Hygiene

Dirty Cat Ears vs Ear Mites: How To Spot The Difference

Ear mites are a common and highly contagious guest for cats. If your feline is plagued with this unwanted visitor, seek medical attention immediately.

Tara Maurer holding cat smiling

Last Updated: January 9, 2023 | 5 min read

Cleaning a cat

As pet parents, it’s our responsibility to care for our cats, from feedings and playtime to veterinary visits and grooming. While it’s essential when grooming to focus on brushing, nail trimming, and dental care, it’s also wise to check your cat’s ears regularly for dirt and debris.

While the debris in your kitty’s ear may be harmless, it could also signify an unwanted visitor: ear mites. Read for more details on ear mites, including how to diagnose and treat them.

Cat Ears

Because cats are natural hunters, their sense of hearing is highly sensitive. A cat can distinguish between two similar sounds from impressive distances and can hear two octaves high than us.

The cat’s pinna, the external part of the ear, is shaped like a cone. It collects sound waves like a funnel, drawing them into the ear. Cats can rotate their ears in a wide arc, allowing them to pinpoint the source of a sound better. Your cat’s ears can rotate 180 degrees. One ear can rotate independently of the other.

Your cat’s ears indicate their mood. Flattened ears reflect stress, irritation, or submission. Forward ears show alertness. An anxious can may twitch their ears. Pay attention to these subtle ear changes to recognize mood disturbances and keep your kitty happy.

Dirty Ears

As part of the grooming process, it’s important to check your cat’s ears and clean them if needed. Because of its funnel shape, your cat’s ear may collect dust or other debris easily.

Your cat’s ears should appear clear with pale skin and some light brown wax. Ear wax protects the ear by trapping and preventing dust, bacteria, and other small particles from entering and damaging the ear. A small amount of ear wax is normal in a cat, but too much wax may indicate another condition, including infections, ear mites, allergies, or other irritations.

How To Clean Dirty Ears

Depending on your cat’s tendency to collect debris or build up ear wax, you may need to clean the inside of your cat’s ear regularly. Use a quality ear cleaner when treating your cat’s ears. Avoid cleaners with alcohol or hydrogen peroxide that can cause irritation within the ear canal.

Buy a cleaner that is specific to your needs. Certain cleaners excel at removing wax build-up. Consult your veterinarian to decide which solution is best for your pet. You will also need cotton balls or gauze to remove the dirt without causing trauma to the ear.

  1. Sit in a comfortable position and hold your cat. You may need to swaddle your cat in a towel if they resist.
  2. Gently pull back your cat’s ear flap to expose and straighten the ear canal.
  3. Squeeze some ear-cleaning solution onto the inside of the flap, filling the ear canal. Avoid touching the tip of the bottle to your cat’s ear. If it comes in contact with the ear, disinfect the tip with alcohol to prevent the spread of bacteria or fungus.
  4. While still holding the ear flap with one hand, massage the base of the ear below the opening for about 30 seconds. This will give the solution time to break up any debris in the ear.
  5. Continue to hold the ear flap while you wipe away debris from the inner ear flap using a cotton ball or gauze. Never use a cotton swab to remove the solution from the ear. Doing this can cause damage and push debris further into the ear canal.
  6. Allow your feline to shake their head, freeing any remaining solution and particles from the ear.
  7. Gently hold the ear flap again and clean the outer opening of the ear using gauze or a cotton ball.

During this process, make sure to reward your cat with treats and praise.

What Are Ear Mites?

Ear mites are a parasite that can cause significant damage to your cat unless adequately treated. About the size of a pinhead, ear mites can move rapidly across their host’s body and are highly contagious.

Despite their name, ear mites can find their way onto any part of your feline. A cat can easily groom these parasites away with their tongue, but the parasite is safe once it makes it to your kitty’s ears, where a cat’s paw and tongue cannot reach.

Because this parasite feeds off skin tissue, an ear mite infestation can severely irritate your cat’s ears and cause infection. Left untreated, ear mites can cause severe problems in the ear canal.

What Causes Ear Mites?

Ear mites are highly contagious and easily spread from one pet to the next. If your cat spends time outdoors or in boarding, they are more likely to be infected. Ear mites can spread between different species of animals and can be passed through contaminated surfaces such as bedding or grooming tables.

How To Spot Ear Mites

The most common sign of ear mites is a cat’s constant scratching and head shaking. When examing your feline’s ears, check for dark, crumbly brown debris resembling coffee grinds. The debris in the ear is digested material and wax, a result of the parasite infestation. Other common signs of ear mites include:

  • Inflammed skin around the ear
  • Hair loss due to excessive scratching
  • Buildup of earwax
  • Dark discharge or pussing
  • Angling head
  • Flattening or pawing ears
  • Foul odor coming from the ear

Your cat’s ears should look clean inside. If you see signs of infection, sores, or ear mites, contact your veterinarian.

Treatment For Ear Mites In Cats

Once diagnosed with ear mites, your veterinarian will carefully clean your pet’s ears and prescribe an anti-parasitic medication. This is available in both oral and topical forms. Follow the instructions concerning treatment length. Ear mites have a three-week life cycle, and if treatment is stopped early, the infestation may reappear.

During treatment, keep your kitty’s nails trimmed, especially on the hind feet, to reduce scratch-related damage to the ear. Keep other pets away from the infected cat. Your vet may also prescribe medication for your other household pets to keep spreading at bay.

How To Appy Medication

If your cat is prescribed a topical medication to treat ear mites, follow this step-by-step guide for application. Your vet should also provide information on how the medication is applied.

  1. Gently grasp the tip of the cat ear flap, pulling back slightly to straighten the ear.
  2. Administer the number of drops prescribed by your veterinarian. Avoid touching the tip of the bottle to the cat’s ear.
  3. While holding the ear flap, massage your cat’s ear for about 30 seconds. This will help the medication coat the ear canal.
  4. If an ointment or cream is prescribed, place the prescribed medication onto the inside ear flap. Using a gloved hand, spread the medication around the ear.
  5. Repeat this process in the other ear.

How To Prevent Ear Mites

You should regularly clean your cat’s ears to prevent the buildup of dirt, wax, and other debris. Schedule checkups with your veterinarian to ensure you keep your home clear from ear mites. You should also clean your cat’s bedding or other popular locations to reduce the risk of infection from occurring.

Before cleaning your pet’s ears, check for ear mites. If your cat’s ears are healthy but have dirt or wax in them, use a cotton ball and ear-cleaning solution to wipe the inside of the ear. Never use a cotton swap because you could injure the eardrum.

Final Thoughts

Check your cat’s ears often for signs of ear mites. If a blackish-brown gritty substance is visible in your feline’s ear, it is a strong indication that your cat is infected. Your cat will require medical assistance to eliminate the parasite.

Extermination of ear mites takes around three weeks. If you are unsure if your cat has ear mites, it is always best to consult with your vet.

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