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

Earwax is entirely normal. Ear mites, on the other hand—not so much. If your cat has ear mites, they often require veterinary care. While ear mites aren’t often serious, they can cause long-term effects if they aren’t dealt with promptly.

Sometimes, it is difficult to tell the difference between ear mites and earwax when it comes to your feline. Luckily, there are a few differences between these two substances. There is no reason to take your cat to the vet for earwax, but ear mites are different.

In this article, we’ll help you tell the differences between these two issues. You don’t want to take your cat to the vet unnecessarily, but you don’t want to ignore health problems either.

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Overview of Cat Ear Mites

kitten with ear mites
Image Credit: Todorean-Gabriel, Shutterstock

Ear mites are tiny bugs that live in an animal’s ear canal, including cats. They are widespread in sick cats, kittens, and those with compromised immune systems. However, ear mites don’t always occur because of an underlying problem.

Sometimes, the only problem is the ear mites. Ear mites can jump from dogs to cats. However, they are not very common in people.


The naked eye can’t see ear mites. They are so small that only a microscope can pick them up. Therefore, you won’t see them just by looking into your cat’s ear. However, you can pay attention to your cat’s other symptoms to determine if your cat has ear mites.

Here are some of the most common ear mite symptoms:

  • Constant head shaking
  • Irritated ear canal
  • Skin around the ear is inflamed
  • Buildup of earwax
  • Unpleasant odor from the ear
  • Disoriented movements
  • Dark discharge
  • Tilted head

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Overview of Earwax

cat ear being cleaned of wax
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Cats do not usually have a lot of earwax in their ears. If a cat has a lot of earwax, it may indicate a sign of an underlying problem. This is especially true if the earwax is dark or smelly. Yeast and fungal infections will cause an increase in earwax, for instance.

Normal ear appearance includes a minimal amount of earwax and pale pink skin. If the earwax is numerous or dark and smelly, it is a sign of an underlying problem. It is essential to note that earwax and ear mites are not necessarily exclusive. Increased earwax is a sign of ear mites. Therefore, if your cat has a lot of earwax, it may have ear mites.

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How to Tell the Difference

Earwax is quite regular. However, too much earwax can be a bad thing. It is typically a sign of an underlying problem, which may include ear mites. Therefore, it isn’t typically a matter of telling the difference between these two substances. Instead, you’re trying to determine whether your cat’s earwax is a sign of ear mites or not.

Cats with ear mites will usually have darker earwax. However, this can be difficult to figure out if you’ve never paid much attention to your cat’s earwax before. What exactly darker means can be confusing. Odor is also a clear sign of infection or ear mites. Cats without infections or ear mites will not have any odor coming from their ear. However, those with ear mites usually will.

Other infections cause an odor too, so this isn’t just a sign of ear mites. You will need veterinary attention to determine precisely what is wrong with your cat’s ear, but ear odor does indicate that something is wrong.

Infected cat earwax will look similar to coffee grounds. It may smell bad and be a blackish color. The earwax is darker because it is mixed with skin and blood from the damage caused by ear mites. When left alone, this blood and skin start to decay, which smells bad. Therefore, earwax may not be the first sign of ear mites.

Usually, the ear mites lead to damage after they’ve been there for a while. Itchiness and similar symptoms will appear sooner. Inflamed skin around the earwax typically means mites. However, that doesn’t necessarily indicate ear mites with certainty. Other infections are possible.

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Treating Ear Mites

Cat Vet
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If you notice any signs that your feline may have ear mites, you should seek veterinary attention. Your vet can get a swab sample of your cat’s ears and look at it under a microscope, which will help them determine the underlying problem.

Infections often require antibiotics. However, this medication is not helpful for ear mites or fungal infections. Therefore, they need to determine the correct cause. Otherwise, the treatment could be ineffective. For ear mites, an anti-parasitic formulation will be administered. This formula is straightforward to administer at the vet’s office and quickly gets rid of these bugs.

Sometimes, a home remedy is used to soothe and heal infections. Cats may pick at their ears a little too much. This can cause scratches, which can then become infected. Therefore, it is vital to keep their ears feeling less itchy while they are healing. Otherwise, they could be denigrated, thanks to secondary infections.

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Other Types of Mites

There are other types of mites your cat may get as well. These produce slightly different symptoms, though they are often treated the same. Anti-parasitic medications usually work on all parasites. Burrowing mites are one of the more severe variants. They burrow into your cat’s ear, eating away at the top surface of the skin. This causes severe hair loss and requires treatment right away.

Your vet can treat these mites, but it requires a thorough examination. The treatment is complex, but luckily, prescription medication is very effective.

These mites are very contagious. They can easily spread to other pets and family members. Because of this, it is essential to seek veterinary care right away. Otherwise, you may end up with a whole family infected with burrowing mites.

Burrowing mites can be very dangerous for your cat in the long run. They physically damage your pet’s ear very quickly. Therefore, we do not recommend letting them stick around for long.

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Ear mites and earwax often come hand-in-hand. Ear mites will cause an increase and change in your cat’s earwax due to the blood and skin issues caused by the ear mites. Typically, a cat with an infection or ear mites will have darker, smellier earwax. They may look a bit like coffee grounds.

Therefore, you shouldn’t necessarily be trying to tell the difference between ear mites and earwax. You cannot see ear mites with the bare eye, but you will be able to see a difference in the earwax itself.

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