How to Clean and Medicate Your Cat's Ears

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 18, 2021
4 min read

Cats clean themselves, so cat ear cleaning is usually not needed. However, some cats are more likely to experience wax buildup and ear infections. If you have concerns about your cat’s ears, talk to your veterinarian about what you can do and use these tips to clean and medicate your cat’s ears.

Your cat’s ears consist of the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. It’s essential to understand the design of your cat’s ears so you know what parts to clean and what parts to avoid. Cleaning too deep in your cat’s ears may cause damage.

The outer ear. The outer ear, or the earflap, is the part you see. Most cats’ ears stand up in a soft point, with the exception of a few breeds that have folded earflaps.

Inside the earflap is your cat’s ear canal that leads to the middle ear. While humans have short ear canals that are easy to see into, a cat’s ear canal is long and narrow. It makes a sharp turn into the middle ear where a thin membrane, the eardrum, separates the outer and middle ear.

The middle ear. In the middle ear, there are three delicate bones behind the eardrum that protect a cavity called the bulla. This cavity has a small tube that leads to the inner ear behind your cat’s mouth.

The inner ear. The inner ear connects your cat’s ears to its brain via nerves. These nerves communicate to provide your cat with hearing and balance.

Ear scratching. If your cat scratches its ears frequently, it may need an ear cleaning. Signs that a cat is scratching its ears more than normal include:

  • Loss of fur on the outsides of the ears
  • Tearing at the edges of the ears
  • Bleeding on the inside or outside of the ear‌
  • Scabs from the skin breaking open

Earwax. The insides of cats' ears are usually pink. Earwax is black, though not much earwax should usually be visible. If the insides of your cat’s ear appear black and splotchy, it's a sign of too much wax. Ear mites often cause an overproduction of earwax in cats.

Infection. If you suspect your cat has an ear infection, you can look for signs like:

  • The inside of the ear is red instead of pink
  • A discharge that leaks out of the ear
  • An odor that doesn’t go away
  • Your cat shaking its head or rubbing its ears on the floor

Most cats don’t enjoy someone cleaning their ears. You may need to hold your cat firmly and securely so it doesn’t have too much room to move as you clean. If possible, have a friend or family member assist so your cat doesn’t move too much and accidentally cause damage.‌

Choose a cleaner. Once you decide to clean your cat’s ears, you can choose a cleaner that meets your needs. Infections must be treated differently than ear mites or sensitive ears. If you’re not sure which cat ear wash to use, talk to your veterinarian. They may prescribe a medication to treat your cat’s ear condition.‌

Gather supplies. Read the instructions ahead of time so you know what supplies you need to clean your cat’s ears. Common supplies include:

  • Cotton balls
  • Q-tips
  • A towel
  • Ear wash‌
  • Tweezers

Remove earwax and discharge. Use Q-tips to clean the inside of the earflap – not the ear canal – and remove earwax buildup or other discharge from your cat’s ears. Be very careful not to insert the Q-tip too far, or you could damage your cat’s eardrum. Place the Q-tip and swipe up where you see any buildup.‌

Removing earwax and discharge ensures that more of the ear wash or medication reaches your cat’s skin. If your cat’s ears are already irritated, you may consider skipping this step so you don’t cause additional pain.

Apply the solution. First, apply a few drops inside the earflap. The cleaner or medication dropper should have a long tip that reaches down into your cat’s ear canal. Rub the earflap together from the outside to evenly distribute the medication or wash. Gently insert the tip deeper into your cat’s ear to apply a few drops inside.

Don’t push the bottle too far or force it into your cat’s ears. Pay attention when you apply drops to the earflap so you know how hard to squeeze the bottle in the canal. Squeezing too hard may result in too much pressure or too much solution. Massage the outside of your cat’s ear again for around 30 seconds, this time applying more pressure to distribute the medication deeper in your cat’s ear.‌

Your cat is likely to shake its head in response to ear cleaning, so you may see some of the solution leak out. Use cotton balls or a towel to clean up any additional medication. 

There are some cases that require a veterinarian to care for your cat. Your vet may recommend sedating your cat if:

  • Your cat isn’t still when you try to clean its ears
  • You suspect damage to your cat’s middle or inner ear
  • You think there may be foreign debris in your cat’s ears‌
  • Your veterinarian wants to extract earwax or discharge samples to send for diagnosis