Dirty Cat Ears vs. Ear Mites: How To Tell the Difference

If you own a cat, it’s easy to mistake dirty cat ears vs. ear mites. It is not surprising as the symptoms look similar and can cause itching and irritation in your pet’s ears.

So it’s best to know which condition your cat is experiencing to provide the proper care. This article will discuss ear mites vs. ear wax in cats.

Table of Contents

What Are Cat Ear Mites?

Close-up of ear mites

Close-up of ear mites

Ear mites are microscopic parasites that live in the ears of cats. The most common species of cat ear mite is Otodectes cynotis, which is responsible for 90% of ear mite infections in felines.

Ear mites are more common in kittens than adult cats and are more vulnerable to this infection. Kittens have thinner ear canals, which makes it easier for the mites to burrow deeper into the skin.

Signs & Symptoms of Cat Ear Mites

Signs that indicate your cat may have ear mites include:

  • Scratching ears
  • Head shaking
  • Ear rubbing
  • Red ears
  • Swelled ears
  • Brownish discharge from their ears
  • Foul odor from their ears

It’s important to know that ear mites are contagious and can be easily passed from cat to cat. Your cat may lose all or part of their hearing from this condition from all the scratching and the damage it does to its eardrums.

You should contact your vet if you suspect your cat may have ear mites.

How to Treat Ear Mites

Veterinarian dropping medication in cats ears

Veterinarian dropping medication in cats ears

If you notice any ear mites in your cat, you should take it to your vet. Your vet will then examine your cat and suggest the best treatment possible. The treatment they prescribe varies from case to case and how severe the infection is, but they will typically prescribe an oral or topical medication.

What Is Cat Ear Wax?

Cat ear wax is just a mixture of shed skin cells and oil secreted by your cat’s ear glands. Ear wax is a natural secretion that is not harmful to your cat. The purpose of cat ear wax is to clean and lubricate your cat’s ears.

Ear wax will have a brown or yellow color with a clumpy texture. These clumps are not harmful to your cat, but if you notice an abnormal amount of wax build-up in your ears, it might be time to get worried. It might indicate underlying issues like ear mites, allergies, or infection. If that’s the case, it’s best to take your pet to the vet immediately.

Dirty Cat Ears vs. Ear Mites: What Is the Difference?

Close-up of cats ears

Close-up of cats ears

Below are some quick and easy ways to differentiate between dirty cat ears and ear mites.


Healthy ear wax is yellowish or light brown. However, a cat with mites usually has dark brown or black wax. You might also notice some blood and bits of skin in the discharge.


A foul odor from your cat’s ears is a big indicator of ear mites or other allergies. Ear wax will have a normal to mild odor.


Ear mites can cause significant irritation and inflammation in your cats’ ears. If it is only a case of wax build-up, then you shouldn’t see any inflammation.


As mites feed on the wax in your cat’s ears, your cat produces more and more of it. If you begin to see any discharge, that’s a clear indicator of ear mites. 

Other Causes of Ear Discharge in Cats


Aside from ear mites, allergies are also a common cause of ear discharge in cats. Your cat may be allergic to food, bugs, or anything else.

If you notice any of the symptoms above, it might not be a case of ear mites alone. You should see your vet if you notice other symptoms, such as sneezing, watery eyes, or diarrhea.

Ear Infections Caused by Bacterial and Yeast

Ear infections are common in cats caused by various factors. Bacterial infection is the most common cause of ear discharge in cats. Examples of infection-causing bacteria include Streptococcus, E Coli, and Staphylococcus.

Yeast infection is another cause of ear problems. It may also cause a cat’s ears to produce a discharge. Several types of yeast can cause an infection in your cat’s ear, causing problems.

C yeast and bacterial infections usually require antibiotic treatment and antifungal medications to treat the problem completely.

How To Keep Your Cat’s Ears Healthy?

Close-up of happy kitten

Close-up of happy kitten

Regular Inspections

You should inspect your cat’s ears regularly. You should do this every few days, especially if you notice any discharge, swelling, or irritation. 

Don’t Clean at Home

You should never clean your cat’s ears at home. It’s tempting because it looks like dirt or wax is building up there, but it could be a sign of an infection. Cleaning yourself will cause further damage, and taking your cat to a vet is more suitable. 


Dirty cat ears and ear mites are common issues affecting your feline friend. If you suspect your cat has ear mites or dirty ears, it’s best to see a vet for advice. 

Paying attention to your cat’s behavior and consulting with a qualified veterinarian can keep your cat happy and free from ear mites and other allergies.