Learn how to tell if your cat's ears could use a wash, and get a pro's tips on how to do it with the least amount of stress—for you and your kitty.
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Cats spend countless hours licking their fur clean and using their paws to groom the tops of their heads and faces (so cute!). But one place they can't reach is inside their ears. Some cats' ears naturally stay clean, while others have ears that tend to get a little gunky. If your kitty's ears become dirty, your cat needs a little help with sweeping the debris out. A veterinary professional can do it or you can learn how to clean your cat's ears at home.

Should You Clean Your Cat's Ears at Home?

If you're comfortable and your cat isn't exhibiting any signs of something more serious, it's perfectly fine to clean your cat's ears yourself.

"If you notice gunk in your cat's ear, it's a good idea to remove it for the cat's comfort and to reduce the chance of infection," says Jessica Sewell, LVT, a regional technician and assistant director for VCA Animal Hospitals. "It could be wax, debris, ear mites, or discharge from an ear infection." In fact, if your kitty has allergies or chronic ear infections, your veterinarian may recommend that you clean your cat's ears on a regular basis.

However you should skip doing it yourself, says the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and head to the vet if you see the following signs:

  • Your cat is frequently scratching at his ears.
  • Your cat is shaking his head.
  • The ears are red, swollen, or have discharge.
  • You notice a large amount of wax or a bad smell.

What Should You Use to Clean Your Cat's Ears?

You only need a few items to safely clean your cat's ears, most notably a cleansing solution made for felines. "Cats are sensitive to a lot of things that wouldn't seem obvious, but can be toxic and life-threatening," says Sewell.

For example, hydrogen peroxide is a staple in many people's medicine cabinets to treat skin abrasions. But it's incredibly irritating to feline skin. Never use it for cleaning your kitty's ears. Also avoid using cotton swabs because you're more likely to go too far down into your cat's ear canal, which could cause pain and injury.

"I recommend calling your vet to ask about the best type of ear cleaner for your cat," Sewell says. "And definitely run any natural remedy you're considering past your vet first before using it. Your veterinarian will happily point you in the right direction."

In addition to advice about an ear-cleaning solution, you can also ask your vet for fear-free medication to help your kitty stay calm during ear cleaning. Another item that helps with that is Feliway, which mimics natural pheromones to reduce stress in cats. It comes in a spray bottle and in a room diffuser. The last item you need is a big towel to keep your kitty's paws (and claws) safely tucked away while you're cleaning his ears.

How to Clean Your Cat's Ears Step-by-Step

Once you have all the supplies, cleaning your cat's ears is a simple three-step process.

1. Prepare your cat.

If you have fear-free prescription medication, give it to your cat ahead of time. Then spray the towel you're using with Feliway or diffuse it in the room. Wrap your cat up in the towel to make a "kitty burrito" with only your cat's head sticking out.

2. Create a calm environment.

"It's best to go into a small room," Sewell says. "Minimize loud noises and dim the lights to where you can still see, but it's not glaring bright. Move slowly and talk softly. It honestly helps."

3. Apply cleanser.

Soak a cotton pad with feline ear cleaner and gently rub it along the inside of the ear and around the outside too. Don't worry, you won't be able to go too far down if you're just using a round cotton disc, says Sewell.

How Often Should You Clean Your Cat's Ears?

You should clean your cat's ears on an as-needed basis. Healthy, clean ears are light pink with minimal ear wax showing. Regularly check your furry pal's ears to see if they need a cleaning.

The most common color of debris is brown, says Sewell. This could be wax or something more serious. For instance, ear mites produce debris that looks like coffee grounds or potting soil. If you see that, your pet needs veterinary attention. Foul smells, redness, and sores are also signs to see your vet.

Felines have some of the most sensitive ears in the mammal world, and cats use their ears to keep tabs on you. Whether you do it occasionally or regularly, cleaning your cat's ears is another way to ensure that your four-legged friend feels great.