- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Mites may be tiny (about the size of a pin head!), but, left to their own devices in your cat’s ears, they can cause all kinds of problems. Cat ear mites are very common, largely because these critters are highly contagious. So, if your kitty shows signs of a mite infestation, you should visit your vet for prompt treatment to help stop further spread.
If you have an indoor cat, the chances of them catching mites are low. However, if your cat ventures outside and mingles with other cats, there’s a much higher chance of infection. Kittens are also more susceptible than older felines; up to one-third of cats will become infected with ear mites before they turn a year old.
Signs of cat ear mites range from excessive scratching to discharge. The good news? Treatments can get things cleared up. Grab your magnifying glass, and let’s investigate ear mites.
What Are Cat Ear Mites?
The main type of ear mite is called Otodectes cynotis and is seen in cats, dogs, ferrets, and foxes. However, they’re most commonly reported in cats. These little parasites live mainly in the ear canal, which Dr. Lewis says is a clever spot, as they’re less likely to get groomed off by a cat’s barbed tongue.
What do cat ear mites look like? Well, there’s a good chance you won’t see them just by looking, as they’re very tiny. However, if you do spot them, you’ll notice ear mites look like little white dots.
Mites themselves have a short lifespan of around three weeks. Their life cycle involves four stages: egg, hatching into larvae, and then going through two nymph stages before reaching adulthood.
Signs Of Ear Mites In Cats
With these parasites being so tiny, how can you tell if your cat has mites? The best approach is to look for signs of cat ear mites, which include:
- Head shaking. Some head shaking is normal — but if your feline starts shaking or moving their head a lot, it could indicate mites or an infection.
- Ear scratching. Your kitty may repeatedly scratch and paw at their ears to ease any soreness or itching.
- Excessive body scratching. Although most commonly found in the ears, mites can move to other body parts and cause itching.
- Increased ear movements. You may see your cat “twitch their ears more or hold them flattened and out to the sides — what we call ‘airplane ears’,” Lewis notes.
- Ear sores. Ear mites make your cat itch. This excessive scratching may lead to ear sores and bleeding.
- Inflammation. As the mites invade your cat’s ears, this will likely cause inflammation, which presents as warmth and redness.
- Ear discharge. “The ear canals tend to be full of a brown-black discharge that can be moist or crusty, resembling coffee grounds,” shares Lewis. This discharge occurs due to inflammation.
Can ear mites lead to an ear infection?
As if mites weren’t enough, cats might also find themselves dealing with a simultaneous ear infection. “Ears infected with Otodectes mites become warmer and moister than normal,” reveals Lewis. So how does this make things worse? Lewis says these conditions often disrupt the balance of the normal resident skin flora, leading to infections from the overgrowth of yeast and bacteria.
“[These conditions] also increase the risk of infection from bacteria that may have been introduced into the ear canal from dirty claws and paws used to scratch at the irritated ears,” she explains.
How To Treat Ear Mites In Cats
Mites have strong staying power, so you’ll need a vet’s help to get rid of them. And, if there’s more than one pet in your household, get them checked out at the same time. Cat ear mite treatment requires a multi-step approach, including the following:
- As soon as you suspect mites, see your vet. Similar symptoms (itching, excessive scratching, etc.) can arise due to other conditions, so obtaining a proper diagnosis is essential. Your vet can prescribe the best medications for cat ear mites.
- Before giving any treatments, gently clean the ears to remove as much ear discharge, mites, and eggs as possible. Lewis says your vet can advise on the safest way to do this. What things to avoid during this process? Cat ear mite home remedies, such as coconut or olive oil, and Q-Tips. “The linings of ear canals are very sensitive,” she states. These home remedies can cause serious damage to your cat’s ears if the eardrums rupture.
- After cleaning, it’s time to administer your vet-prescribed medications. “In years gone by, ear mites were treated with a three-week course of ear drops — which is a tricky commitment for a cat that is already antsy about having their ears touched,” explains Lewis. Now, some of the spot-on flea products available from vets are also licensed for killing ear mites.
- If your cat has an ear infection due to mites, this will also need treatment. Lewis reveals that treatment usually involves a prescription ear drop medication containing a mix of antibiotic, anti-fungal, and steroid anti-inflammatory ingredients.
- Next up, it’s time to clean elsewhere. Lewis says that mites can last around a week in your home without needing to feed off your cat. This means that, yes, ear mites can live on bedding. So, clean areas your cat frequents, such as their bed or your couch.
- Once all the prior steps are complete, schedule a follow-up appointment with your vet two to three weeks later. Doing so is vital as, sometimes, it can take more than one round of treatment to kill all the mites.
Can humans get ear mites from cats?
Your cat gives snuggles and affection, but they can also share ear mites. “It’s rarely reported, but yes, cats can infect humans as well as other pets [with mites],” states Lewis.
She says if you have itchy or irritated ears or lower legs and you have cats with ear mite symptoms, it may be worth mentioning it to your doctor.
Can ear mites go away on their own?
Ear mites don’t usually go away on their own. Furthermore, Lewis says mites are pretty prolific breeders, so infection can progress quickly without early treatment.
She adds that symptoms of a mite infection can lead to more serious complications if ignored and make the treatment process longer, more complicated, and more expensive. Additionally, the longer you wait for professional treatment, the greater the chance of transmission to other pets — or you.
What Causes Ear Mites?
Since ear mites are very contagious, they transfer through close physical contact. So, if your cat rubs against another pet that has mites or shares the same bedding with them? There’s a good chance your cat will soon be affected.
As noted earlier, mites are very common in feral cats — meaning if your cat roams outdoors, they’re at higher risk of infection. If you’re adopting a rescue cat, get them checked for ear mites. Socializing in close quarters with other cats (particularly ones that may have been living outdoors for a while) increases the chances of mite transmission.
Dirty Ears Vs. Ear Mites
Regularly checking your cat’s ears enables you to spot any concerns as they arise and helps you differentiate between wax build-up and mites.
A healthy ear should have little to no wax; if it does, any present wax will be pale brown. The ear canal should also be light pink in color. On the flip side, ear mites often lead to lots of dark-colored wax or discharge, and inflammation from resident mites can lead to redness and soreness.
If you’re unsure, don’t be afraid to visit your vet so your kitty’s ears can receive a more thorough check-up.
How Do Vets Diagnose Ear Mites?
The good news is that a vet can conclusively diagnose ear mites quickly. “If the ears are sensitive and full of the typical discharge, then a vet’s suspicion for ear mites will already be pretty high,” Lewis reveals.
However, she explains, many ear mites symptoms are the same as those of fungal ear infections. To ensure it is mites, she says your vet will carefully remove some of the ear discharge and scan the sample for mites and eggs.
How To Prevent Ear Mites
While ear mites are common and usually not serious, getting them treated with prescribed medication is critical. This prompt treatment benefits your cat and helps prevent the mites from spreading to other animals.
You can also take steps to prevent a mite infection from occurring in the first place. For instance, some anti-parasite medications cover mites — so ask your vet if your cat’s usual flea treatments protect against ear mites. Lewis notes that shop-bought flea collars are ineffective in preventing and treating mites.
In general, cats’ ears don’t need cleaning often. However, if your cat’s ears are particularly prone to infection, regular cleaning can help prevent issues from developing. Your vet can advise on how to clean their ears and recommend some of the best cleaning products on the market.