Person checking cat's ear
Have you ever watched your cat’s ears twitch when he hears something interesting? Of course you have. It’s fascinating to see how felines can angle their ears in the direction from which a particular sound is coming and even move each ear independently of the other. They can do that because each ear has 32 muscles that enable the cat’s directional hearing.

To keep those mobile ears in tip-top condition, it’s a good practice to examine them at home on a regular basis for signs of infection or mite infestation. Here’s what you should know about keeping your cat’s ears healthy.

Ear Appearance and Odor

The inside of a healthy feline ear is a pretty, pale pink. It may have a light coating of wax, but you shouldn’t see areas that look dirty, inflamed or crusty. The outer ear, covered in fur, shouldn’t have bare areas.

Now get your nose down there and give them a good sniff. They shouldn’t have an unpleasant odor. If you start doing this when your cat is young, you’ll know what normal smells like. If the odor changes, it’s a sign that a problem may be developing.

Give your cat’s ears this simple look-see (and smell) weekly. That will help you catch problems early, before they become serious.

Cleaning the Ears

You don’t need to clean the ears if they look normal. A cat’s ears have an amazing ability to clean themselves. If you clean them too often, especially if they don’t need it, it can damage the ears’ health.

If the ears have a mild odor or look a little dirty, moisten a cotton ball with a mild cleaning solution recommended by your veterinarian and wipe them out. (Never use alcohol, which stings like crazy and can dry out delicate ear tissue.) Be sure you don’t go any deeper into the ear than your first knuckle.

Tip: Don’t clean your cat’s ears with a cotton-tipped swab. That just drives dirt and wax deeper into the ear, where it can cause problems or make existing issues worse.

When to See the Veterinarian

Be concerned if you notice any of the following signs or behaviors:

  • A bad smell
  • Redness
  • Dry, dark, crumbly material in the ears
  • Frequent shaking of the head
  • Rubbing the ears against the carpet or other surfaces
  • Scratching at the ears
  • Head tilting
  • Excessive yawning
  • Discomfort when you rub the ears
Schedule a visit with the veterinarian right away if you see any of these signs. They may signal a bacterial or yeast infection, ear mites or a bite-wound abscess. If your cat has abrasions and scabs from scratching just in front of the ears, he may have food or environmental allergies that are causing his ears to itch.

Depending on the problem, your cat may need a thorough ear cleaning and a course of antibiotics or other medication. You should use ear cleaners and medications only as directed by your veterinarian.

Treating a Problem Ear

Ask your veterinarian to show you how to clean and treat your cat’s ears. If you need a refresher, here’s how to deep-clean or medicate ears if needed.

Before you start, wrap the cat in a towel (like a burrito) to help calm him and keep him still, or ask a family member to help you hold him.

  • If there is dirt or debris in the ear canal, use one hand to gently tilt the cat’s head down and to the side, then pull the ear flap back.
  • Squirt enough cleanser into the ear to fill it.
  • Gently massage the base of the ear to work the fluid into the ear canal. You may hear a nice squishing sound, and I’ll bet your cat will lean into you because the massage feels good and is helping to relieve his itchy ears.
  • Stand back and let your cat shake his head to help remove any debris inside.
  • With a clean cotton ball, wipe out the ear to remove excess cleanser and dirt that was brought up when your cat shook his head.
  • Next, administer the prescribed amount of drops or ointment into the clean ear canal; massage the base of the ear again.
  • Give your cat a treat for being a good patient.
By keeping a close eye (and nose) on your cat’s ears and ensuring that they stay clean and healthy, you can help head off the itching and pain caused by infections or ear mite infestations. But more important, at least from your cat’s point of view, you’ll improve his ability to hear the can opener.

More on