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How To Clean Your Cat’s Ears: A Step-by-Step Guide

For when your cat’s grooming doesn’t quite do the trick.

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If you have a cat, you know your little guy does a pretty good job of grooming on his own. But sometimes kitties need some extra help. As a cat parent, it’s important to know when you might need to step in to supplement your pet’s cleaning abilities. Even if you aren’t necessarily going to clean your cat’s ears right away (we all know how set in their ways cats can be — so it’s probably not a task you’re excited to complete), it helps to know the basics for future reference. Read on to learn all about how to clean your cat’s ears. 

What should I know about cat ears?

If you’ve ever looked at your cat’s ear close-up, you’ve likely noticed how intricately constructed and mysterious this body part is. Cats have an excellent sense of hearing, and their ears can even express how they’re feeling. When a cat’s ears are perked up, for example, they’re typically alert and playful. When their ears move back and/or sideways, they’re in a more anxious or even aggressive mood. Sometimes their ears can also go back when they have that sudden burst of energy known as the zoomies; when your cat is in zoomie mode, you definitely won’t be able to do any ear-cleaning! 

The Merck Veterinary Manual states that “Cats are very sensitive to sound, with a range of hearing both above and below the range of frequencies that can be detected by humans. They can hear better than people and even better than most dogs.” Like human ears, cat ears are composed of outer, inner, and middle sections. The Veterinary Manual explains, “The ear canal of cats is deeper and more tapered than in people, creating a better funnel to carry sound to the eardrum. This deeper canal is subject to buildup of dirt and wax that can lead to inflammation and secondary infection, although to a lesser degree than in dogs.”

It’s important, then, to be aware of signs your cat may be having an issue with their ears. If your cat seems to be shaking their head or scratching at their ear more than usual, or if their ears show discoloration or discharge, they may have an ear infection or ear mites — so a visit to the vet is a good idea. Your vet will be able to do a thorough inspection and diagnose the problem, and they can advise you on cleaning your cat’s ears.

When should I clean my cat’s ears?

Cats are little self-grooming machines — in fact, studies say they spend up to 50 percent of their awake time licking themselves clean. Cats typically clean their ears by licking their paws and then thoroughly rubbing them all over their ears at a steady pace. But because of the depth and texture of the inside of their ears, it can be difficult for them to reach every single crevice and clean them thoroughly.

If you notice wax or dirt in the visible part of your cat’s ears, and your cat isn’t showing any signs of distress, you may want to clean their ears. (If they are overly resistant, or start hissing or biting, it’s best to leave the cleaning to the professionals.) Be gentle and patient with your kitty, and there’s a good chance you’ll be able to clean their ears successfully, getting some of the spots that they may have missed in their daily grooming. If you don’t notice any issues with your cat’s ears, you won’t necessarily need to clean them regularly — but if you have an outdoor cat, keep in mind they’ll be more prone to getting dirty, and may therefore benefit from having their ears cleaned monthly. 

How do I clean my cat’s ears?

Cleaning your cat’s ears is simpler than you may think. Here are the tools you’ll need, courtesy of Embrace Pet Insurance and veterinarian Dr. Kallie Sesti, DVM:

  • Ear cleaning solution or wipes. Don’t go into your medicine cabinet for this. It’s best to clean your cat’s ears with a specially formulated solution that won’t add any further irritation. Ear cleaning wipes are also a great option.
  • Cotton balls. You’ll use these to spread the solution on their ears if you’re not using a pre-moistened wipe. 
  • A washcloth. In case your cat shakes the ear solution off, you’ll want to be prepared to wipe it up. 
  • Treats. To make the prospect of ear cleaning more appealing for your cat, and to reward them for being so well-behaved.

Make sure to follow these three rules:

  • Do not use a cotton swab or Q-Tip. This could damage your cat’s ears.
  • Don’t use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol. These may cause discomfort, so you should stick to cat-specific cleaners.
  • Only clean visible areas. Do not force your finger or any foreign object into your cat’s ears. Be gentle, slow, and aware of any negative signals from your feline friend. 

Once it’s time to clean, here’s a step-by-step guide adapted from Dr. Sesti:

  1. Hold your cat in your lap. Make sure the position is comfortable for both of you. Having a partner to spot you and help gently hold your cat in place while you clean can be helpful. If it’s comforting to your cat, wrap them in a blanket. A treat before starting also helps.
  2. Saturate a cotton ball with the ear cleaner solution and warm in your hand for 15-30 seconds. This may make things less scary for your cat.
  3. Use one hand to support your cat’s head and the other to hold back their ear, and use the cotton ball to gently massage it for up to 30 seconds. You will hear a squishing sound if you are properly cleaning the ear canal. Do not rub too aggressively. Your cat may need to shake their head if there is excess solution.
  4. If using pre-moistened wipes, simply wipe the visible parts of your cat’s ears gently, without pushing the wipe too far into their ear canal. 
  5. Use a dry cotton ball or washcloth to clean any solution or excess debris that may have made its way outside of the ears. 
  6. Give your cat a treat.
  7. Repeat the process on their other ear.

The ASPCA recommends taking a close look at your cat’s ears weekly, and notes “A healthy feline ear flap, or pinna, has a layer of hair on its outer surface with no bald spots, and its inner surface is clean and light pink. If you see any discharge, redness or swelling, your cat’s ears should be checked by a veterinarian.”

If you know the baseline of what your cat’s ears look like, that will help you determine when they might look waxy or dirty, and thus in need of some extra cleaning — or when there’s a more serious problem that requires the care of a professional. If you do decide to help your feline friend out with their grooming, just remember to err on the side of caution. Get familiar with your cat’s ears and always handle them with care — your kitty will thank you.

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