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Ear Mites in Cats
Ear mites in cats can be troublesome and pesky and negatively affect your pet’s quality of life. Promptly recognizing the issue and getting your cat evaluated by your veterinarian will prevent unneeded suffering.
What Causes Cat Ear Mites?
The cause of ear mites in cats, dogs, and other species, Otodectes cynotis, is a surface mite that can affect the skin and ears. It is sometimes referred to as otodectic mange, but that is more in the textbooks than in reality. This mite is highly contagious to other pets in the home. While you may have indoor-only cats, they too are at risk as long as one animal (dog, cat, ferret) goes outside, as they can bring it home to the rest of the four-legged family. Cats seem especially prone to ear mite infections.
Ear Mite Transmission
How does your cat acquire ear mites? If your cat goes outside, other animals can transmit it via direct contact. Additionally, the environment can become contaminated, so sharing an area with an animal with mites can lead to exposure. Further, you may have an indoor cat and bring a new cat or kitten into the home with ear mites. Their shared communal space, casual contact, and grooming habits all contribute to the sharing of the mites.
The Ear Mite Life Cycle
The ear mite reproduces on the animal, though mites may survive for a short time on bedding, litter, soil, and other contaminated areas. The adult mite lives for about 2 months. During this time, they constantly lay eggs, taking 3 weeks to develop into adulthood.
Symptoms of Cat Ear Mites
Ear mite infections are easy to recognize. Your cat may display signs, including excessive scratching (of the skin/ears), red or warm ears, and a partial loss of fur around the ears. Additionally, many cats will shake their heads, causing mites inside the ear canal to escape onto the skin, causing itchiness elsewhere. Sometimes the ear pinna (floppy part of the ear) will droop.
Usually, discharge is visible in the ear canal, which has a characteristic whiteish appearance unless there is also a secondary infection. If infection occurs concurrently, then discharge may be brown or black. Sometimes, if there are sufficient mites, you can see movement in the ears.
How Vets Diagnose Ear Mites
Ear mites provide a rewarding diagnosis for many vets. Most can tell what is happening just by how itchy a pet is and the classic appearance of the ear discharge (very dry, flaky, white discharge, that seems to move). However, we confirm the diagnosis by sampling the discharge in your cat’s ears with a swab. We then smear that onto a microscope and view it. The ear mites are readily apparent, see Figure 1, on the slide, crawling around.
We will also take ear wax from a slide and check for other organisms, including bacteria and yeast, using a special stain. Often, the mites cause the bacteria and yeast that naturally live on a cat’s body to become overactive, leading to a secondary ear infection. If this goes ignored, the cat will still show signs of infection.
Cat Ear Mite Treatment
Ear mites are relatively easy to treat if re-exposure is prevented and a proper monthly preventative is used.
- Proper cleaning of the cat’s ears with a cat-safe ear cleaner
- Topical application of a cat-safe ear medication
- Preventative medication to prevent future recurrences
Therapy needs to start with a thorough ear cleaning, and we want to clean the ears well with a cat-safe ear cleaner.
To safely clean the ears, fill the cat’s ear canal with a cleaner and massage the ear, preventing (or trying to) the cat from shaking its head. Then let the cat shake its head. We then dry the canal with a cotton ball and use cotton balls to remove any debris in the superficial nooks and crannies we can see. We do not recommend the average pet owner uses Q-tips to clean the ears, as you can push stuff further in the canal. Trained veterinary staff will use longer swabs to go deeper into the canal and remove debris before applying topical medications.
Once the ears are appropriately cleaned, topical medication can be applied. Applying topical medication without cleaning the debris leads to treatment failure. The drug must be absorbed by the ear, and the discharge prevents that. Plus, removing the debris makes the animal more comfortable. It eliminates a lot of the adult mites, actively irritating the cat.
Treating ear mites in cats consists of the topical application of a medication labeled to treat this and similar species. Some medicines treat ear mites alone, while drugs like Tresaderm® can address underlying yeast/bacterial infections and treat the mites.
Protect Your Cat Against Parasites Monthly
Although certain mite infections cannot be avoided, the chance of infestation may be minimized by using a monthly flea, tick, and heartworm preventive that helps shield your cat against those bothersome ear mites.
- Before introducing new pets to the home, ensure they are parasite-free.
- Quarantine new pets once they enter your home. In other words, keep them away from current pets for 10-14 days (the time it takes for stress and most diseases to show symptoms). Suppose after that 10-14 day period they are not itchy, not sneezing, not acting abnormally. In that case, you can slowly introduce pets to each other.
- If you have cats that go outside, ensure they are on a monthly preventative like Revolution Plus®. For dogs, ensure they, too, are on an appropriate monthly preventative.
Revolution Plus® is a monthly topical flea, tick, ear mite, roundworm, hookworm, and heartworm preventative. It is often the number one product veterinarians recommend because it effectively prevents several parasites and diseases in your pet. It is better at preventing some things vs. others.
Fleas and ticks are tiny parasites we all know, and ear mites you are now an expert on. Roundworms and hookworms are intestinal parasites that can be contagious to people and can cause stomach upset, diarrhea, vomiting, and more in cats. Finally, heartworms are deadly worms that live in the lungs of cats and dogs and are transmitted by mosquitoes. While there is a treatment for this infection in dogs, there isn’t in cats.
Pound of Prevention
Many will say that a ‘pound of prevention is worth an ounce of a cure’, meaning, why not prevent infection, pain, and suffering rather than treat it after it arises? Using monthly preventatives on outdoor cats, indoor-outdoor cats, and indoor cats and all dogs helps protect against bothersome pests and keeps your pet happy and healthy.
Take your cat to the veterinarian to ensure that ear mites are causing your cat’s symptoms. Bacterial and yeast infections in the ears cause similar clinical signs and require more than over-the-counter ear mite therapies can provide. Proper ear cleaning and evaluation are needed to ensure appropriate medications are used and resolution occurs.
If your cat is excessively shaking its head or scratching its ears, check for any discharge/debris in the ears. If you notice a white, brown, or black discharge, take your pet to the vet to be evaluated. Do not use over-the-counter products until you know what the problem is. It could be ear mites or an infection caused by bacteria or yeast secondary to allergies, among other causes.
Ear mites, when left untreated, will cause pain and suffering and can lead to chronic ear problems. Further, they will not go away on their own and are contagious to other animals. Proper ear cleaning to remove discharge and debris, topical ear medications, and monthly prevention are key to ensuring your cat’s ears remain healthy and your pet remains happy.