Ear Mites in Cats: Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Kaitlin Baker

Kaitlin has taught nursing students and has a master's degree in nursing leaderhsip, as well as a bachelor's degree in English literature.

In this lesson, you will learn about the common symptoms of ear mites in domestic cats. We will also discuss the best ways to treat ear mite infections, as recommended by veterinarians.

A Common Infection in Cats

What can't hop, swim, or fly, but can crawl, and makes life miserable for our furry feline friends? As you may have guessed from the title of this lesson, it's the ear mite, also known as Otodectes cynotis. These parasites are the most common cause of ear disease and infection in cats. They are also the second most common external parasite in cats, the most common being the flea. As common as ear mites may be, they can certainly cause lots of problems and potentially lead to major damage if not treated promptly!

A microscopic image of ear mites

Symptoms of Ear Mites

Can you see them?

Although these bugs are called ear mites, they can actually live anywhere on the surface of your cat's skin. In fact, the entire 3-week life cycle of Otodectes cynotis takes place on the cat. Ear mites are highly contagious and commonly spread quickly from animal to animal. In fact, cats can also catch ear mites from dogs, and vice versa. Although they are microscopic and can rarely be seen with the naked eye, there are some symptoms that can occasionally be visible without a microscope, such as white specks moving against a dark background. This is actually all of the tiny mites' bodies moving very rapidly in the ear. As they are moving, the adult mites are continually reproducing during their life span of about two months. Eggs take only four days to hatch, making it very hard to get rid of this infection. There are always more mites!

Behavioral Signs

More common in kittens (but found in cats of every age) and cats who spend time outdoors, ear mites may make your cat behave unusually. The cat may shake her head like she is trying to shake something loose or scratch at her ears nearly nonstop. She may also hold her ears flat against her head.

Itchy ears can be a symptom of ear mites in cats.

Skin Signs

There may also be signs visible on your cat's skin. A dark black or brown, waxy or crusty, foul-smelling discharge may be seen coming from the ears. It may look as if the cat has too much earwax; in fact, a buildup of earwax is the perfect environment for ear mites to thrive, as they feed off the wax and oils. A crusted rash may be present at the ear as well. There may also be hair loss around the ears, usually self-inflicted from excessive scratching. Excessive scratching can also lead to an aural hematoma - a large blood blister on the ear, which is caused by ruptured blood vessels.

The ear of a cat suffering from an ear mite infection

Treatment for Ear Mites

How do you know if it is ear mites causing these problems? Sometimes, allergies can also lead to infections in the ears. If a cat is showing these signs, it is very important that their owner get her to the vet right away! Not only will treatment help relieve the cat of discomfort, but it will also prevent serious infection that can occur due to mutilation of the ears, which can result from the nonstop scratching. Timely treatment can also prevent otitis externa - an outer ear infection that can potentially progress to middle and inner ear infection, and eventually damage the eardrum, permanently affecting the cat's hearing and balance.

After making a diagnosis by examining the cat's ear, both with the naked eye and an otoscope (a specialized tool for visualizing the ear) and a cotton swab (to take a sample of ear debris to examine under the microscope), a veterinarian can recommend some treatments for your cat. These treatments generally fall into the categories of: treating the ear and skin and the environment.

A veterinarian examining a cat

Treating the Ear and Skin

The first step in treating the infection is to thoroughly clean the cat's ears in order to remove the waxy buildup in which mites like to thrive. The vet will need to recommend specific medications to treat the infection and any irritated or damaged skin. The specific medications used can vary and may be topical (creams, oils, and lotions), oral, or systemic (IV medications). One of the most common medications is ivermectin: an anti-parasite medication that can come in the form of a pill, injection, or ear drops. The usual course of treatment for ear drops is three weeks (the length of the mite life cycle), and the goal is to make sure all mites are eliminated. However, some creams only need to be used for 10 to 14 days since they are much stronger and kill the eggs as well as the adult mites. Another benefit to creams over ear drops is that they are much less stressful for your pet and you! The vet may also prescribe antibiotics to treat skin infections caused by the mites. An old fashioned ear mite remedy is baby oil. Many flea treatments can also treat and prevent ear mites.

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