Fleas, ticks, roundworms, and tapeworms are all creepy critters that your cat can become infected with. But there’s another fiend for felines who isn’t quite as much a household name as those big four– ear mites.
What are ear mites in cats? Ear mites (Otodectes cynotis) are from the spider, or arachnid family, and are microscopic parasitic insects that cause irritation to your cat’s ear and can lead to deafness if left untreated.
We’re going to break down what ear mites are, how your cat can get them, and address:
- Can indoor-only cats can get ear mites?
- How ear mites affect other pets
- If ear mites can cause deafness
- How to get rid of ear mites in cats
- Ear mite treatments
What are ear mites?
Unlike ringworm which isn’t a worm at all, but a highly contagious fungal infection that targets your cat’s skin, ear mites are microscopic insects.
Also known as Otodectes cynotis and hailing from the spider, or arachnid family, the common ear mite can dwell on the skin surface and in the ear canals of cats, kittens, dogs, puppies, rabbits, and ferrets. These ectoparasites are so common that they’re only outnumbered by fleas.
The ear mite lifecycle
With a three-week life cycle consisting of five stages, these tiny parasites live on their host animal. They gorge themselves on the naturally occurring skin debris in your cat’s ear wax. Female ear mites constantly reproduce, laying eggs that hatch into larvae that grow into adult mites in two months.
This speedy lifecycle and the long-term damaging effects the ear mites have on your kitty make it imperative for you to seek immediate treatment if you notice any obvious symptoms of ear mites.
Signs of ear mites in cats
The number one sign of ear mites in cats is visible ear irritation, including ear discharge. This often appears as your cat furiously scratching at their ears excessively, and shaking or tilting their heads.
Other red flags that indicate ear mites have taken up residence in the waxy confines of your feline friend’s inner ears include:
- Dark oily, waxy, or crusty discharge coming out of your cat’s ears. Sometimes it looks like a crumbly substance like coffee grounds.
- A raw, red, or scaly rash in or around their ears.
- Hair loss, or bloody patches of skin near ears from repeatedly scratching.
- Blood blisters on, around, or inside the ear from the trauma of your cat intensely scratching.
How do cats get ear mites?
Cats get ear mites when they make direct contact with other animals that are infested with these tiny critters.
These highly contagious pests are especially rampant among young kittens who spend time in crowded animal shelters as they can quickly spread among littermates and other cats.
Can indoor-only cats get ear mites?
While outdoor cats have the highest risk of contracting ear mites, that doesn’t mean that indoor-only cats are in the clear. Just like indoor-only cats who get fleas, they can get ear mites too.
These parasites can just as easily infect cats who are indoor-only, especially if they live in a multi-cat household. All it takes is brief contact with infected cats, puppies, or dogs, for your indoor-only cat to get mites.
It’s important to make sure any new pet you adopt and bring home has a clean bill of health from your vet to make sure this doesn’t happen.
Diagnosis of ear mites in cats
If you notice your cat showing symptoms of an ear mite infection you may be tempted to head to your local pet store for some ear miticide. Or to try home remedies like almond oil, olive oil, and apple cider vinegar. However, we suggest you go to a professional first!
The best way to diagnose and treat ear mites is to take them directly to your veterinarian or a local animal hospital or clinic.
After going over your cat’s symptoms with you, your vet will be able to thoroughly search your kitty’s ears with an otoscope that allows them to peer into their cat’s ear canal and eardrums. Remember, these mites are largely invisible to the naked eye.
Many vets will also perform a cytology. This is when after taking a sample of the buildup in your kitty’s ear with a cotton swab they put it under a microscope. This allows the vet or their vet tech assistants to see the mites.
If there are no mites present, this can help them determine other causes of ear irritation, like bacteria or yeast infections.
By using a microscope, your vet can dispense the right treatment for your cat.
4 steps of ear mite treatment
Once your veterinarian diagnoses ear mites they will often start immediate treatment. Part of the reason they do this is to demonstrate what you need to do to get rid of the ear mites and help your cat recover.
In rare cases your vet may need to sedate your cat with an anesthetic to do a thorough cleaning of their ears and start treatment to end the infection.
Clean their ears
Your veterinarian will prescribe a dewaxing liquid also known as a ceruminolytic cleanser. Many vets recommend using and will prescribe Cerumene. While you may be able to find this ear cleaning solution at local pet supply stores, your vet will most likely prescribe it for you.
Using a warm washcloth, cotton ball, or gauze, you’ll gently clean around and inside your cat’s ears, as your vet shows you. You may need a second person to help you hold your cat while you clean their ears, or “burrito” wrap them in a towel. For more details on how to wrap your cat safely (see “Toweling”).
Never jab a cotton swab inside your cat’s ear, or dig into their eardrum.
Your cat may need breaks in between cleaning each ear, especially if you notice they’re anxious and distressed. Take those momentary pauses to calm them with their favorite treats, a cuddle, or a chin scratch.
Video of how to clean cat ears:
Apply mite killing medicine
Ivermectin is one of the most common medicines vets prescribe to kill ear mites. This parasite-killing drug is available in many forms including as a pill, liquid ear drops, and an injection.
When using ear drops, your cat will instinctively start to shake their head and flick their ears. Your vet will show you how you need to gently massage their ears immediately after administering the drops in order to make sure they get their proper dosage.
Video of how to give eardrops:
Another option is gels. The topical antiparasitic ointment Selamectin, also known as Revolution, is another antidote to ear mites. A single dose has been known to be powerful enough to kill every single ear mite.
Bravecto Plus, Advantage Multi, and Frontline are also effective ear mite-killing medicines.
Soothe irritated ears
Your cat may have bloodied up or seriously injured the skin around their ears if they scratched that area aggressively enough. In severe cases, vets can apply pain-relieving steroids to help reduce inflammation and itching via a topical ointment or injection. They may prescribe one of these anti-inflammatory steroids for you to also apply to the raw areas around your cat’s ears on a daily basis.
Treat other pets
If you have additional cats, kittens, puppies, dogs, rabbits, or ferrets in your household, you’ll want to also start them on a round of antiparasitic treatments, even if they aren’t showing any symptoms at the moment.
Can ear mites cause deafness?
Yes, ear mites can cause your cat to develop ear conditions that cause deafness.
According to Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, these pinhead-sized parasites can wreak such havoc in your cat’s ears that they can cause serious irreversible damage. Infections caused by ear mites can penetrate into your cat’s middle and inner ear and eardrum where it can cause permanent hearing loss and disrupt their sense of balance.
Can ear mites cause other health problems?
Yes. Sometimes ear mites can cause your cat to develop other ear problems.
- Otitis externa. These are ear infections from bacterial or yeast infections that result from the ear mite infestation. Prolonged and recurrent ear infections can cause tissue damage that leads to hearing loss and deafness in cats.
- Aural Hematoma. This is when blood vessels break in your cat’s ear flap from the repeated trauma of them violently scratching or shaking their ears. Left untreated, the serious swelling and inflammation from hematoma cause your cat a lot of pain, as well as damages their ear tissue. Hematoma could leave permanent scarring, hearing loss, and give your feline friend an ear with a cauliflower-shaped appearance.
How to treat ongoing ear problems:
How do ear mites affect other pets?
Ear mites affect dogs, puppies, ferrets, and rabbits in much the same way they do cats.
Dogs and puppies will show signs of itchiness and ear irritation with possible patchy areas of hair loss near the scratched areas. Ear mites have the same lifecycle and can cause the same damage with dogs also being at risk of developing dangerous ear infections, hearing loss, and aura hematoma.
Ear mites may be harder to diagnose in ferrets due to the natural thick, waxy build-up in their ears. Keep an eye out for excessive twitching and itching. In the very early stages of an ear mite infestation in ferrets, they may come across simply as agitated.
Rabbits show the same symptoms as dogs and cats. Unlike their canine and feline friends though, when the infestation grows large enough, the mites can be seen directly on the rabbit’s outer ear flaps. Rabbits can also suffer secondary bacterial ear infections as well as a permanent loss of balance.
Can people get ear mites from cats?
According to the CDC and Blue Cross UK, it’s very rare for people to get ear mites from their cat. This is because although the Otodectes cynotis ear mites spread easily among many of our companion animals, just like with sarcoptic mange, they’re not the same parasitic mites that can affect us as humans.
If anything the worst you as a human will get if your cat has ear mites is a minor skin rash.
How to prevent ear mites from returning
One of the best ways to prevent ear mites from returning is to make sure your cat completes their full course of treatment. There are often two three-week treatments that need to be given to your cat, making the grand total of time spent targeting the ear mites six weeks, or more. If you don’t give your cat the second treatment there’s a good chance their ear mites can re-emerge.
Unless your feline friend is just one cat who lives with no other animals, you need to make sure you’ve treated all of the pets in your household with a full course of ear mite treatment (yes, all six weeks of it) even if they aren’t showing symptoms.
Another way to take preventative action against ear mites is to make sure you’re attentive to any leftover wax, oily residue, or mite debris left in your cat’s ears.
While you can use a magnifying scope to see if you can spot any tiny white dots (aka ear mites) it’s best to pay another visit to your vet if you suspect another ear infection or mite infestation.
Key takeaways on ear mites in cats
Armed with the knowledge about what makes these Otodectes cynotis mites tick (sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves!) you can take immediate action if you notice any red flags, and confidently treat ear mite infestations while taking preventative measures to make sure you can stop future infestations before they start!
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