Does My Cat Have Ear Wax or Ear Mites?

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  • You’ve noticed a strange substance in your cat’s ears. However, you’re not sure what it is. What usually comes to mind is ear wax, which cats can have. But cats can also have ear mites. Which is it? Luckily, there are ways to tell.

    What are ear mites? 

    The most common species of ear mites is Otodectes cynotisEar mites are mites that nest in the ears of humans and animals. This species is responsible for 50-80 percent of ear mite infections in felines.

    Ear mites in cats

    Ear mites are a small, brown or black species with eight legs. They are considered a parasite. The species is highly contagious with direct contact. It’s nearly invisible to the common eye, which is why it can be hard to catch.

    Unfortunately, in approximately three weeks, ear mites develop from an egg to an adult. The adults live for about two months, and they reduce constantly.

    How can I check for ear mites?

    Ear mites don’t sound pleasant for you or your cats. They reproduce easily, so you want to catch the infection quickly. The following are the clinical signs of ear mites:

    Odor

    You may notice this sign before anything else because your cat is constantly around you. Ear mites can produce a strong, unpleasant smell. Obviously, you will try to find out where it’s coming from. If the scent originates around the ears, this can be a sign of ear mites.

    Secretion

    Another visible sign of ear mites is a brown or black waxy secretion from the ears. Mites stimulate the wax-producing glands in the ear canal. The result is a crusty build-up that may resemble coffee grounds. This is comprised of blood, wax, debris, and mites.

    Inflammation

    Bugs in your cat’s ears are not a pleasant experience. The mites breed and reproduce; the ears will become inflamed and irritated. The inside of your cat’s ears may be swollen or red.

    Itching or scratching

    The ear will be irritated from the presence of the bugs, which results to head shaking or scratching at the ears. The cat will do this to eliminate the bugs or secretions in their ears.

    Crusted rash

    One of the more prominent signs is a crusted rash around or in the ear. A rash is never a healthy sign in an animal, which would prompt a response from you. The crusted rash is due to irritation. Additionally, skin lesions may occasionally occur in other parts of the body.

    Hair loss

    A crusted rash and itching cause hair loss around the ear. This can also result from excessive grooming from the irritation of the ear mites.

    What does ear mite debris look like?

    Cat ear mites

    Ear mite debris resembles coffee grounds. They feed on skin debris, which can create a secondary infection too. The discharge can be thick enough to block the ear canal. If the discharge is viewed under a microscope, tiny white specks might be moving around. Those are living ear mites.

    How does my cat get ear mites?

    As mentioned above, ear mites are highly contagious. They are passed from animal to animal quickly. The contagion mostly takes place through social interaction. Cats sleep in piles, groom each other, and play together. If one cat has ear mites, you should check or treat all of them in the home. It can take up to three weeks for adult ear mites to emerge if eggs are laid in the ear.

    What should cat ear wax look like?

    Yes, your cats do have earwax. In all species, ear wax protects the ear canal from irritants and bacteria. It’s normal for your cat to have small amounts of wax. However, if there is a large amount, there could be a problem. Abnormal ear wax is usually a brown or black color.

    What causes abnormal cat ear wax?

    The cat’s ear has three areas: the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. The outer ear comprises the pinna, external ear flap, and ear canal. The middle ear has the eardrum and the auditory bones. The inner ear contains the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure that passes vibrations into the brain.

    • Allergies: Allergies aren’t something that’s not fun to experience. It can cause redness and itchiness in the ears. It’s hard to track the exact allergen without knowing about the cat’s environment and history. If you believe your cat has allergies, you can seek vet care. The vet will perform testing to identify which environmental allergies your cat may have. They can then prescribe allergy shots to help reduce the reaction. 
    • Bacterial infection: When the skin lining in the ear canal is irritated, it can lead to inflammation. This increases ear wax production. The cycle is not fun, as wax production creates an ideal environment for bacteria. Cats can get ear infections just like humans have.
    • Systemic inflammation: Inflammation of the cartilage in the ear is called auricular chondritis. If your cat has this, they may experience pain, swelling, and redness. It usually experiences both ears simultaneously, but it also has other signs in the joints, eyes, and heart. If your cat isn’t in pain, treatment may not be necessary, but pain medication can be prescribed if needed.
    • Ear mites: What can be frustrating is it’s hard to discern between ear mite wax and other causes. Ear mites can cause abnormal ear wax and additional signs such as itching or swelling.
    • Yeast infection: Yeast infections are not as common an issue in cats but still can happen. A yeast infection occurs when the bacteria balance is out of whack inside the ear. Bad bacteria grows out of control, which outnumbers good bacteria. This increases ear wax production.

    How to get wax out of a cat’s ears?

    How to clean a cat's ears

    The best method is to use ear cleaner. You can purchase ear cleaner online or at your local pet store. Ear cleaners that contain alcohol or hydrogen peroxide can irritate, so you should avoid these.  Using a cotton ball or gauze, you will apply the cat ear cleaner.  Please don’t use a Q-tip as it can tear the eardrum. You will wipe away the wax from the ear.

    Don’t use human products on a cat’s ears as it can cause permanent damage.

    It would be ideal to have two people to make this process easier. One would hold the cat still. The other would apply the cleaner. If your cat’s ears aren’t handled often, they may resist.

    How can I tell the difference between ear wax and ear mites?

    You can tell the difference between ear wax and ear mites through inflammation. Regular ear wax is not brown or black. Abnormal ear wax from ear mites or other issues is black or brown. Ear mites contain additional symptoms such as crusted scabs or inflammation.

    What happens if I don’t treat ear mites?

    Untreated ear mites cause severe itching, bacterial infections, ear canal swelling, and hearing loss.

    Can an indoor cat get ear mites? How?

    Outdoor cats are more likely to get ear mites due to their environment. However, ear mites can infect indoor cats. Indoor cats can catch ear mites from outside exposure or contagion from other cats.

    Author

    • Elizabeth is an animal lover who is owned by three cats: Vivan, Burr, and Puck. Her passion for writing started in the 9th grade when she began writing her novel. She hasn't stopped since.