Ear Mites in Cats

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Cat scratching at ear

 

Allen Donikowski / Getty Images 

Ear mites are common and highly contagious parasites (although they don't usually affect humans) that can make life miserable for your pet, especially outdoor cats that seem to attract them. They're not usually life-threatening but ear mites can cause infections of an animal's ear canal and sometimes can cause your pet to scratch so much that blood vessels in the ear rupture, which may require surgery.

What Are Ear Mites?

Ear mites are tiny parasites that live out their life cycles mostly inside the ear canal. They are quite common and can cause severe irritation and itchiness of a cat's ears. The most common ear mite of cats 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 ear wax and skin oils. Their presence causes inflammation, and can also lead to secondary ear infections. Eggs are laid in the ear, and it takes about three weeks for eggs to hatch and develop into adult mites that can reproduce. 

Ear Mite debris in a cat ear

Uwe Gille / Wikimedia Commons

Symptoms of Ear Mites in Cats

It's not difficult to recognize ear mites, based on your pet's behavior and appearance. The mites themselves, however, are generally too small to see with the naked eye. The most common signs of ear mites among cats include the following:

Symptoms

  • Head shaking
  • Scratching at ears
  • Ear discharge
  • Unusual amount of scratching on the body


Head Shaking

You can tell your cat has ear mites if it's frequently and vigorously shaking its head, along with the other noted symptoms.

Scratching at Ears

If your cat is constantly and aggressively scratching or rubbing its ears, or has redness or hair loss around the ears, check inside for ear discharge. Ear mites are likely living inside the ear. The intense itching sensation your cat may have is also probably due to the feeling of mite droppings inside the ear and on the skin.

Ear Discharge

Ear mites are so tiny that they're hard to see with the naked eye. A dark waxy or crusty discharge or substance sitting in your cat's ears is the hallmark characteristic of ear mites. The discharge looks a bit like coffee grounds because it is a mixture of ear wax, blood, and secretions from mites.

Unusual Amount of Body Scratching

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. Irritation of other parts of the body results in an unusual amount of scratching.

Illustration showing the various signs symptoms of ear mites in cats

The Spruce / Nusha Ashjaee

Causes of Ear Mites

Cats are commonly affected by ear mites, which are spread mostly by direct contact with another animal. They are especially common in young animals. Cats can catch ear mites from other, affected cats, or the environment. Mites are not breed-specific.

Diagnosing Ear Mites in Cats

The diagnosis of ear mites is confirmed when the 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, or otoscope, to examine the ear). 

Confirming the presence of the mites is necessary to distinguish ear mites from other ear infections, such as yeast infections, so don't try to diagnose them at home. Always consult a veterinarian before beginning any course of treatment.

Treatment

There are several options for treating ear mites, and your veterinarian will recommend a treatment protocol for your pet. Over-the-counter medications (and DIY treatments) are often less effective or require extended treatment times compared to medications prescribed by your vet. In fact, some newer medications require only a single application to be effective so you can quickly relieve your cat of this annoyance.

First, thorough cleaning of the ears can help clear the discharge, calm the irritation, and remove some of the mites. This can be followed up in one of several ways:

  • One-time medication treatments applied to the ear can be successful.
  • One-time treatments applied to the skin 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 applications of medication to the ear might be required.
  • Injectable ivermectin can also be used; this is an off-label use for ear mites.

It is important to strictly follow your vet's recommended dosage schedule for the successful treatment of ear mites. Though more time-consuming to apply, some medications can calm inflammation and treat secondary bacterial or yeast infections.

Even if they are not showing symptoms, all pets in the home, including dogs, should be treated at the same time.

Prognosis of Cats With Ear Mites

Untreated cats can experience bacterial infections, damaged ear canals, and potential deafness. Treated cats will typically respond well. However, if your cat has a persistent problem with mites, the skin may become oily, flaky, thickened, and sores may develop that turn crusty or oozy, and may require other treatment from your vet.

How to Prevent Ear Mites

The best prevention against ear mites is to keep your cat indoors. If your cat is an indoor/outdoor cat, the best defense is to keep your pet's bedding and toys clean, take it for regular vet appointments, and stay aware of your cat's behavior so you can recognize any symptoms.

Are Ear Mites Contagious to Humans?

Ear mites do not survive for long periods on humans so they 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.

FAQ
  • How do I check for ear mites in cats?

    Because they're so small, ear mites are typically confirmed by a vet when discharge from your cat's ears is examined under a microscope. That being said, you can sometimes even see the mites as little white specks moving around in your cat's ear if you're looking closely with a magnifying glass. As a pet owner, you will most typically notice the symptoms of ear mites and have their presence confirmed by a vet.

  • What do ear mites look like in cats?

    There are several symptoms to keep an eye out for if you suspect your cat may have ear mites. Look for excessive scratching at the ears or head shaking, which may be your cat's attempt at alleviating discomfort. You may also notice dark waxy or crusty discharge in your cat's ears, which is one of the hallmark signs of ear mites.

  • What causes ear mites in cats?

    Cats may acquire ear mites for several reasons, but the most common is contact with other infected cats. Ear mites are commonly seen in cats who have spent time in shelters or in close proximity to other infested cats. Likewise, outdoor cats are more likely to become afflicted with ear mites.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.

Watch Now: How to Know If Your Cat Is Sick

Article Sources
The Spruce Pets uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Feline ear disorders. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

  2. Mite infestation (mange, acariasis, scabies) of cats. Merck Manual Veterinary Manual.

  3. Ear mites: tiny critters that can pose a major threatCornell University College Of Veterinary Medicine.