Cat Ear Mites vs. Ear Wax: How to Tell the Difference

Updated March 31, 2022
Reviewed by Saleema Lookman, RVT
Saleema Lookman, RVT Saleema Lookman, RVT

Saleema is a Registered Veterinary Technician with more than 10 years of clinical experience working with pets. Her special interests include feline medicine, small animal care, emergency and critical care, and oncology.

cat's ears getting inspected

Owning a cat means taking care of their grooming needs, including proper ear care. Unfortunately, parasites like ear mites can make their home in your cat's ears. Learn how to tell the difference between cat mites and ear wax so you can make sure your cats are clean, healthy, and comfortable.

What Are Cat Ear Mites?

Ear mites are tiny arthropods that infest your cat's ear canal. They feed on your pet's ear wax, skin cells, and oils, and are very common in cats, particularly kittens and cats with compromised immune systems. They are also highly contagious to other cats as well as dogs.

Symptoms of Cats Ear Mites

Ear mites can only be seen under a microscope, so it's unlikely that you will actually see them in your cat's ear. Instead, look for the following symptoms and take your cat for a veterinary visit to see if they are suffering from ear mites:

  • Your cat is constantly shaking and scratching their head.
  • The inside of the ears are red and irritated.
  • Skin outside and around the ears may be inflamed.
  • There is a wax buildup in the ears that has a dark black or brown color.
  • The wax will have a noticeably unpleasant odor.
  • There may be a dark discharge inside and coming out of the ears.
  • Your cat may seem disoriented.
  • Your cat will have a tilted head and flattened ears.

The video below shows what ear mites look like in a cat's ears.

What Is Cat Ear Wax?

Most cats do not naturally develop large amounts of wax in their ears, although it can happen. Often when you do see a dark and smelly wax buildup, it indicates another condition, such as a yeast or bacterial infection, ear mites, or other irritations like grass awns in the ear. If your cat's ears look healthy with pale pink skin and some light brown wax, this is likely normal.

How to Tell the Difference Between Ear Mites and Ear Wax in Cats

A small amount of ear wax itself is normal in a cat, but if you see any of the above symptoms, such as head shaking and scratching, your cat may have ear mites.

  • Wax in both normal cats and cats infected with mites is brown.
  • The normal type of wax is a lighter brown color and does not give off an odor.
  • The wax in a cat with ear mites is darker brown or black and is described as looking like coffee grounds. It also will smell bad.
  • The reason the mite wax is darker is that it's mixed in with dried blood and skin from the damage the mites are doing to your cat's ears.
  • If you see wax and the ears are also inflamed, this likely means mites. Wax in a pink or pale pink ear is probably not indicative of mites.

Keeping Your Cat's Ears Healthy

It's important to check your cat's ears regularly for signs of a problem. If you see any of the symptoms of ear mites or are concerned with possibly normal wax, it's time to take your cat for a visit with your veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment. You can also try some simple home remedies for cats' ear mites under your vet's guidance. Don't delay in seeking help, because if left untreated, ear mites can lead to permanent damage to your cat's ear and even deafness.

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Cat Ear Mites vs. Ear Wax: How to Tell the Difference