Ear mites are extremely contagious, and puppies often catch them from their mother. Ear mites also affect cats, rabbits, ferrets, and other pets, and if one pet has ear mites, all animals in contact with that pet must be treated to prevent reinfestation. When left untreated, ear mites can lead to infections of the middle and inner ear which can damage hearing or affect balance.
What Are Ear Mites?
Ear mites, or Otodectes cynotis, are a type of arthropod that resemble ticks. They colonize a puppy’s ear, where they feed on cellular debris and suck lymph fluids from the skin. Just three or four adult mites in the ear can wreak considerable discomfort. Imagine a tiny mosquito inside your own ear canal biting and making it itch and you’ll understand how aggravating this can be to your puppy.
Symptoms of Ear Mites in Puppies and Dogs
Ear mites are the most common cause of ear inflammation, or otitis. You’ll see a brown crumbly debris in the ear canal and/or crust formation. Mites biting and crawling about inside the ear cause intense itching, and puppies typically shake their heads, dig at their ears, rub their heads against the floor or furniture, and may cry.
Trauma to the ear often results when the pup's efforts to relieve the itch bruises the pinna, the external ear flap. Scratching and head shaking, especially in pendulous-eared breeds like beagles and basset hounds, can cause a kind of blood blister called a hematoma where the pinna swells like a balloon.
Characteristic dark ear debris and behavior signs generally point to ear mites, but it’s important for the veterinarian to confirm the diagnosis by finding the mite in a sample of ear debris that's examined under the microscope. The parasite is tiny, white and nearly impossible to see with the naked eye. Never treat your puppy for ear mites until the diagnosis has been confirmed or you risk masking other ear problems or complicating their proper diagnosis and treatment.
Causes of Ear Mites
Ear mites are often passed from animal to animal. In fact, it's most common for cats to pass the mites along to dogs that live in the same home.
The mite life cycle takes three weeks. First, the eggs are laid and cemented in place within the ear canal. Eggs incubate in only four days, then hatch into six-legged larvae which feed for another three to 10 days.
The larvae develop into eight-legged protonymphs which molt into the deutonymph stage. At this point, the immature deutonymph attaches itself to a mature male ear mite using suckers on the rear legs. If the deutonymph becomes a female adult, fertilization occurs and the female lays eggs.
Even the adult stage of ear mite is so tiny that it’s difficult to see. But since all stages other than the eggs feed on your puppy’s ears, it’ll be miserable for all three weeks—and then the life cycle starts over again.
Your puppy’s ears can be so sore that the pup won’t want you or the vet to touch them. In that case, the veterinarian may need to sedate the pup before treating. Follow-up treatment at home is usually recommended.
Some pets are too difficult for owners to continue treating at home. In certain instances, an injectable medication may be recommended. Some of the monthly heartworm and flea prevention treatments also prevent ear mites.
Many commercial products are available for treating ear mites; ask your veterinarian for a recommendation. Once you get a diagnosis of ear mites from the vet, you may want to learn to treat ear mites at home. This involves cleaning the ears and/or treating with a liquid at least twice a week for three weeks or more. Otherwise, the ear mite eggs left behind in the ear canal will hatch and start the process all over again.
Ear mites sometimes travel outside of the ear to other parts of the puppy's body. The resulting sores may resemble an allergy to fleas; the condition is called otodectic mange. When your pup is diagnosed with ear mites, don't neglect the rest of its body. Flea products also kill ear mites, so choose an appropriate product and do whole-body treatments along with ear treatments.
Ear mites infest the environment for several months, and premise control is helpful, particularly in homes with many pets. Follow the same procedures and use the same products for premise control of fleas to get rid of ear mites in the environment. Treat your house and yard for at least four weeks; experts suggest treating the environment two weeks beyond the pet's apparent cure.
How to Prevent Ear Mites
It's not really possible to prevent ear mites altogether, as they are present in the outdoor environment. It is, however, possible to limit the problem. Two simple techniques for minimizing the impact of ear mites are a regular monthly ear cleaning for your pet and a quick trip to the vet if you're observing unusual scratching or discomfort. If your pet is recovering from a bout of ear mites, be sure to thoroughly clean its bedding and check any other pets for possible infection.