A cat’s sense of hearing is more sensitive than that of humans. Cats’ ears can rotate up to 180 degrees, which allows them to locate and identify even the faintest noise. In a healthy cat, ears are generally “self-cleaning,” but regular monitoring can help prevent problems that may interfere with hearing or health.
Caring for the outer ear
The outer ear is the visible part. It is covered by a layer of hair on the outer surface. The inner surface should be light pink and clean. If you notice any redness, discharge, or swelling, take you cat to your veterinarian. These may be signs of an infection.
Caring for the inner ear
Not all cats may be amenable to having you check their inner ear. Start with petting your cat and stroking the side of her face before you gently fold back the outer ear so the ear canal becomes visible. The inside of your cat’s ear should be light pink and free of dirt and earwax. There shouldn’t be a noticeable odor. A foul smell may indicate the presence of an infection, ear mites, or another problem and requires veterinary attention. Minor debris, dirt, or earwax can be treated at home with caution.
Cleaning your cat’s ears
Dampen a clean cotton ball with warm, not hot, water, or use a a gentle ear cleaner made for cats to wipe away any visible earwax or other debris from the underside of your cat’s ears. Clean the inside surface of the outer ear and the rim of the ear canal, but do not attempt to remove any debris from inside the canal. Do not use Q-tips, you may push debris further into the ear canal. If gentle cleaning doesn’t address the problem, take your cat to your veterinarian.
When to call your veterinarian
If your cat experiences trauma to the outer or inner ear, call your veterinarian immediately. If you notice persistent scratching of the ears, head shaking or tilting, balance problems, sensitivity to touch or sound, or hearing abnormalities, or detect an unpleasant odor, make an appointment to get your cat seen as soon as possible.
Most ear problems in cats are minor and easily treatable with cleaning or medication. Ignoring possible symptoms of infection or hearing loss may result in discomfort and pain for your cat. Checking the ears in an otherwise healthy cat should not cause pain. When in doubt, contact your veterinarian.
This article was first published in 2011 and has been updated.