What They Are
Ear mites (Otodectes cynotis) are very common in dogs and cats. Ear mites are parasites that live in the ear canal. They are white and are about the size of a pin head. They bite the ear canal and then feed on the epidermal debris and tissue fluid. Ear mites are prolific breeders. Many puppies and kittens are infected by their mothers during the nursing period.
Symptoms of Ear Mites
Ear mites cause intense irritation. Symptoms of ear mites are an intense itching of the ears which is manifested as scratching the ears and head shaking, which can be so violent, that vessels can rupture resulting in hematoma of the ear. Sometimes the mites (or the animal violently scratching at the mites) will cause a secondary bacterial ear infection and the ear will have a foul smell to it. You might even see blood and pus. This usually causes a very painful ear.
Ear mites can also affect the skin and hair coat of the entire animal (not just the ears) so if you want to treat ear mites correctly or you have a persistent case of mites that are proving stubborn to get rid of, then I would treat the entire animal with a topical insecticide (since I practiced in the 80s and 90s, we used a topical flea powder or spray). I’ve seen ear mites cause a very intense pruritic dermatitis of the facial area in a cat. I thought for sure the cat had feline scabies, which affects the ears and face, but it was actually a severe case of ear mites! I’ve read that ear mites can actually crawl out of the ear with early treatment and take residence up at the opposite end near the tail, and then when treatment is over, they run back to the ears. Smart, huh?
Diagnosing Ear Mites
When you look into an ear of an animal with ear mites, you’ll usually see a dark brown waxy exudate, which resembles coffee grounds. Sometimes you will see dry, crusty debris.
If you have a dog or cat with very itchy ears or a black coffee ground type ear debris, then you might want to have them checked for mites. Your vet will do an otoscopic exam looking for the live ear mites, the characteristic black waxy debris they cause, and any signs of an ear infection.
Ear mites are large white mites, and can be seen moving around in the ear canal with an otoscopic examination. This is what the ear mites look like down in the animal’s ear.
When ear mites are suspected or found in the ear with an otoscope, an ear swab can be performed and the debris can be smeared on a glass side with a drop of mineral oil and examined under the microscope. This is what you will usually see.
Can you imagine having those crawling around in your ear? It makes me shudder to think about it. And yes, the two mites you see that seem to be stuck rear to rear in the above video are mating. Yes, I’m showing you mite porn. Sometimes you will see both mites and eggs on the slide. Ear mites spend their entire three-week life cycle on the pet. Here’s a good slide with both the mites and several eggs. The single mite is at the bottom moving around and the eggs are the brownish gray oval structures towards the top and middle of the slide.
Treating Ear Mites
There are a lot of miticidal ear mite preparations on the market. I think where most pet owners fail in getting rid of their pet’s ear mites, is that they don’t treat long enough. Since the entire life of the ear mite is three weeks, you need to treat at least 3 weeks to ensure that you break the life cycle of the mite. I used to recommend the ear treatment daily for 7 days, skip a week, and then treat another week. If you only treat one week, then you might miss those eggs that have remained in the ear but will be hatching out soon. There are also newer topical meds for ear mites that will treat the mites with a single application to the skin. If there is a secondary bacterial infection, you need to treat that too, for the animal’s comfort.
Other Things About Ear Mites You Might Want to Know
I’ll mention that ear mites are very contagious from animal to animal so chances are if you have a multi-pet household and find ear mites in one pet, they more than likely all have them, and so all pets need to be treated. Mites can be a real problem in kennels or catteries or anywhere you have multiple animals. Control can be difficult in these situations.
I used to have clients ask me if people can get ear mites from their pets. My answer was that it is possible but not likely and would probably require prolonged direct ear to ear contact with your pet. I once read in one of my veterinary journals about a very curious veterinarian (perhaps a little too curious?), Dr. Robert Lopez from New York, who intentionally infected himself with ear mites. He told all about his infestation in great detail in a 1993 edition of The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. While it made me cringe, it was very interesting to read. He took a swab from the ear of an infected animal and inserted it into his own ear. He went on to describe how it felt and what he heard as the mites crawled around in his ear canal– the scratching and crunching noises caused by the mites crawling around and feeding in his ear. He also said sleep became next to impossible as it was so intensely itchy.
I’ll also mention an interesting observation I made while practicing. Maybe this was coincidental, but I don’t think so. I had a few cats I diagnosed with ear mites who did NOT get better with intensive treatment. The owners were caring owners who were diligently using the ear mite meds as prescribed and so I just couldn’t understand why we weren’t getting rid of the mites with prolonged treatment, ear cleanings, etc. We were doing everything right and treating the entire animal as well as the ears. These healthy appearing cats ended up having feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) which is a virus similar to HIV in humans. This was the late eighties and FIV had just been discovered and come onto the scene. From that point on, any cat I couldn’t clear of ear mites, got checked for both FeLV and FIV (both viruses in cats which suppress the immune system).
You might also ask if there are any good home remedies for ear mites? I acquired both my kittens– Nugget and Dakota–when they were newly weaned. They were barn kitties from South Dakota and they both had ear mites. I’ll mention that I treated them both with a homemade remedy–olive oil (which smothers the mites). That’s why they always looked a little “greasy-headed” in many of their kitten pictures! But it worked. I won’t say it was fun or easy. Treating ear mites is a messy job. As the olive oil loosens up the waxy debris caused by the mites, they shake their head and sling the black oily debris everywhere. And I mean everywhere. That’s why I used to always tell clients not to wear their best clothes while treating ear mites and to treat them outside if possible. Another trick is to throw or hold a towel over their head as they shake their ears. Then wipe as much of the debris out of the ear as it comes to the surface over the weeks that you treat. Never go deep in the ear canal with a swab or Q-tip.