Dirty Cat Ears vs Ear Mites: How to Know the Difference?

Cats have the most delicate, upright and expressive ears. Because of their incredible grooming habits, most cat parents never encounter dirty cat ears. However, if you are a cat owner and your feline has noticeable wax buildup as well as irritation, you may be worried.

Ear mites are common in cats and can cause dirty, itchy cat ears that generally need to be checked by the vet. This article is all about the nitty-gritty of dirty cat ears vs ear mites, whether you need to regularly clean your cat’s ears, and how to know if your cat has ear mites.

What Are Cat Ear Mites

What Are Cat Ear Mites? 

Ear mites are microscopic parasites that live off your cat’s ear wax and dirt. They bite the skin inside your feline’s ear canal, causing irritation, itching and inflammation. They are not visible to the naked eye, so you can never really see them crawling around your feline’s ears; they are mostly detected by the symptoms they cause.

Ear mite infections are fairly common in cats and happen at least once in their lives. Kittens, senior cats and already sick cats are particularly prone due to their weakened immune systems. Since they can easily spread to other pets, ear mites are also very contagious.

The following are some symptoms that cats with ear mite infections present:

  • Excessively scratching its ear.
  • Shaking its head.
  • Tilting of the head.
  • Red and inflamed ear.
  • Black tiny crusts inside your cat’s ear.
  • The ear will look dirty with a bad odour.
  • Black colour discharge from the affected ear.

However, many of these symptoms overlap with other feline ear conditions. For example, shaking of the head could be due to an ear infection, polyps or a foreign body that your cat got stuck in its ear. It could also be due to dental disease, which has nothing to do with the ear. In any case, if your cat is visibly suffering, you will need to take it to the vet.

Check Out: Cat Keeps Shaking Head But Has No Mites

What is Cat Ear Wax?

What is Cat Ear Wax

Much like human ear wax, cat ear wax serves the same functions, i.e., lubrication of the ears and protection from infections. It is light brown, odourless and scanty in amount. Healthy felines don’t need to get their ear wax cleaned because they only produce the amounts they need. So, spotting a bit of crusting in your feline’s ears is normal and nothing to worry about.

That being said, if you notice your cat is producing copious amounts of wax or the wax has a rancid smell, it is most likely an ear mites infestation, and it is best to get your pet’s ear looked at by the vet. If left untreated, they may result in long-term hearing loss in your cat.

What is the Difference Between Cat Ear Wax vs Mites?

What is the Difference Between Cat Ear Wax vs Mites

So how can you tell if your cat has normal ear wax or a case of ear mites? Below are some differences that can help you distinguish between what is normal and what is not:


A lot of ear mite infestation signs are obvious. For example, a feline with healthy ears will have a little bit of light brown-coloured wax. A cat with ear mites will have darker wax in copious amounts, almost coffee coloured or black. This is because of blood and damaged skin mixed into the wax. As the mites feed on wax, your feline’s ears will produce more of it, going into a wax overdrive and producing a lot of dark, foul-smelling ear wax. You may also notice some blackish discharge.


Another thing about ear mites is that it makes your cat’s ear wax very foul-smelling. This is true of any ear infection in cats. Normal ear wax will hardly have any odour.

Inflammation and Itching

If you notice the inside (or outside) of your cat’s ears red and swollen, it probably has ear mites or an infection. Your cat will also be immensely irritated and will often paw at or scratch its ear. Typical cat ears are pale from the inside with no irritation or inflammation.

Also Read: Why My Cat Has Scabs on Its Neck But No Fleas?

Other Causes of Ear Discharge in Cats

Other Causes of Ear Discharge in Cats

There are other causes for unhealthy ears in felines, although ear mites are by far the most common cause. The second most common cause is allergies. When a substance enters the body, such as dust, mould, pollen or food they might be allergic to, the body perceives it as a threat and releases histamine as a response. This histamine response causes an increase in secretions throughout the body, including the ears, resulting in increased ear wax.

The other possibility is a bacterial or viral infection of the ear. Healthy cats rarely get ear infections. They are more common in cats with ear mites or other systemic diseases; since the immune system is compromised, it is much easier for infections to invade the ear. When they do get ear infections, it is generally serious and needs prompt treatment.

Find Out: How To Get Rid of Skin Tags on Cats?

How to Keep Your Cat’s Ears Healthy

How to Keep Your Cat's Ears Healthy

Cats are excellent self-groomers, so cleaning your feline’s ears will not be necessary. However, when it comes to ear mites, the first step is to treat the causative factor. Your vet will examine your cat, take a sample of hair or wax, and examine it under a microscope. If your vet sees mites, they will prescribe medications, which need to be administered as recommended.

You can keep an eye out for early signs of infection, redness, or ear wax buildup as a preventative measure, as it is easier to treat infections before they become severe. Never attempt to clean your feline’s ears at home because they are very delicate. If there is a need, do it according to your vet’s advice or get it done by a professional.

Frequently Asked Questions

It is completely normal and healthy for cats to have some amount of earwax protecting their delicate ears.

Due to their minuscule size, ear mites are invisible to the naked eye. However, the wax produced during an ear mite infestation does look like coffee grounds or dirt.

If it is scanty in amount, it could just be dirt or debris. However, if there is a lot of brown stuff along with itching and redness, the vet should examine your cat’s ears as your furry friend might have ear mites.

The Bottom Line on Dirty Cat Ears vs Ear Mites

Cats are great at grooming, so a healthy cat usually has clean ears. If your cat is having buildup, itching, and darker and foul-smelling wax, it probably has ear mites. Ear mites are tiny parasites that can only be detected by the signs mentioned and can only be spotted under a microscope. It is recommended to have your cat’s ears examined by a veterinarian if it is displaying these symptoms.

LearnAboutCat Author Isabella

Who is Isabella?

My name is Isabella, and I am a dedicated and knowledgeable cat enthusiast. With years of experience caring for cats and a deep love for felines, I made a mission to help other cat lovers navigate the challenges of cat ownership.

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