Laura is an avid pet lover. She is an advocate for pet adoption and senior pets. She has multiple cats and a sweet old lady poodle mix.
Dr. Mark, U of Missouri Veterinary Medicine grad and 40+ years working with dogs, exotics and livestock
The ears of a cat are a prominent and distinctive feature, but sometimes they can have problems. If your cat has been scratching its ear a lot or you notice a discharge coming from the cat's ear, find out what it could be and how you can manage it. Some ear issues are manageable at home while others will require vet care.
What Are Cat Ear Mites?
Ear mites are very small insects that can live inside your cat's ear. According to Animal Planet, the mites feed on debris in the ear and blood. Mites can happen to indoor or outdoor cats, and they seem to be opportunistic feeders.
If you have multiple pets in your house and have an ear mite infection, all the animals will need to be treated. Just like fleas, mites can travel very easily from one pet to the next. Young kittens and senior cats are most prone to ear mites.
How Can I Tell If It's Ear Mites?
Since ear mites are one of the most common causes of cat ear infection and irritation, it's fairly likely your cat has ear mites. However, there are other kinds of ear infections, so it's best to make sure by checking with your veterinarian.
When afflicted with mites, a cat's ear itches severely. The ear may be bloody, red, and irritated because of your cat scratching it. If the mite infection is bad enough, the debris may spread to the outside of the ears as well.
One way to be sure that it is ear mites is to take a sample of the build-up in your cat's ear and view it under a microscope. You can get the sample on a tissue or a cotton ball and study the sample for movement. Any movement indicates mites. Some people can see movement with the naked eye.
To try this, get a very bright light (or bring your cat into bright sunlight) and watch the sample for any kind of movement. Even if you don't see movement, it could still be mites. Your safest bet is to run your cat by the vet's office and let them check your cat's ears and determine if it is ear mites.
How Can I Reduce Ear Mites?
The first step is to clean your cat's ears well. Many pet stores have over-the-counter ear cleaners. If you choose to use an over-the-counter product, follow the product instructions carefully.
Alternatively, you can put baby oil on a cotton ball and gently swab the ear. Be aware, however, that this method requires a 14-day treatment over a three-week period: you will need to clean the ear twice daily with baby oil for seven days, stop for seven days, and then clean twice daily again for 7 more days.
Remember to never enter the ear canal. The cat's ear may be very sensitive. If it is in a lot of pain, you may need another person to help hold the cat while you clean the ear. You can also wrap the cat up in a thick towel so that only its head is sticking out and then try to clean the ear.
You will then need to apply a miticide to the ear. Pet stores have cat ear mite treatments. These work but they may take up to a week or longer. There are prescription miticides available through your vet that can get rid of the mites in one dose.
The Best Way to Apply Ear Solution to Cats
Here is a simple way to get any kind of ear drops into a cat's ear
- Place the cat on your lap.
- If the cat is anxious or skittish, wrap it in a thick towel first.
- Apply the drops according to the package/bottle directions.
- Take your thumb and gently massage the base of the cat's ear.
- You should hear a "crackling" noise as the medicine is massaged into the ear canal.
- Allow your cat to shake its head but be prepared, the discharge may go everywhere, including on you.
Other Causes of Cat Ear Infections
If your cat's ear is irritated or has a discharge, it may have a bacterial or fungal infection.
Both of these can be caused by similar circumstances
- Something got lodged in the ear
- Moisture from rain or a bath
- Immune system weakened due to age or illness
There are natural, over-the-counter remedies you can try such as applying a couple of drops of olive oil or cleaning the ear out with baby oil. Cat's ears are very delicate, however, so having them treated by a vet is always the safest option. It is possible that the application of oils can be harmful if your cat has a ruptured eardrum, so be sure to have your cat's ears checked by a vet if you suspect this possibility.
Another great product that will often help to get rid of yeast infections and mild bacterial infections is Zymox Otic HC. I keep this product on hand and use it on my older cats when they get ear issues. This product has hydrocortisone and actually works to clean the discharge through enzymes. The product specifically states that you should not clean out the cat's ear before placing the drops in it.
If you have tried cleaning and resolving your cat's ears at home for more than two weeks, it is important to see a vet. Yeast and bacterial infections especially may need an antibiotic or a fungal treatment for proper care and removal of the issue.
What If the Cat Is Still Not Getting Better?
Cats can also have build-up and discharge in the ear because of polyps, cysts, and cancer. Many of the tumors in the cat's ears are benign, so it is important not to panic and think the worst if your cat is still having ear issues.
According to Dr. Jennifer Coates of PetMD, diagnosis of tumors within the ear can be tricky. It requires sedation of the cat in order to examine the space and determine if a tumor is indeed causing the issue. The cat will require surgery to remove the tumor.
- If your cat has ear discharge, it is most likely ear mites.
- There are over-the-counter remedies for ear mites.
- A mild bacterial or yeast infection may be treated with Zymox.
- If the cat does not get better, have a vet check it for other issues.
- Do not wait more than two weeks to clear up the ear infection.
- Very often, you can resolve your cat's ear discharge issues at home.
Cleaning Cat Ears
References and Further Reading
- 3 Ways to Check Cats for Ear Mites | wikiHow
Ear mites are parasites and, if ignored, they can result in a cat's ear becoming infected and inflamed. Serious cases can lead to hearing loss, eardrum rupture and even infestation to other parts of the body.
- Ear Mites: Tiny Critters that can Pose a Major Threat | Cornell University College of Veterinary Med
Ear problems in general are uncommon in cats, but among the afflictions that do occur, ear-mite infestation is frequently diagnosed.
- Ear Infections (Otitis Externa) in Cats
Causes, diagnosis, and treatment of ear infections in cats, including how to clean your cat's ears.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: I'm pretty sure my cat has ear mites. I used Zymox, but right after there was a lot of brown discharge. Why did that happen?
Answer: The discharge is helping to push out the mites, the waste and the wax build-up caused by your cat's ear reacting to the mites. There may also be scabs and blood if the ear was very irritated. I usually use a soft tissue and gently wipe the inside of the outer ear as the discharge is coming out. Remember to not poke anything inside the ear.
Question: What if the black discharge in my cat's ear is more on the outside of the ear, nose and coming out of their eyes?
Answer: Some cats will have discharge from their eyes due to allergies and other issues. It could be something like that. If it is coming out of all three areas I would definitely seek a vet's opinion.
Kathy M. on August 31, 2020:
All of this information is good.Thank You for taking the time to help the people to help the animals Kathy
FlourishAnyway from USA on May 22, 2013:
Very well written and researched hub. Voted up and useful!
L C David (author) from Florida on May 20, 2013:
Thanks Pamela-anne. One of my cats just went through treatments for ear issues so I wanted to share what I had learned. I appreciate you stopping by!
Pamela-anne from Miller Lake on May 20, 2013:
Good informative hub it was making me feel itchy just reading it but its good to know that there is treatments out there for our dear furry friends thanks for sharing voted up as useful info!