What is the black stuff in my cat's ears

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tabby cat ears
Tabby Cat Ears

Depending on your cat’s grooming habits and environment, you may or may not need to clean its ears. Many cats are excellent at grooming themselves and rarely require ear care. Others are not as good with their grooming skills, or are prone to dirty ears, and need routine cleanings to help prevent infection. If you notice excessive wax, dirt, or other debris, it is time for a cleaning.

Periodic cleanings and regular at-home checks can discover ear issues sooner, allowing for timelier treatment options. If you suspect your cat may have an ear problem, call your veterinarian as soon as possible. Prompt treatment offers a better prognosis, reduces the potential for developing chronic problems and hearing loss, and can alleviate discomfort your cat may be experiencing.

Before You Begin

For best results, begin by thoroughly cleaning the external portion of the ear. Remove or detangle any matted fur from around the ear canal and ear flap. Mats of fur along the ear flap or surrounding skin and/or excessive hair within the ear canal block the normal movement of debris and wax outward, leading to infection.

black and white cat near white textile
black and white cat near white textile

In some cats, excess hair may need to be gently removed from inside the ear canal. This must be done carefully to avoid damaging the ear canal and to minimize discomfort to your pet. A professional groomer, veterinarian, or veterinary technician can help remove hair if needed as many cats need light sedation for this procedure.

What You Need

If you plan to clean your cats ears yourself, you'll need a few household supplies:

  • Olive oil or commercial feline ear cleaner (you'll only need a few drops of either liquid)
  • A dropper or easy way to get a few drops of liquid into your cat's ear
  • Cotton balls
  • A container of warm water
adult orange tabby cat
adult orange tabby cat

You will probably want some treats on hand to keep your cat calm.

How to Clean a Cat's Ears

Cleaning your cat's ears is an easy task that takes about 10 minutes. Be sure to assemble the supplies and perform the cleaning in a space that's comfortable for your cat.

  1. Warm the olive oil or ear cleaner to body temperature by placing the container in a warm (not hot) pan of water.
  2. Place the cat on a table or counter.
  3. Put a drop or two of the liquid (either the olive oil or commercial ear cleaner) into the round opening of the ear canal.
  4. Gently massage the base of the ear for at least a minute, to work the liquid around.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 with the other ear. If it's easier, you could put the drops in both ears and then give your cat a double ear massage.
  6. Leave your cat alone for 5 minutes. Your pet cat will likely do a great deal of head shaking, which helps to dislodge dirt and debris from deep within the ear canal and move it into the outer surface.
  7. After 5 minutes, use clean cotton balls to wipe away oil and dirt from the ear.
  8. Give your cat a treat for being so good.
orange tabby cat
orange tabby cat

The same techniques can be used to administer ear medications, with the exception of steps 1 and 7.

What to Look for During Cleaning

As your cat’s owner, you are the first line of defense in detecting anything abnormal with your cat’s behavior or health. When cleaning your cat's ears, keep an eye out for signs of infection including:

  • Ear discharge (blood, pus, or other fluid.)
  • Odor around the ear
  • Excess scratching, pawing, or rubbing the ears
  • Redness in the ear canal
  • Sensitivity or pain around the ears
  • Ear swelling
  • Masses around the ear area
selective focus photography of brown cat during daytime
selective focus photography of brown cat during daytime
orange tabby cat
orange tabby cat
brown tabby cat on green grass field during daytime
brown tabby cat on green grass field during daytime

Preventing Problems During Ear Cleaning

You'll want your cat in a relaxed state during the cleaning, so don't push the cleaning if your cat feels stressed. Avoid using cotton swabs or other aggressive tools for cleaning, as these can cause serious injuries. Aim to clean both ears on the same day as it's best for the cat if both ears are cleaned at the same time, but don't push things if your cat is unhappy. You can always try the following day.

If you suspect an issue with your cat's ears or see something that looks out of the ordinary, speak with your vet. Cleaning your cat's ears regularly will get you comfortable with what is normal and what is not.