What to Know About Ear Mites In Dogs and Cats

Signs, Diagnosis and Treatment of Ear Mites

Ear Mite debris in a cat ear
Ear Mite debris in a cat ear. Wikimedia Commons/Uwe Gille

What Are Ear Mites In Dogs and Cats?

Ear mites are tiny parasites that live out their life cycle mostly inside the ear canal. They are quite common and can cause severe irritation and itchiness of the ears. The most common ear mite of cats and dogs is Otodectes cynotis, and therefore an infestation with ear mites is sometimes called "otodectic mange."

Ear mites primarily live in the ear canal, where they feed on skin debris.

Their presence causes inflammation, and can also lead to secondary ear infections. Eggs are laid in the ear, and it takes about 3 weeks for eggs to hatch and develop into adult mites that can reproduce. While ear mites are generally found in the ears, they can also wander out onto the body, causing irritation and itchiness of the skin as well.

How Are Ear Mites Spread?

Cats are more commonly affected than dogs. Ear mites are spread mostly by direct contact with another animal that has ear mites (they are commonly seen in outdoor cats). They are especially common in young animals.

Signs and Symptoms of Ear Mites

  • Head shaking
  • Scratching at ears
  • Dark waxy or crusty discharge from the ears (looks a bit like coffee grounds)
  • Sometimes there will be scratching or irritation of other parts of body

Diagnosis of Ear Mites

The diagnosis of ear mites is confirmed when ear mites are found in a sample of the ear discharge examined under a microscope.

Sometimes the mites can even be seen as little white specks moving around in the ear (when using a magnifying scope to examine the ear). Confirming the presence of the mites is necessary to distinguish ear mites from other ear infections.

Treating Ear Mites

There are several alternatives for treating ear mites, and your veterinarian will recommend a treatment protocol for your pet.

Over the counter medications are often less effective or require extended treatment times compared to medications prescribed by your vet, especially the newer medications that require a single application to be effective. First, a thorough cleaning of the ears can help clear the discharge to help calm the irritation and remove some of the mites. This can be followed up in several ways:

  • One-time treatments applied to the ear: medications such as Acarexx® or Milbemite® (cats only).
  • One time treatments applied to the skin: medications such as Revolution® or Advantage Multi® (these are typically used as monthly parasite control medications; a single dose usually takes care of an ear mite infection but you may consider using them monthly to prevent reinfection and control other pests).
  • Repeated treatments applied to the ear: e.g. Tresaderm®. It is important to strictly follow your vet's recommended dosage schedule for successful treatment of ear mites (usually twice daily treatments for a week or more). Though more time-consuming to apply (and can be difficult with uncooperative patients), Tresaderm® does have the advantage of containing medications to calm inflammation and treat secondary bacterial or yeast infections.
  • Injectable ivermectin can also be used (this is an off-label usage for ear mites, and care must be taken as some breeds of dogs are sensitive to ivermectin).

All pets in the home should be treated at the same time, even if they are not showing symptoms.

Ear Mites and Humans

Ear mites do not survive for long on humans so do not cause long-term infections in people. Very rarely, however, ear mites may transiently hang out on humans — on arms or extremities — and produce a transient rash.

Please note: this article has been provided for informational purposes only. If your pet is showing any signs of illness, please consult a veterinarian as quickly as possible.