Ear mites are extremely contagious, and puppies often catch them from their mother or when multiple pets in the home have been exposed. These small parasites cause your dog's ears to become itchy and inflamed. Ear mites can also affect cats, rabbits, ferrets, and other pets. If one animal has ear mites, all those in contact with that pet must be treated to prevent reinfestation. When left untreated, ear mites can cause middle and inner ear infections which can damage hearing, affect balance, and become very painful as they progress.
What Are Ear Mites?
Ear mites, or Otodectes cynotis, are a type of arthropod that resemble ticks and typically live within the ears of pets, but they can also live on the skin. When ear mites colonize the ears of a puppy or dog, they feed on cellular debris, ear wax, oils, and lymph fluid from beneath the skin. Just three or four adult mites in the ear can cause considerable discomfort. The result is similar to being continually irritated by tiny mosquito bites inside of your ear—a feeling that can be incredibly aggravating for your dog.
The mite life cycle takes three weeks. First, adult mites lay eggs within the ear canal. Eggs incubate for 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. The cycle repeats itself over and over until treatment is successful.
Even in its adult stage, an ear mite is so tiny that it’s difficult to see. Because all stages other than the eggs feed on your pet's ears, dogs and puppies will show signs of itching and pain throughout the entire life cycle.
Symptoms of Ear Mites in Puppies and Dogs
If you notice your dog scratching at its ears considerably, you may also find dark debris inside the ears. This is a common sign of ear mites that can also happen alongside ear inflammation, bruised ear flaps, and more. When your dog shows symptoms of ear mites, visit your veterinarian to begin diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible.
Ear mites can often cause ear inflammation, also called otitis. Inflammation is also a symptom of ear infections, and your veterinarian will perform testing to determine whether mites are present. Never treat your puppy for ear mites until the diagnosis is confirmed, or you'll risk masking other ear problems or complicating their proper diagnosis and treatment.
Mites typically cause intense itching. When living with these parasites, dogs and puppies constantly shake their heads, scratch their ears, rub their heads against the floor or furniture, and may vocalize in pain.
Trauma to the Ear Flaps
Trauma from your dog's efforts to relieve the itch can bruise the ear flap (pinna). Vigorous scratching and head shaking, especially in breeds with pendulous ears such as beagles and basset hounds, can also cause an aural hematoma that causes the pinna to swell with blood.
Dark Debris Inside the Ears
If ear mites are present, you'll see brown or black crumbly debris in the ear canal that may include crust formation. The discharge looks like coffee grounds.
Causes of Ear Mites
Once your pet has been affected by ear mites, the problem continues to grow as they reproduce inside the ears and remain contagious to all other pets in the home. The following are common causes of these parasites in puppies and dogs:
- Infection from household pets: Ear mites are often passed from animal to animal. Cats commonly pass the mites to dogs that live in the same home, and puppies can get ear mites from their mother.
- Outdoor infection: Just like ticks and fleas, your dog can contract ear mites from spending time outside of the home, whether playing in the backyard or joining their owner on hikes. If your dogs visit the groomer or public areas like dog parks, it's also possible for them to get ear mites from contact with other animals in these places.
Diagnosing Ear Mites in Puppies and Dogs
The presence of characteristic dark ear debris and constant scratching raise suspicion for a diagnosis of ear mites. Your veterinarian should confirm the diagnosis by finding the mite in a sample of ear debris that's examined under a microscope. This parasite on dogs is tiny, white, and nearly impossible to see with the naked eye, so owners must seek veterinary help to ensure their dog is diagnosed properly.
Your puppy’s ears may be so sore they won't let you or the vet touch them. In that case, the veterinarian will need to sedate your pet before treatment.
Once you get a diagnosis of ear mites from the vet, you'll treat ear mites at home under your veterinarian's supervision. This involves cleaning the ears and typically using a medicated 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. Commercial products are available for treating ear mites; ask your veterinarian for a recommendation.
Ear mites sometimes travel outside of the ear to other parts of the puppy's body. The resulting sores may resemble an allergy to flea bites. This condition is called otodectic mange. When your pup is diagnosed with ear mites, don't neglect the rest of its body. Your veterinarian may recommend an appropriate flea product that works on mites for whole-body treatments along with ear medication.
Ear mites can survive in the environment for several months, and premise control is particularly helpful in homes with multiple 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, ensuring treatment is continued for the length of the mites' life cycle after symptoms are relieved in your pets.
Prognosis for Puppies and Dogs With Ear Mites
Dogs and puppies with ear mites can typically recover within a few weeks after beginning appropriate treatment. Since prolonged infestation can lead to ear infections, it's important for pet owners to seek veterinary help quickly when signs of ear mites first appear. This will help prevent more severe infections that can cause permanent damage to the ears.
How to Prevent Ear Mites
It's not possible to prevent ear mites altogether, as they are present in the outdoor environment. However, owners can limit the problem through prevention methods:
Ear Cleaning and Monitoring
Cleaning your dog's ears each month will help keep the ear canal and ear flaps free from dirt and debris that can harbor ear mites. Check the ears regularly and be on the lookout for signs like unusual scratching or discomfort, and plan trips to the vet as needed if you're concerned that mite infestations or infections may be developing.
Cleaning the Environment
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 infestation. The home and any outdoor spaces that your pet frequents should be treated as well to prevent the mites from returning.
Are Ear Mites Contagious to Humans?
While ear mites in the household can cause temporary rashes on some people, they are not considered contagious to humans. If your pets are being treated for these parasites, it's helpful to wash your hands after applying medication and regularly clean the environment in your home.
Ear Mites in Cats and Dogs. VCA Animal Hospitals.
Shojai, Amy. Complete Puppy Care. Furry Muse Publications, 2018.
Mite Infestation (Mange, Acarisis, Scabies) in Dogs. Merck Veterinary Manual.