Ear mites are a common spider-like external parasite which causes significant discomfort to the cat. Although the name would suggest otherwise, ear mites can live on any part of the body although they generally live in the ear canal of cats. They are the most common cause of otitis externa (inflammation of the outer ear canal) in cats.
Ear mites are most often seen in kittens and outdoor cats, but they can affect cats of any age, including indoor cats. They feed on epidermal debris and ear wax. The mites burrow into the cat's inner ear, causing inflammation which the body responds to by producing more wax.
While there are several types of mites which may infect cats, Otodectes Cynotis is the mite most commonly seen in cats. The global distribution of Otodectes Cynotis ear mites is worldwide.
What are the symptoms of ear mite infestation in cats?
Ear mites are extremely uncomfortable, these spider-like parasites live out their entire life cycle inside the ear of cats. It is not possible to see the mites with the naked eye, but there are plenty of clues your cat has ear mites.
The most common symptoms of ear mites in cats include:
- Extremely itchy ears which presents as scratching, often to the point where the ears become damaged due to trauma.
- Head shaking.
- Rubbing the ears.
- Reddish/brown discharge in the ear.
- Coffee-grounds like appearance in the ear.
- Twitching of the ears.
As the cat scratches, further damage is inflicted on the ears:
- Scratch marks.
- Bleeding from the ear due to damage caused by scratching.
- Redness and swelling of the ear flap.
- Odour coming from the ears due to secondary infection.
- Crusty appearance along the edges of the ears.
There may be damage to the ear if the infection has been present for a length of time. Damage to the ear could include a thickening of the skin, aural hematoma (a blood-filled pocket) or an ear infection which is caused by the cat damaging the skin by scratching, and bacteria entering these wounds. Ear infections are extremely painful and can potentially cause deafness if left untreated.
In 1968, veterinarian Dr. Robert Lopez of Westport, New York decided to see if he could infect himself with ear mites. While examining a cat with ear mites, a three-year-old girl who shared her home with the cat complained of an itchy abdomen and chest. Once the cat's ear mite infection cleared up, the itching resolved in the little girl.
Dr. Robert Lopez inserted the debris/mites from an infected cat's ear into his left ear using a cotton bud. He immediately began to hear scratching sounds, followed by intense itching and pain. The sounds and itching intensified as the mites made their way further into his ear. The mites remained active for several weeks, by six weeks activity, the itching was gone.
This story demonstrates just how an infected cat feels. Humans seem to have a natural immunity to the mite, as demonstrated by the recovery of Dr. Lopez without treatment, however as cats are the natural host, they will remain infected until treatment is provided.
How do cats become infected with ear mites?
Ear mites are extremely contagious and are passed from cat to cat, or dog to cat. They can be passed via bedding and other household objects.
How are ear mites diagnosed?
Often a veterinarian can diagnose ear mites by direct examination of the cat's ears with an otoscope, an instrument with a light and magnifying lenses which will enable him to see the mites.
Your veterinarian may also diagnose ear mites by microscopic examination of material removed from your cat's ear.
What are the treatments for ear mites?
Treatment depends on how severe the problem is, all cats (and dogs) in the household should be treated at the same time.
- Removal of the exudates from the ear by instilling a few drops of mineral oil and gently massaging the base of the ear. This will loosen the exudate, which will make it easy to remove.
- Your veterinarian will be able to prescribe a commercial insecticide to kill the mites. Administration may be injection, applied to the back of the neck or in the ears. Products may vary from country to country, but below is a list of popular products which may be prescribed. These treatments must be carried out over several weeks, it is not possible to kill the eggs or pupae, and treatment is aimed at killing adults as they reach maturity and breaking the life cycle of the mite.
- Medicated or antibiotic ear drops may also be prescribed if your cat has a concurrent bacterial infection.
- Thoroughly washing your pet's bedding and toys are required if you have had an outbreak of ear mites in your home. Water should be as hot as possible.
Safety when treating cats for ear mites:
Never use products for dogs to treat ear mites in cats, many contain active ingredients which are extremely toxic to cats.
Always follow your veterinarian's instructions when using these products. Some are used IN the ears while others are applied to the back of your cat's neck.
Check with your veterinarian before treating kittens, pregnant or lactating cats to make sure you are not using a product which may be toxic to the kittens.
Don't attempt to clean the ears or administer medication with an ear bud, not only can this force debris and wax further into the ear but it can potentially damage the ear also. Apply treatments with a cotton ball.
Be aware that severely affected cats may not cope well with having his painful ears treated, in which case it is recommended that you ask your veterinarian to help treat the ears.
Can I catch ear mites from my cat?
People may experience a mild rash or itching if cats in the household are infected, but generally don't become infected with ear mites, well unless they insert the debris/mites directly into your ear as the Dr. Robert Lopez did. It is, however, possible for dogs to become infected with ear mites from cats.
Preventing ear mites in cats:
There are a number of products available to prevent mites in cats. These typically treat/prevent fleas and parasitic worms also and are administered monthly.