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Cat Ear Mites vs Wax: How to Tell the Difference

Our feline companions often exhibit remarkable self-sufficiency, but when it comes to their health, a little vigilance on our part can go a long way. One area of concern is dirty cat ears, which can sometimes harbor ear mites. These tiny parasites, known as otodectes cynotis, can cause severe ear irritation and pain. Read on to learn the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for cat ear mites.

Earlier this summer, I noticed my cat, Cyndi– short for Cyndi Laupurr, pawing and scratching at her ears quite a bit. Her actions were unexpected and unusual. Along with the excessive scratching at her often flattened ears, she was also howling in discomfort. Something seemed to be terribly wrong. As a new cat parent, I couldn’t help but wonder if her ears may have been bothering her because they needed to be cleaned out due to excessive ear wax or if something more nefarious was occurring under the surface entirely.

Imagine my surprise when I grabbed a flashlight to take a closer look. I immediately noticed a strange murky ear discharge, crusted and matted around her ears. This dark substance made it easier to see the culprits of poor Cyndi’s pain. Sprinkled amongst the discharge and the fur around her ears were specks of teeny, tiny white critters known as (dun, dun, dun) ear mites… yuck! Ear mites or Otodectes cynotis are pesky little creatures that live in a cat's ear canal and are common occurrences in many cats’ lives but can wreak havoc in their lives if not treated properly. Just like cat flea bites, ear mites can cause a lot of irritation and itching. What did I do once I realized my beloved Cyndi had ear mites, you ask? I took her to the vet, of course! From there, they diagnosed the severity of the ear problem and prescribed the right ear mite treatment and prevention for her. 

Recognizing the Signs ofCat Ear Mites

Dirty ears are a common sight in cats, and often, concerned cat owners wonder if the debris they see is simply ear wax or indicative of a more serious issue like ear mites. Are you suspicious your cat may have ear mites and want to know how you can help them overcome this irritating problem? Keeping a close eye on your cat’s behavior and appearance can help you detect early signs of ear mite infestation. Here are some signs of ear mites in cats.

A dark, murky discharge is oozing out of their ears

Cats afflicted by ear mite infestation will very often have a murky, dark discharge like black ear wax coating the inside of their ear canals that can make their way outside of the canals and become visible to the naked eye. Keep in mind that both cats that do and don’t have ear mites have brown-colored ear wax. So how can you tell the difference? Cats that aren’t suffering an ear mite infection have a lighter brown earwax color that does not smell. The darkly colored earwax caused by an ear mite infection will often have ear discharge resembling coffee grounds. Because this discharge is a by-product of parasitic waste and secondary infection triggered by said parasites, it will also give off a foul smell.

They’re flattening and pawing at their ears

More often than not, when a cat flattens their ears, it’s a sign that they are either angry or scared. However, a cat suffering from an ear mite infection will flatten their ears back to its head to relieve some of the ear mite irritation they’re experiencing. They may also start pawing at their ears, rolling around on your floor, and rubbing their itchy ears against your carpet to relieve the itching and irritation they’re feeling.

Scratching and shaking are more and more common

Because of so much itching and irritation, your cat may become disoriented and use its nails to scratch at its ears as another attempt to relieve its discomfort. Be wary of the excessive scratching because it very well could damage and traumatize the exterior of their ear flaps with their claws. It may be beneficial to trim your cat's nails to prevent scratches from itching. They may also shake their head a lot more as another sign of discomfort.

They’re showing signs of discomfort

Beyond their frequent head shaking and ear scratching, a very common sign of discomfort is audible. Ear mites can lead to inflammation and redness in the outer ear or ear flap. Cats usually have high pain tolerances and may not be vocal about when they’re experiencing pain or discomfort, but cats experiencing the discomfort of ear mite infection will very often howl and loudly meow in pain. If you're wondering why your cat is meowing non-stop, ear mites may be the culprit.

You can visibly see the mites in their fur

Often, in cat ear mite infections, the ear mites can be visible if you look closely at their fur. Ear mites are tiny, white, parasitic creatures that can be visible if you closely examine your cat’s fur with a flashlight and/or magnifying glass. Some cats may not let you get close enough to their ears to check them properly. This is why a trip to the vet is beyond essential when you first notice signs of a possible ear mite infection.


Without ear mite treatment, ear mites will not, I repeat, not go away. Since they are also incredibly contagious, they will spread like wildfire. Take your cat to the vet when you first notice an ear mite infection. Their vet will determine the severity of the infection and prescribe ear medications and treatment to combat the ear mites causing your cat pain. Their vet will use an otoscope to inspect their ear canals safely and check if it’s safe to use an ear-cleaning solution or drops in their ears. Depending on the severity of the infection, it may not be safe to use ear drops in the ear as medication. A cat with a burst eardrum who gets drops put in its ear can develop permanent deafness. Ear mite infections, if not treated properly, can lead to other ear problems in your cat, such as ear infections or ear disease. It can cause a secondary ear infection like a bacterial infection, otitis externa, or a yeast infection that may recur.

Ear mites are annoyingly bothersome pests that spread rapidly to other parts of your cat's body and beyond. Humans are not affected by ear mites; however, dogs, rabbits, ferrets, and other furry pets can become afflicted by these irritating little pests.

To prevent ear mites, follow your vet’s recommendations and treatments because failure to do so and lack of adherence to caution may lead to resurges and re-infections of ear mites and bacterial infections. A good-quality routine ear cleaning regimen may be beneficial for your cat. Ear mites can become a vicious cycle if not appropriately handled.

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