Last Updated: 3 months ago

Are you looking for tips on dirty cat ears vs. ear mites?

I’ve dealt with several ear mite infestations, so I know firsthand how hard it is to distinguish harmless ear wax from those nasty bugs.

Fortunately, I’m here to share my experience with you and tell you everything you need to know about cat ear wax vs. mites.

Just keep reading.

What Are Cat Ear Mites?

Ear mites are parasites that live in the cat’s ear canal and eat ear wax and skin oils. They’re so common that every cat will probably have at least one ear mite infection.

Mites can lead to ear canal swelling, bacterial infection, hearing loss, torn eardrums, and recurring infections. They also cause uncomfortable itching, resulting in severe ear scratching.

Despite their name, in severe infestations, ear mites can spread to other parts of the cat’s body, usually the neck, tail, and rump, and cause skin irritation.

More importantly, I learned from my vet that these parasites are highly contagious. If one cat has ear mites, you can be confident that all the other cats, dogs, rabbits, or ferrets are affected.

Usually, kittens and seniors are at higher risk of ear mite complications because of their weak immune systems. But you should treat any cat in contact with an infected animal.

While mites are not a life-threatening condition, they can cause severe discomfort for your feline friend or you!

As vets from VCA Hospital explain, “Ear mites may cause a temporary itchy rash on susceptible people if there are infested pets in the household.”

But what do ear mites look like, and how to get rid of them? Let’s find

What Do Ear Mites Look Like in Cats?

The Otodectes cynotis, the most common type of ear mite in cats, looks like a tiny white speck. It’s as big as a pinhead and, therefore, almost impossible to see with a naked eye.

You’ll need to collect some brown discharge from your cat’s ear and look at it under a magnifying glass or a microscope, just like the vet in this video.

It’s unlikely that your cat will stand still while you try to take a sample with a cotton swab, not to mention that you can accidentally damage your cat’s ear canal.

Fortunately, there are other ways to tell the difference between dirty cat ears vs. ear mites. Let’s see them.

Signs of Cat Ear Mites

Ear mites tend to cause dry, dark discharge, which may resemble coffee grounds.

Besides black discharge, other common symptoms of ear mites are:

  • Frequent head shaking
  • Excessive pawing or scratching at the ears
  • Foul odor
  • Red and inflamed skin inside the ear
  • Some cats with ear mites also have crusted skin scaling around the rump, neck, and tail.
  • Floppy ear. Cats flatten their ears in response to stress, but floppy ears indicate an ear problem.

If you notice any of these signs of ear mites, it’s essential to consult with a vet. Ear infections, polyps in the ear canal, fungal infections, and foreign objects in the ear can also cause similar symptoms.

Moreover, some cats shake their heads when they have a dental disease or scratch excessively because of an allergy or yeast infection.

So, don’t be quick to administer the mite treatment below before you consult with a vet and get a definite diagnosis of ear mites.

How to Treat Cat Ear Mites

When I discovered that my cats had ear mites, I panicked. However, it turned out that treating mites wasn’t as hard as imagined.

  • First, you or your vet have to clean the ears with a suitable ear cleaning solution for cats. The ear should be as clean as possible for the treatment to be effective.
  • If you’re doing it at home, you should have someone to help you hold the cat and prevent escape attempts.
  • Get your cat comfortable, grab the tip of the ear flap, and pull it back to expose the ear canal.
  • Squeeze some of the cleaning solution to “flood” the ear canal and massage the base of the ear for 5–10 seconds.
  • Use gauze or a cotton ball (never use cotton swabs) and gently wipe your cat’s ear canal to remove any excess liquids and debris.
  • Administer suitable ear drops for mites prescribed by your vet. If the mites have spread to other body parts, flea medication can eliminate them.

As I already said, ear mites in cats are highly contagious. You’d have to treat all susceptible animals in the house, and it can take a couple of weeks for the infection to clear.

Don’t forget about cleaning your cat’s environment. Many pet owners err by not washing the cat’s bedding in hot water, which leads to reinfection.

And now, let’s talk about the other common cat ear problem, cat wax, and learn to tell the difference between ear mites vs. ear wax.

What Is Cat Ear Wax?

It’s normal for cats to have a little bit of ear wax inside their ears. It serves the same purpose as human ear wax – to protect the ear from infections and clean itself.

The wax and tiny hairs inside your cat’s ear serve to trap debris, dust, and other objects that can damage the inner structure of the ear.

However, excessive wax buildup is a sign of a cat ear infection, ear mites, allergies, and other ear issues. But what does cat ear wax look like? Let’s find out!

What Does Cat Ear Wax Look Like?

Normal cat ear wax is light brown, has no foul odor, and doesn’t cause your cat discomfort. Darker color, pus, foul odors, or itching points to feline ear infections or ear mites.

To examine your cat’s ears, fold the ear flap to expose the ear canal. In healthy cats, the inside of the ear should be pale pink with no unpleasant odors, dirt, or buildup of ear wax.

While there’s no textbook definition of how much ear wax is too much, if your cat’s ear looks dirty, you’re likely dealing with ear wax.

But are there other signs of cat ear wax you should know? Yes, here they come!

Signs of Cat Ear Wax

The most obvious sign of cat ear wax is the brown wax build-up you will discover when examining your cat’s ears.

But I’ve observed the following signs of cat ear wax and ear problems in many of my cats throughout the years:

  • Excessive head shaking. However, whole-body shaking is likely due to other illnesses or stress
  • Ear scratching. In some cases, it can be so severe that the cat injures the outer part of the ear.
  • Foul-smelling discharge (likely ear infection)
  • Dark-colored debris around the ear
  • Bald or scaly patches on the outer ear (usually scabies)
  • Tender ears or floppiness

Since ear infections and ear mites are the most common reasons for excessive cat ear wax in cats, you should take your cat to the vet. You’d want to treat any infections or mites as soon as possible.

Excessive head shaking and scratching can also lead to aural hematoma – a blood-filled swelling inside the ear flap caused by burst blood vessels. It’s a painful condition that requires draining.

So, how do you treat cat ear wax before it starts to accumulate? As you’ll find out, it’s not so different than taking care of mites!

How to Treat Cat Ear Wax

Treating ear wax is relatively simple; you must clean it from your cat’s ear and treat any underlying condition, such as an ear infection or ear mites.

And here’s how I clean my cat’s ears from wax and other debris:

  • I prepare in advance everything I need to clean the ears – a gauze/cotton ball, a suitable ear cleaning solution, a towel, and some treats.
  • When my cat seems to be in a good mood, I wrap her in the towel, making a “kitty” burrito. You can use some natural calming pheromones (Feliway) if your cat scares easily.
  • I soak a cotton ball in the ear cleaning solution and use it to clean it inside the ear. Then I wipe the outside skin too.
  • Once I finish with both ears, I give my cat a treat.

If you’re not sure you can clean your cat’s ears without getting scratched or scaring your kitty too much, you can ask your vet to show you how to do it.

And now, let’s talk about the difference between cat ear mites and ear wax.

What’s the Difference Between Cat Ear Mites and Ear Wax?

The differences between cat ear mites vs. wax in cats aren’t obvious at first glance. But as I learned, you just have to pay attention to three key features to distinguish:

  • Color. When comparing ear mites vs. ear wax in cats, the most notable difference is color. Mites have a coffee ground appearance or are black, while normal wax is light brown.
  • Odor. Normal cat ear wax has a slight smell, but it’s not as overwhelming as the foul odor produced by ear mites or ear infections. It’s so pungent that you can’t miss it when it’s near your cat’s ears.
  • Redness. Healthy cat ears are pink in color, while cats with ear mites have red, swollen ears. Sometimes, the inflammation is so severe that the ears are hot when you touch them.

Besides these differences between ear mites vs. ear wax, keep an eye out for foul-smelling discharge. It indicates an ear infection.

How to Keep Your Cat’s Ears Healthy?

Cats are one of the cleanest animals, but no matter how good at grooming your kitty is, it can’t lick the inside of its ears to remove dirt and debris.

So, how do you keep your cat’s ears healthy? It’s simple: you must check your kitty’s ears at least once a month and clean them if you notice any excess wax.

And don’t forget to pay attention to the outer ear as well. It’s not normal for your cat’s ears to go bald or be hot when you touch them!

But let’s talk about how often you should clean your cat’s ears.

How often should you clean your cat’s ears?

You should clean your cat’s ears on a need-to-know basis. Overcleaning can irritate your cat’s sensitive ear canal and do more harm than good.

Following my vet’s advice, I check my cat’s ears weekly and clean them whenever I notice wax accumulation.

My indoor cats do well with an ear cleaning twice or thrice a year, but my outdoor cats often come home with dirty ears and need more regular cleaning.

Do all cats need to have their ears cleaned?

All cats must have their ears cleaned to prevent wax buildup and reduce the risk of infections, parasites, and other ear issues.

However, cats with folded ears, such as the Scottish Fold, need more care. Due to the unique ear structure, you should clean the inner and outer ears weekly to prevent bacteria build-up.

When Should I Contact My Vet?

Contact your vet immediately if you notice a strong foul odor emitting from the ears, pus leaking out, or your cat scratches all the time.

Some cats with ear issues also exhibit ataxia, a lack of balance. It’s a serious symptom that you shouldn’t ignore! And the sooner you get your cat the right treatment, the better the outcome.


1. Do Cat Ear Mites Smell?

Mites don’t smell, but cats with ear mites often have an unpleasant odor whiffing from the ears because the mites have caused a secondary infection. 

2. What Kills Ear Mites in Cats Instantly?

Pyrethrin and ivermectin are highly efficient in treating mites. However, some cats can be sensitive to these products, so you should use only ear drops prescribed by your vet. 

3. How Does an Indoor Cat Get Ear Mites?

Indoor cats can get ear mites if they have contact with other infected cats or infected beddings, furniture, or toys.

4. Are Cats’ Ears Supposed to be Dirty Inside?

No, your cat’s ears shouldn’t be dirty on the inside. Dirty ears indicate excessive ear wax due to infections or ear mites. 


When it comes to dirty cat ears vs. ear mites, it’s important to learn the differences. So, examine your cat’s ears weekly to detect any issues before they become serious and spread to other pets. 

Remember that dirty ears are often symptoms of ear mites or another ear-related infection and aren’t something you should ignore.

You should consult a vet as soon as possible whenever you notice any change in how your cat’s ears look or feel. Ear problems are easy to solve when you catch them early!

What do you think about this topic? Can you tell the difference between dirty cat ears vs. ear mites? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section.

Olfa T
Olfa T

Olfa knows how to get things done and has a keen business sense that others admire. She’s always on the go, coming up with new ideas! Her ability to anticipate the needs of her readers and deliver information that they want is what makes CatVills such a success. She loves cuddling her cat Picaciu. He is her inspiration.