If you see your dog or cat scratching at its ears and shaking its head, chances are good it may have ear mites. These parasites are common in outdoor cats and are highly contagious (although they don't usually affect humans).
They're not usually life-threatening but ear mites can make life miserable for your pet. Ear mites can cause blockages of an animal's ear canal and sometimes can cause your pet to scratch so much that blood vessels in the ear rupture, which requires 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 the 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 skin debris. 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.
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.
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:
- Head shaking
- Scratching at ears
- Dark waxy or crusty discharge from the ears (looks a bit like coffee grounds)
- Irritation of other parts of the body resulting in an unusual amount of scratching
Transmission of Ear Mites
Cats are commonly affected with ear mites which are spread mostly by direct contact with another animal that has the condition. They are especially common in young animals.
Diagnosis of Ear Mites
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 to examine the ear).
Confirming the presence of the mites is necessary to distinguish ear mites from other ear infections, so don't try to diagnose at home. Always consult a veterinarian before beginning any course of treatment.
Treatment and Prevention
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. In fact, some newer medications require only a single application to be effective.
First, 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 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 medication treatments applied 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 (usually twice daily treatments for a week or more). Though more time-consuming to apply, there are some medications that can calm inflammation and treat secondary bacterial or yeast infections.
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 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.
Mite Infestation (Mange, Acariasis, Scabies) Of Cats. Veterinary Manual
Ear Mites: Tiny Critters That Can Pose A Major Threat. Cornell University College Of Veterinary Medicine, 2020