cat with ear mites

How to Spot and Treat Ear Mites in Dogs and Cats

By Dr Bruce Little

Otodectes cynotis, more commonly called ear mites, have been found in dogs, cats, foxes and ferrets worldwide. Ear mites are common in young dogs and cats, and generally confine themselves to the ears and surrounding area of the head. Individual mites are tiny and may be seen only with the aid of a microscope. 

As a demonstration during my clinical practice days, I would find ear mites in a young puppy or kitten, take a cotton swab of the material and place it under a microscope. Family members, especially children, could readily understand why their pet was scratching vigorously almost all its waking moments. The six-legged and hairy mites were using the pets ear canal as a playground and feeding place, creating severe irritation to the skin inside the ear canal.

Signs of Ear Mites

Ear mites can cause intense irritation of the ear canal. Signs of ear mite infestation includes excessive head shaking and scratching of the ears with a hind foot, or rubbing on any and all surfaces to seek relief. Pets may scratch to such extent they create bleeding sores on or around their ears and head. In heavy infestations, mites can leave the ear and cause infestations on the head and surrounding body parts, which can lead to dermatitis. A brown or black ear discharge is common with ear mite infestations, and secondary infections caused by bacteria and yeast frequently occur.

ear mites in a catCats may have what seem to appear as significant lesions with dark accumulations of ear wax and sometimes even blood in their ears (left). It’s not unusual for one or two mites to cause these severs symptoms. However, other cats may have clean ear canals and as many as 50 or 60 mites present in each ear. Still other cats may have a thousand mites in each ear and yet exhibit few, if any outward signs. The only way to diagnose these cases is by microscopic examination done by your veterinarian. Sometimes excessive scratching causes a rupture in a blood vessel in the flap of the ear causing the formation of a pocket of blood under the skin called a hematoma. This condition requires surgery to mend the ear and frequently leads to scar tissue to form on the ear flap. 

Treatment of Ear Mites

Treatment of ear mites in both dogs and cats involves thorough ear canal cleaning and medication to kill all stages of the mites.  The life cycle is short as it is only 28 days from mite egg to adult mites. So it might take a month or more to kill all stages of the mite life cycle.  Look at the ears for dark discharge or unusual loss of hair from excessive scratching. It’s important to look for coat abnormalities each time you groom and/or bath your pet.

Prompt treatment of any parasite lessens your pets’ discomfort, decreases chances of disease transmission, and may reduce the incidences of home infestation. If you have more than one pet in the household, be sure to have your veterinarian check them all for ear mites or other external parasites. Some parasites cycle among pets, making control of infestations difficult unless all other pets are treated as well. Your veterinarian can offer technical advice on how to clean your pets’ ears, and which medications may be most effective and safe. Be especially careful when applying insecticides to cats, as cats are particularly sensitive to many of these products.  Never use a product that is not approved for cats because the results can be lethal.

Although ear mite infestations seldom cause lasting problems for your dog or cat, it’s important to recognize and treat this issue as quickly as possible. Your veterinarian will diagnose the problem and recommend treatment that best suits your pet. 

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