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

We'll tell you 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: March 30, 2023 | 4 min read

A person wiping a cat's ears with a wipe

Although felines are self-grooming pros, they still require our occasional assistance. 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.

Caring for a cat includes preventing fur from matting, brushing teeth every day (ideally), keeping claws trimmed, and checking ears regularly to make sure they look healthy. 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 with felines.

What should your cat’s inner ears look like? What if there’s a bunch of dark-colored or black gunk in them? We’ll help you know 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?

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. 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.

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. And 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, which leads to the accumulation of thick, dark, and often foul-smelling wax as well as debris that gets trapped in the wax.

What Are Ear Mites?

The ear mite (Otodectes cynotis) is a tiny crawling parasite, related to arachnids, that usually resides in the ear canal of cats, dogs, rabbits, ferrets, and foxes (cats are the most common host of choice), but it 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

  • Excessive ear scratching 
  • 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 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 of mites. Untreated ear mites and subsequent infections can cause permanent ear damage and hearing loss.

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 by the naked eye. However, keep in mind, where ear mites are present so too is 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 little 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

We strongly urge you to see your vet for suspected mites or an ear infection to get a proper diagnosis and treatment. (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

For ear mites, vets usually recommend a single-use prescription product, like Revolution, to kill the 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. But 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. See step-by-step tips on how to clean your cat’s ears. 

Final Thoughts

Ear mites can cause your fur baby a great deal of discomfort in addition to serious health problems. 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.

Portrait of charming curious cat Scottish Straight standing with raised paw isolated on white background

Author's Suggestion

Cat Fakes Limp For Sympathy

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top