Ear Discharge in Cats

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on August 07, 2022
3 min read

You’ve noticed your feline friend acting odd lately. Maybe they have been shaking their head a lot or scratching at their ears. Perhaps you’ve even spotted some yellow or black ear discharge or noticed a bit of a smell. Could your cat have an ear problem?

Ear problems in cats are quite common. It’s also common for people to misdiagnose their cat’s ear issues, sometimes leading to weeks of inappropriate treatment. Save them the pain and discomfort -- learn what ear problems might be troubling your cat and find out what you can do to help.

When your cat’s ears are healthy, they’re pink and clean inside, have no smell, have very little or no wax, and seem able to detect the sound of a can opener from a mile away.

When your feline friend has ear problems, you may notice a much different kitty. Symptoms of ear problems in cats include pawing at the ears, sensitivity to touch, a large amount of cream colored, orange, dark brown, or black wax; hearing loss; head tilting or shaking; and loss of balance. The most common causes of ear discharge in cats include:

  • Ear mites . So tiny you usually need a microscope to see them, ear mites are the most common cause of cat ear problems, and they can be very irritating to your cat. An ear mite infestation can get so bad, that along with a lot of head shaking, your cat may scratch hard enough to create bloody sores; an ear infection may result.
  • Ear infections. This is serious business. Ear infections are not only extremely uncomfortable for your cat, but if left untreated they can lead to permanent deafness or a need for surgery. Ear infections in cats can be caused by a number of things, including a piece of debris caught in their ear canal, wax buildup in the ear canal, allergies to food or pollen, autoimmune diseases, thick hair in the ear canal, a ruptured eardrum, drug reactions, tumors or polyps in the ear canal, and environmental irritants.

The only way to truly know what’s troubling your cat is to take them to the vet for an examination. Depending on what your veterinarian finds, treatment for your cat’s ear discharge might include:

  • Treating cat ear mites. Ear mites can thrive inside your cat’s ear, munching on ear wax and skin oils. Your veterinarian will probably diagnose an ear mite infection by checking a sample of your cat’s ear wax under a microscope. Treatment for ear mites generally includes a good ear cleaning and topical prescription medication. For uncooperative cats, injectable medication is also available.

Ear mites can be very contagious among pets, so if you discover your cat has them, you may want to get the rest of your household’s four-legged friends checked by a vet, too. Chances are good your entire pet household will need ear mite treatment or an infestation may easily recur.

  • Treating cat ear infections. How you treat a cat’s ear infection depends on what’s causing the infection. To make things more complicated, sometimes your cat may have more than one type of infection in their ears.

After examining your cat and possibly swabbing the ear for analysis, your veterinarian may prescribe a range of treatments for your cat’s ear infection, including antibiotics, antifungal medication, anti-inflammatories, or immunotherapy.

  • Treating other ear problems. Treatment options for other problems that may lead to ear discharge -- such as allergies, polyps, or drug reactions -- is wide-ranging and may include supplements, drops, immunotherapy shots, a change to their food or medications, or surgery.


To help your cat’s ears stay perky and pest-free, check inside their ears regularly for signs of wax buildup, inflammation, or odor. If you notice a problem, it’s time to talk to your veterinarian.

Cat’s ears are expressive, beautiful -- and very fragile. To avoid damaging the eardrum or packing wax deep into the ear, never insert anything into your cat’s ears or use over-the-counter medication unless your vet has shown you the proper way to do so.

It’s easy to interpret a cat’s ear discharge as mites when it’s something else, or to leave a mild infection untreated until it becomes serious or chronic. Don’t leave your cat’s comfort to guesswork -- always talk to your vet when you suspect ear problems.