Cat Ear Mites vs Wax: What’s The Black Stuff In My Cat’s Ears?

Are you worried about your cat's ear health? Learn how to spot the difference between ear mites and wax in your cat's ears. But even if your kitty doesn't have mites, excessive or very dark wax could indicate another health problem.

Sally Jones

Last Updated: April 10, 2024 | 6 min read

A person wiping a cat's ears with a wipe

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Are you worried your cat has ear mites? Do you need to know the difference between cat ear mites vs wax? It can be a tough call to know when your cat’s ears are just dirty or full of wax or when there is a bigger problem.

Although felines are self-grooming pros, they still require our occasional assistance. While cats frequently groom their outer ear fur, they usually don’t pay much attention to the inside, and this is where problems can occur. As much as your kitty may put up a fight, it’s important to take some regular grooming needs into your own hands to ensure your cat’s optimal health.

What should your cat’s inner ears look like? What if there’s a bunch of dark-colored or black gunk in them? I’ll help you learn how to spot signs that your cat’s ears aren’t healthy, including the difference between cat ear mites and wax, which can be somewhat difficult to decipher.

What Should Healthy Cat Ears Look Like?

Cat ear mite on microscope view/
Image credit: wimala namket, Shutterstock

The inside of a cat’s ears should be light pink and clean, with no signs of redness or inflammation. A small amount of light-brown ear wax is normal as long as there’s no odor or irritation. However, if one or both of your kitty’s inner ears have a foul odor and/or a lot of wax build-up, especially if it’s dark in color, it’s time to get your cat checked out by your veterinarian. Learn more about what dirty cat ears look like and how to clean them.

Why Does My Cat Have So Much Ear Wax?

Most cats produce minimal ear wax, so an excessive amount in your kitty’s ears could indicate an infection or the presence of ear mites. The most common ear condition in cats is otitis externa, an infection of the outer ear canal. The most common cause of otitis externa is the ear mite.

Another culprit behind otitis externa is the proliferation of a fungus (yeast) known as Malassezia. This yeast normally resides in a cat’s ears but sometimes overgrows when conditions in the ear change.

Both ear mites and yeast overgrowth cause the outer ear canal to become irritated and inflamed, leading to the accumulation of thick, dark, and often foul-smelling wax and debris that gets trapped in it.

What Are Ear Mites?

Ear mites (Otodectes cynotis) are tiny crawling parasites related to arachnids. They usually reside in the ear canal of cats, dogs, rabbits, ferrets, and foxes (cats are the most common host of choice), but they can also live on the skin’s surface. Ear mites feed on the wax and oils in your kitty’s ears. They’re highly contagious and spread through direct contact with an infected animal.

Common Signs Of Cat Ear Mites

Cat with infectious ear discharge/
Image credit: RJ22, Shutterstock
  • Excessive ear scratching 
  • Severe itching
  • Frequent head shaking
  • Holding ears flat against the head
  • Pawing at ears
  • Inflamed outer ear
  • A dark waxy or crusty discharge from the ear (can resemble coffee grounds)
  • A crusted rash around or in the ear

Aggressive and continued ear itching and scratching can lead to serious outer and eventually inner ear canal infections, skin lesions, and hematomas (when blood vessels on the ear flap burst). So, it’s important to take your kitty to the vet as soon as you notice the initial signs and symptoms of mites. Untreated ear mites and subsequent infections can cause permanent ear damage and hearing loss.

What If My Cat’s Ears Are Hot?

Does your cat have hot ears? This may also be a clue that they have some uninvited guests in their ears. If your kitty has hot ears and dark discharge, it’s best to be on the safe side and have them looked at by your veterinarian.

How Can I Tell The Difference Between Cat Ear Mites vs Wax?

It’s difficult but not impossible to distinguish between ear mites and wax with the naked eye. At first glance, they both look like black gunk in a cat’s ear. However, keep in mind that where ear mites are present, there is also an abundance of ear wax. If you closely inspect your kitty’s ear canal (using a flashlight and/or a magnifying glass will help), you can usually spot ear mites as tiny white specks quickly moving around in the dark wax and debris.

Even if the black stuff in your cat’s ear is not mites, it could be a thick build-up of dark wax and debris due to a yeast infection, known as Malassezia otitis externa, which also requires prompt treatment to avoid possible ear damage. However, if your furball friend only has a small amount of light-brown, non-odorous wax without any signs of inflammation, your cat is just fine.

Cat Ear Mite & Yeast Infection Treatments

Veterinarian instills special ear drops for animals in the cat's ear.
Image credit: Regina Erofeeva, Shutterstock

We strongly urge you to see your vet for suspected mites or an ear infection to get a proper diagnosis and treatment. Your vet may look at a wax sample under a microscope to better determine what is going on.

Mites and yeast infections can cause secondary bacterial infections, which require vet-prescribed antibiotics. However, some over-the-counter remedies are available. In either case, the first treatment step should include a thorough ear cleaning to remove the waxy debris and as many mites as possible.

Ear Mites

Vets usually recommend a single-use prescription product, like Revolution, to kill ear mites. Your vet may also prescribe a course of antibiotics to treat any secondary bacterial infections. Popular over-the-counter medications include Adams Ear Mite Treatment (requires daily drops for 7-10 days) and Virboc Otomite Plus Ear Mite Treatment (requires 3-6 applications over 14 days). Since ear mites are so contagious, you’ll likely need to treat any other animals living in your home.

It can take up to a month or more for them to clear up. That’s because their life cycle takes 21 days. If you’re using a vet-prescribed treatment that only requires one application, it could be enough to eradicate them entirely. However, some OTC treatments need to continue for a minimum of three weeks to ensure all mite eggs have been eliminated.

Ear Yeast Infection

Antifungals are effective in treating ear yeast infections. Common topical prescription antifungal medications include clotrimazole, miconazole, nystatin, and thiabendazole. A fantastic vet-recommended, over-the-counter option is Pet MD Tris Ear Flush, which contains the antifungal medication ketoconazole. It’s a gentle, non-stinging solution that cleans and dries the ear canal and is safe for daily use to prevent infections as well.

Preventing Ear Mites & Infections

Checking and cleaning (if necessary) your cat’s ears regularly are the best ways to prevent mites and yeast overgrowth. However, most cats’ ears stay naturally clean, so don’t intervene unless they appear dirty. An excellent and easy-to-use cleaner is Vetnique Labs Oticbliss Ear Cleaner, which comes in easy-to-use wipes or an ear flush solution.

Ear mites can cause great discomfort and serious health problems for your fur baby. If you’re not sure what’s going on with your kitty’s ears, especially if she’s never had mites or an ear infection before, it’s best to consult your vet. If you do decide to first try home treatment, contact your vet if the problem hasn’t improved within two weeks or as soon as possible if it worsens.

Frequently Asked Questions

There are still plenty of questions to ask about cats and ear mites. I cover a few of the top ones below, but if I missed yours, let me know in the comments.

How do indoor cats get ear mites?

Indoor cats are less likely to get mites, but they can pick them up from direct contact with an infected cat or from the bedding and toys of an infected animal. If your cat goes outside, they can interact with infected feral cats and wildlife. Mites are highly contagious and can also infect dogs. If one cat in your home has ear mites, it’s very likely that your other cats will as well.

Should I clean my cat’s ears if they have ear mites?

Yes, you will need to clean your cat’s ears if they have mites. Your vet will likely drain and cleanse the ear canal and administer medication, but you must continue cleaning at home. You can use an over-the-counter feline ear-cleaning solution, olive oil, or coconut oil. Place a few drops in the ear canal and gently massage the ear. Wipe away any excess. You may want to warm the cleaning oil first. Following that, apply the medication from your vet or an over-the-counter ear miticide.

Can humans get ear mites from cats?

It is very rare for a person to pick up ear mites from an infected cat, but it can happen. That said, you do not want them on your bedding or furniture or infecting other pets. It’s best to isolate your cat from other pets until it is no longer contagious.

Does pet insurance cover ear mites?

Yes, ear mites in cats are generally eligible for coverage by pet insurance as long as signs and symptoms are not pre-existing or occur during the waiting period. Learn more about insuring your cat and find the best pet insurance for your cat.

Helping Your Cat Stay Clean And Healthy

While cats clean themselves fairly obsessively, they still need our help. We owners must help clean those areas they cannot reach. Along with brushing, regular nail clipping or grinding, bathing, and teeth brushing help keep them healthy and looking their best.

Why Trust Love Your Cat?

Sally has over 20 years of experience in human health sciences communications, including 10 years as an expert on pet health conditions and treatment. She’s also spent years researching countless pet supplements, food, treats, and more as part of an expert team at Love Your Cat. As dedicated feline professionals and long-time cat owners, we test and research the best pet products, not only for our own kitties but for our readers.

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