massage the solution in gently so that it covers all of their ears evenly.
Again, ear mite treatment can be brought from pet stores. However, your vet will be able to prescribe a stronger dosage which may be better depending on the severity of the infection. You’ll need to apply the treatment for several days in a row, then repeat the entire cleaning and treatment process if needed until the infection is cleared.
What is Cat Ear Wax?
Cat ear wax is similar to human ear wax and serves two main purposes: to lubricate the ears and to help protect the ears from infections. Therefore, while cats don’t tend to have a lot of the stuff, a little amount of ear wax is healthy.
Healthy ear wax will be light brown and doesn’t give off an unpleasant smell. So, if you see brown stuff in cats’ ears but no mites, try not to stress. Ear mite infections do lead to excess ear wax production and black discharge from the ears, but a little brown wax is perfectly normal.
With that being said, an unhealthy amount of ear wax or ear wax that has a horrible smell is a sign of infection. Ear mites are one possible cause, as are fungal infections and other ear irritations. This will make your cat’s ears look really dirty and clogged up, and this is where ear wax becomes a problem.
What is the Difference Between Cat Ear Wax vs Mites?
Ear wax is normal, but a lot of ear wax isn’t. Likewise, a cat whose ears look healthy is likely fine, whereas black discharge or any of the symptoms listed above is probably a case of mites. Below are some quick and easy ways to tell the difference:
- Color: The most obvious difference between healthy cat ear wax vs mites is the color. Healthy ear wax will always be brown. However, a cat with mites is usually darker in color as there will be blood and bits of skin mixed in with the wax. Many people describe it as looking more like coffee grounds and, depending on the severity of the infection, the ear wax can be black.
- Odor: Another notable difference between ear wax and mites is the smell. Healthy ear wax will be nearly completely unscented. However, cats with ear mites – or any other form of ear infection for that matter – will have a foul odor. This is impossible to overlook. In fact, ear infections smell as bad as they look! It has a rancid smell similar to old garbage.
- Inflammation: You should also look for signs of inflammation in the ears and on the areas of the skin surrounding them. Look out for redness, swelling, and ears that feel hot to the touch. If the ears are inflamed, ear mites are likely. On the other hand, ear wax inside a healthy pale pink ear is completely normal. İf everything else about your cat’s ears looks fine, there is probably not much to worry about.
- Quantity: The quantity of wax also differs if your cat has mites. As I said earlier, mites feed on the wax which causes your cat to produce more and more of the stuff. Excessive build-up can also occur if your cat suffers from allergies, but you’ll notice other symptoms of allergies, such as your cat has watery eyes and sneezes. Bacterial and fungal infections are also possible.
Other Causes of Ear Discharge in Cats
Ear mites are by far the most common ear issue that cats have. But it is not the only option! Excessive ear wax and dirty ears can be caused by many underlying conditions, including ear infections, trauma and injury, allergies, or even a suppressed immune system.
Of all of these possibilities, allergies are the second most likely cause. Cats can suffer from a range of allergies, much like people do. As your cat’s body tries to fight off the allergen, it will produce excessive ear wax as a protective measure. Where the skin around the ear is irritated, this can also cause itching and you might notice your cat has scabs on its neck but no fleas.
There are other allergy symptoms that you can look out for as well. If your cat is throwing up hairballs daily there is a good chance they have a food allergy, whereas environmental allergies are more likely to manifest as sneezing, coughing, and nasal discharge.
On the other end of the spectrum, ear infections caused by bacterial and yeast are pretty rare in cats. Healthy cats are pretty resistant to ear infections. So when these infections do occasionally arise, your vet will look for an underlying disease. This could be an ear mite infestation or anything from an unusual ear canal shape of a disease affecting their immune system.
If you’re unsure what is wrong with your cat, always take them to the vet. They are the only ones who will be able to confirm why your cat has such dirty ears. With the right treatment, there should be no lasting impact on your cat’s hearing.
How to Keep Your Cat’s Ears Healthy
Cats are incredibly clean creatures and most will be able to keep their ears clean and healthy without much help. When ear mites or other infections do arise, getting your cat the treatment they need should always be your first step. They’ll be right as rain once they’ve fought the infection off.
Still, there are some things you can do to help prevent these ear problems from arising in the first place. Below are just some suggestions:
- Regular Inspections: Keeping a close eye on your cat’s ears is a must if you want to ensure they’re always healthy. This means any signs of excessive wax build-up and inflammation will be noticed early. Treating minor ear mite infections is much easier than severe ones that have gone unnoticed for a long time.
- Don’t Clean at Home: You can purchase ear cleaning solutions from the vet, yet using these improperly can result in more damage. Cats have extremely delicate ears, so leave the cleaning to the professionals. Never insert anything into their ears and only perform at-home cleaning following your vet’s advice.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
Both dirty cat ears and ear mites are not a good sign. Even if your cat doesn’t have ear mites, they’ll likely have another form of ear infection. Either that or they could suffer from allergies or have some kind of immune-mediated disease. Take your cat to the vet, especially if you notice black stuff in your cat’s ears or a nasty odor coming from them.
However, a little ear wax is nothing to worry about. This is healthy and helps to lubricate your cat’s ears and keep ear infections at bay. Regularly inspecting your cat’s ears can help you spot changes in the color, odor, and quantity of the ear wax. Picking up on these changes earlier can really help catch ear mite infections and other issues early on.