Dog Ear Mites vs Ear Wax: What’s the Difference?

Vet Verified


Dog getting ear drops applied by a veterinarian

When it comes to your furry companion's ear health, understanding the differences between dog ear mites and dog ear wax is crucial. These two issues can often be confused, but they require different approaches to diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. 

In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore the differences between ear mites and ear wax, giving you valuable insights to ensure your dog's ears stay healthy and happy.

Dog ear mites vs. dog ear wax

What’s the difference between dog ear mites vs ear wax? To get a better understanding of how the two can affect your dog, we’ll start by defining each of these terms in more detail. 

Dog Ear Mites

Dog ear mites are microscopic parasites known as Otodectes cynotis. These mites can take up residence in your dog's ear canal, leading to irritation, inflammation, and discomfort. They are highly contagious and can spread from one pet to another through direct contact.

Dog Ear WAX

Dog ear wax, also known as cerumen, is a natural substance produced by the glands that line the ear canal. Its primary function is to protect and lubricate the ear canal, trapping dirt, debris, and bacteria and preventing them from reaching deeper into the ear. Ear wax also has antimicrobial properties that can help to prevent infection. 

Ultimately, the difference between dog ear wax and dog ear mites is that one happens naturally as part of your dog’s biology, while the other is a temporary infection. Ear wax isn’t harmful. In fact, its function is mainly protective––though abnormal ear wax helps signal to you that something is amiss in your dog’s otic (ear) function. Ear mites are always harmful, and require attention and treatment from your veterinarian. 

Understanding ear mites in dogs

Dog ear mites are tiny parasites that can cause significant discomfort in your furry companion's ears. Understanding what ear mites are can help you recognize the signs, get a diagnosis, and utilize treatment options for ear mites to ensure your dog's ears stay healthy.

Ear mites infest a dog's ear canal, finding a warm and cozy home where they feed on skin debris and tissue fluids. These pesky critters are highly contagious and can easily transfer from one animal to another, leading to a range of uncomfortable symptoms for your canine.

Signs and symptoms of ear mites

Detecting ear mites early is essential for prompt treatment. Ear mites are microscopic, meaning they cannot be seen with the naked eye. Instead, you may notice changes to your dog’s ears and their behavior., Keep an eye out for the following signs and symptoms:

  • Intense itching: Your dog may scratch at their ears vigorously, often causing redness and irritation.
  • Dark, crusty discharge: Ear mites can cause a buildup of dark, coffee-ground-like debris in the ears.
  • Head shaking and tilting: Dogs with ear mites may shake their heads frequently or tilt them to one side.
  • Redness and inflammation: The ear canal may appear red and inflamed, especially towards the base of the ear.

Prolonged exposure to ear mites can cause damage to the ear canal, resulting in a condition called otitis externa (i.e., ear infection). Dog ear mites can be confirmed during a veterinary examination, so don’t wait if you suspect that your dog’s ears have been infested with ear mites. 

Diagnosing ear mites

If you suspect your dog has ear mites, it's crucial to consult your veterinarian. They can perform a thorough ear examination, possibly using an otoscope to visualize the inside of the ear canal. A microscopic examination of ear discharge can confirm the presence of ear mites or their eggs.

Treatment options for ear mites

Treating ear mites typically involves medicated ear drops or ointments specifically designed to eliminate mites and soothe inflammation. Your vet may also recommend cleaning the ears to remove excess debris and promote healing.

Closeup of a dog's inner ear canal and ear flap

What is dog ear wax?

Dog ear wax is produced in the ear as a natural protective substance. It serves as a barrier against debris, dust, and various microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast, and mites that might enter your dog’s ear. Ear wax can effectively trap–and prevent–harmful debris from penetrating deeper into the ear, making it an important part of your dog’s natural defense systems. 

Characteristics of Normal Dog Ear Wax

Normal dog ear wax typically exhibits the following characteristics:

  • Light yellow to brown color: Healthy ear wax is usually within this color range.
  • Soft and pliable texture: It should be easy to manipulate and remove during regular cleaning. Dog ear wax with a grainy, crumbly texture is not normal.
  • Mild odor or odorless: While ear wax may have a slight scent, any foul odor could indicate an underlying issue.

Environmental and Stress Factors

Because wax has a protective mechanism in your dog’s ears, excessive cleaning isn’t recommended. If your dog has excessive cerumen (ear wax), that’s when you can make gentle ear cleaning a part of your routine. 

For your first line of defense against ear residue and debris, try an ear cleaning wipe. Ear cleaning wipes for dogs can help dry excessive moisture in the ear, wipe away harmful debris or allergens from the ear flap, and keep the ear clean after outdoor play.

If your dog has suffered from ear infections, your veterinarian may recommend deeper cleaning. Opt for an ear flush that’s made for veterinary use. These formulas are easy to use at home and will gently flush the ear canal of excess ear wax, debris, and harmful bacteria that may have found its way into your dog’s ears. After using an ear flush, gently wipe the outer ear canal using cotton balls or pads.

Medicated ear drops can be used when your dog has an infection to reduce inflammation and irritation. Before you try to treat an ear infection at home, talk to your veterinarian about when and how to treat the infection.

Using specialized ear cleaning solutions recommended by your veterinarian is a great way to get ahead of ear mites and excess ear wax at home. Just remember, when cleaning your dog’s ears, avoid inserting anything deep into the ear canal as this can be painful in infected ears. Thankfully, it’s not likely that you’ll damage the delicate ear structures due to the unique anatomy of a dog’s ears.

Identifying Ear Mites vs Dirty Ears

When inspecting your dog’s ear, it can be tough to identify what you're seeing: signs of ear mites, excessive ear wax buildup, or simply dirty ears? 

Ear mites are microscopic parasites that can infest your dog's ear canal, causing irritation and discomfort. They are highly contagious and can spread easily from one pet to another through direct contact. They are most common in outdoor dogs. Common signs of ear mites include intense itching, dark discharge resembling coffee grounds, redness, and inflammation in the ear canal.

On the other hand, dirty ears or excessive ear wax buildup can occur due to various factors such as inadequate ear hygiene, environmental debris, or natural wax production. Dirty ears may have a visible accumulation of dirt, wax, or debris in the outer ear canal. While dirty ears can lead to discomfort and potential infections if excessive, they do not involve parasitic infestations like ear mites do. Another sign your dog's ears are just dirty? You won’t see the telltale redness or discharge associated with ear mites.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between excessive ear wax and ear mites, so a thorough examination by a veterinarian should be your next step. Your vet may use an otoscope to examine the inside of the ear canal and look for signs of ear mites, such as mite movement or the presence of mite debris. In cases of dirty ears, cleaning the outer ear canal with gentle solutions recommended by your vet can help remove debris and improve ear hygiene.

Regular ear checks and a home cleaning routine with your pet are important. They can help keep you aware of any abnormal changes to your dog’s ear canal or changes in waxy debris within the ears. Seeking veterinary advice at the first sign of ear discomfort can help ensure your dog's ears remain healthy and are appropriately treated if infection occurs.

Final thoughts on ear health in dogs

Want to be an otic expert to protect your canine’s long-term health? The basics on ear health in dogs–including risk factors, preventive care measures, and the importance of regular veterinary consultations–is something every pet parent should know.

ear anatomy

Understanding your dog's ear anatomy can help you recognize potential issues. Dogs with floppy ears can be prone to ear infections due to reduced airflow and moisture retention.

risk factors

Certain factors, such as allergies, swimming, and ear shape, can increase your dog's risk of developing ear problems.

ear infections

Besides ear mites, dogs can also suffer from bacterial or yeast infections in their ears. These infections require different treatments, so accurate diagnosis by your veterinarian is essential.

preventative care

Regular ear checks, cleaning, and preventive measures, such as avoiding excessive moisture in the ears, can significantly reduce the likelihood of ear problems.

Consultation with Veterinarian

If you notice any changes in your dog's ear health, such as discharge, odor, redness, or discomfort, seek veterinary advice promptly. Early intervention can prevent complications and ensure your dog's comfort.

Understanding the differences between dog ear mites and dog ear wax is essential for effective ear care. By recognizing the signs, seeking prompt veterinary attention, and implementing proper cleaning techniques, you can keep your dog's ears healthy and comfortable for years to come.

This blog exists to provide general information and education about veterinary health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this blog, website, or in any linked materials is not intended as and should not be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. We cannot diagnose conditions, provide second opinions, or make specific treatment recommendations through this blog or website.

If you suspect that your pet has a medical concern, you should consult with your veterinary health care provider or seek other professional medical treatment immediately. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something that you have read on this blog, website, or in any linked materials.

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Written By a Vetnique Vet

Dr. Joya Griffin, DVM, DACVD

Dr. Griffin is an expert in veterinary dermatology, with a focus on helping pets and their parents cope with fungal and immune-related skin diseases. She’s also the star of the Nat Geo WILD television series, “Pop Goes the Vet with Dr. Joya.”

Veterinarian & Board Certified Dermatologist

Louisville, KY

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