A Simple Way to Check the Ears

Simply rub them to see if it elicits discomfort or extreme delight — both call for closer examination.

Hearing is one of a cat’s most important senses. Keeping the ears healthy can help prevent painful infections from developing — chronic infections that could damage the ear canal or eardrum and lead to deafness.


Checking the condition of your cat’s ears is as simple as stroking them, says dermatologist William H. Miller, VMD, Medical Director of the Companion Animal Hospital at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. As you rub the ears, you can easily notice if your cat shows signs of discomfort or extreme pleasure. Both instances are a clue that closer inspection is necessary.

“If there is pain or if the animal really gets into it and rubs his ears against your hand, the ears probably have a problem,” Dr. Miller says. Other signs that the ears need attention:

A bad odor


Redness, which can indicate infection or irritation

Frequent shaking of the head

Scratching at the ears or rubbing them against furniture or carpet

Tilting the head

Discharge of pus or dry, crumbly, dark-brown wax from the ear

Cats with those signs should see the veterinarian sooner rather than later. They might have mites, a bite-wound abscess or a yeast or bacterial infection. Cats who scratch just in front of the ears, causing abrasions and scabs, may be suffering from environmental or food allergies, which can predispose them to ear problems.

A cat with mild ear odor who gives only an occasional head shake may simply need to have the ears cleaned. If signs continue—or worsen—after cleaning, a veterinary visit is warranted. A thorough cleaning at the clinic and a five- to seven-day course of antibiotic drops or ointment applied to ears are usually all that are needed to clear up the problem.

Weekly Checks. Inspect your cat’s ears weekly if he has a history of ear problems. Otherwise, most feline ears do best with a regimen of benign neglect. Healthy cats don’t need their ears cleaned. “The normal ear comes with its own built-in ear-cleaning mechanisms,” Dr. Miller says. “If ear cleaners are used when they aren’t needed, they can damage the mechanisms.”

However, if your cat has an active ear infection or is recovering from an ear infection or injury, some maintenance cleaning is necessary. The frequency and method depend on the individual cat.

When necessary, use a mild cleanser made for cats, available from veterinarians and pet supply stores. Be careful with alcohol, which can sting or dry out delicate ear tissue.

To clean the ears, use one hand to tilt the cat’s head downward. With the other, squirt enough cleanser into the ear to fill it. Gently massage the outer part of the ear to move the fluid into the ear canal so it can soften any dirt inside. Your cat may shake his head when you’re done, which will also help to loosen the debris. Then use a cotton ball to wipe out the ear. Use a cotton-tipped applicator to clean the folds and creases near the surface of the ear, but don’t push it into the ear canal. That will just pack debris deeper.

Keep Them Dry. To reduce the number of ear-related veterinary visits, keep your cat’s ears dry and clean. Bacteria and yeast thrive in a moist, warm environment with limited airflow such as the inside of a cat’s ear.

The best way to monitor the health of your cat’s ears is to give them a good sniff. Start when your cat is young. That way, you’ll know what odor is normal for him. If the odor changes, Dr. Miller says, something is amiss in the ear canal and a veterinary cleaning may be necessary.

With good care, your cat won’t have any problem hearing the sound of the electric can opener, the stream of kibble pouring into his bowl or the tiptoe of a mouse in the house.