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You probably won't spot the white, pin-head size mites in your cat's ears. You'll notice the brown-to-black crusty specks in his ears, which he won't stop scratching. Your opposible thumbs and cotton swabs can help.
"Mites," in the words of venerable Internet oracle WebMD, "are prolific." They're highly contagious among pets, usually infest both ears, and are one of the most common feline health problems.
If left untreated, ear mites can cause serious ear damage, permanently affecting your cat's hearing and sense of balance. Furthermore, excessive scratching can lead to life-threatening infections.
Kittens and outdoor cats are more prone to contracting ear mites. You've got to follow a treatment regimen to get rid of them, which means you've got to clean your cat's ears.
Under normal circumstances you don't have to clean your cat's ears. Once your veterinarian has confirmed ear mite infestation, though, it's your job to clean them prior to each treatment. If you don't, dead mites, their waste and other debris may protect live mites or their eggs.
Before cleaning your cat's dirty ears, place him in a secure position -- ideally, on your lap, with one arm over his body, cradling his head along the neck and jaw to minimize fidgeting. If your cat scratches a lot, wrap his body in a towel. Leave the towel out before and after cleanings so he doesn't hide when he sees it.
Once your cat is properly restrained, use cotton swabs to clean his ears. Twist or rub swabs along the folds of your cat's ears to clear away discharge and debris. Never ever (ever!) stick a cotton swab directly into a cat's ears -- this can cause ear damage or push buildups further into the ear.
Use multiple swabs to clean your cat's ears prior to each treatment or as recommended by your veterinarian. Cat ears aren't usually very hairy, so cutting or plucking is rarely, if ever, necessary. If your cat's ears are too sensitive for cotton swabs, try a wet rag or cotton ball.
As with most health issues, early diagnosis and proper treatment of ear mites -- including proper ear cleaning -- are important. All cats scratch their ears from time to time, but few draw blood or shake their heads violently when they're in good health. A quick inspection of your cat's ears should alert you ear mites are the likely culprits.
Consult a veterinarian and confirm the diagnosis before starting any treatment. Ear mites don't live long outside your cat's ears, so a single house-cleaning is probably sufficient.