Can You See Them? The Truth About Cat Ear Mites And What They Look Like

What are cat ear mites?

Cat ear mites, known scientifically as Otodectes cynotis, are microscopic parasites that live in the ear canal of cats. These mites are arachnids and are related to spiders and ticks. An adult ear mite is just 1/4 to 1/2 mm in size, making it difficult to see with the naked eye. Ear mites have eight legs and have a typical mite body shape and lifecycle.

The ear mite lifecycle begins when the adult female lays eggs inside the ear canal. These eggs hatch into larvae after 3-4 days. The larvae mature into nymphs and then into adults in about 3 weeks. The adult mites feed on earwax and oils inside the cat’s ear canal.

Ear mites easily spread between cats through close contact. Kittens often get ear mites from their mother. Adult cats can pick them up through activities like grooming, snuggling, and playing. Ear mites can only survive off the host for a few days, so transmission generally requires close contact.

Signs and symptoms of ear mites

The most common signs and symptoms of ear mites in cats include:

  • Itching and scratching around the ears – Cats will often scratch excessively at their ears and shake their heads in an attempt to relieve the itchiness caused by the mites.
  • Dark ear wax buildup – Ear mites can cause a dark brown or black waxy discharge to accumulate in the ear canal.
  • Ear inflammation or infection – The scratching and buildup of debris from the mites can lead to inflammation and bacterial or yeast infections of the outer, middle, or inner ear.
  • Hearing loss – If left untreated, the inflammation and infection from ear mites can cause partial or total deafness in cats.

According to the Blue Cross, “You may see your cat shaking their head, scratching their ears or there may be a dark crusty discharge in their ears” ( The irritation from the mites leads cats to excessively shake and scratch their heads.

Can You See Ear Mites?

Ear mites (Otodectes cynotis) are extremely tiny arachnid parasites, typically measuring between 0.3-0.6 mm long. They are far too small to be visible to the naked human eye.

While you can’t see the actual mites without magnification, some of the symptoms they cause may be visible upon close inspection of the ear. These include dark coffee-grounds-like debris, a black waxy buildup, and crusty scabs in the ear canal. However, you would need to use an otoscope or microscope to actually see the mites themselves.

This microscopic photo shows ear mites gathered around the base of an ear hair follicle:

Photo of ear mites under microscope

As you can see, ear mites are extremely small. While a careful visual inspection of the ear may reveal symptoms, only a veterinarian using an otoscope will be able to directly visualize the mites themselves.

Diagnosing ear mites

Ear mites can be tricky for pet owners to diagnose at home since the mites themselves are tiny and difficult to see with the naked eye. The most accurate way to check for ear mites is to take your cat to the veterinarian.

During the examination, the vet will use an otoscope to look deep inside the ear canal for signs of mites. An otoscope is a device with a light and magnifying lens that allows vets to visualize the ear canal.

The veterinarian may also take a sample of ear wax and debris using a cotton swab. This sample can be examined under a microscope to look for ear mites, eggs, and mite feces which resemble coffee grounds.

Seeing the ear mites themselves, their eggs, or feces under the microscope can confirm a diagnosis of an ear mite infection. Otoscopic examination combined with microscopic analysis of an ear swab are the most reliable methods of diagnosing ear mites.

While pet owners may see black debris or evidence of irritation, only a veterinarian can officially diagnose ear mites after a thorough ear exam and microscopic analysis. Home remedies are not recommended without an official diagnosis from a vet.

Ear mite treatment

There are several treatment options for ear mites in cats:

Medicated ear drops are commonly used to kill ear mites. Some common medications include selamectin, milbemycin oxime, and ivermectin. These chemical agents help kill both adult mites and eggs. Medicated ear drops need to be given daily for a week or more. Some ear drops also contain an insect growth regulator to prevent immature mites from maturing. Follow your veterinarian’s instructions carefully.

Oral medications like selamectin, milbemycin oxime, ivermectin, and moxidectin are also effective. They work by traveling through the bloodstream to kill ear mites present on the surface of the skin. Oral treatments often only need to be given once to kill the entire ear mite infestation. However, your veterinarian may recommend additional doses.

Thorough cleaning and flushing of the ears is also an important part of getting rid of ear mites. Your vet will likely recommend deep cleaning the ears to remove debris, discharge and wax before applying medication. Gentle flushing with an ear cleansing solution can help remove eggs and mites from the ear canal.

Natural remedies

There are some natural home remedies that can help get rid of ear mites in cats. Some popular natural treatments include:

Essential oils: Oils like tea tree oil, lavender oil, and eucalyptus oil have natural insecticidal and anti-inflammatory properties. Mix a few drops into a carrier oil like olive oil or coconut oil and apply a small amount into the ear canal using a dropper. Be careful not to push the oil too deep into the ear.[1]

Apple cider vinegar: The acidic nature of apple cider vinegar makes it hostile to parasites like ear mites. Mix equal parts apple cider vinegar and water and apply to the ears with a cotton ball. Rinse out the ears after 5-10 minutes.[2]

Mineral oil: Mineral oil helps smother and remove ear mites by flushing out the ear canal. Apply a small amount directly into the ear, massage the area, allow your cat to shake their head, then wipe away any debris with a cotton ball.[3]


There are several steps that can be taken to help prevent ear mites in cats:

Regular ear cleaning is an important preventative measure. Gently cleaning your cat’s ears weekly or biweekly with a vet-approved ear cleaner can help remove debris and wax where mites like to live. This regular cleaning makes the ear a less hospitable environment for mites.

Avoiding contact with infected cats can reduce exposure and transmission. Ear mites are highly contagious, so limiting interactions with stray or infected cats can lower the chances of your cat contracting ear mites. Keeping cats separate if one has been diagnosed with ear mites can also help prevent spreading within a multi-cat household.

Applying monthly, veterinarian-prescribed ear mite medication can kill any mites before they have a chance to reproduce. There are several safe, effective prescription medications available that can be applied to your cat’s ears monthly as a preventative. These medications kill mites on contact and prevent future infestations. Discuss medication options with your veterinarian.

With diligent cleaning, limiting exposure, and regular medication, ear mites can be prevented in cats. It’s important to stay vigilant against these highly contagious parasites.


Left untreated, ear mites can lead to some serious complications for cats including:

Ear Infections

The constant irritation caused by ear mites can lead to bacterial and fungal ear infections, causing inflammation and discharge. These infections, known as otitis externa, are extremely painful for cats. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, “An untreated ear mite infection can result in a serious bacterial infection of the external ear canal, middle ear, and inner ear that can lead to permanent damage, including deafness” (source).

Hearing Loss

As mentioned, chronic ear infections caused by ear mites can lead to partial or complete deafness in cats. The mites themselves can also damage the ear canal and inner ear, resulting in hearing loss (source). The longer ear mites go untreated, the higher the risk of permanent hearing damage.

Balance Issues

Ear mites and resulting ear infections can also disrupt a cat’s sense of balance and coordination. The inflammation and irritation throws off their equilibrium. According to Lake Cross Veterinary Clinic, “Ear mites can cause enough irritation and inflammation to affect the nerves that control balance” (source). This may cause dizziness, disorientation, and falling over in afflicted cats.


The prognosis for cats with ear mites is generally good with proper treatment. According to PetMD, most cats will recover fully within 7-10 days when treated appropriately with medications like Advantage Multi®, Revolution®, or an injectable medication prescribed by a veterinarian.[1]

However, chronic infections are possible if the infection is not properly treated. Ear mites are highly contagious between cats, so reinfection is common if appropriate cleaning, treatment, and prevention methods are not taken. Any underlying medical conditions or ear damage that led to the initial infection may also make the cat prone to recurrent infections.[2]

With prompt veterinary attention and proper home treatment, the prognosis for ear mites is good and most cats will make a full recovery. However, chronic infections are possible without appropriate follow-up care and prevention.

When to see a vet

You should take your cat to the vet if the ear mite infestation is severe or causing complications. Some signs that indicate it’s time for veterinary care include:

  • Severe scratching/head shaking – If your cat is scratching its ears constantly and violently shaking its head, the infestation may be very irritating and advanced. Aggressive scratching can also cause wounds that get infected.
  • Visible inflammation/discharge – The ears may become red and swollen from irritation. There may be a black waxy discharge or crusty scabs from scratching. This points to a substantial infestation.
  • Odor/debris in ears – A foul, yeasty smell from the ears, along with a dark crumbly debris, indicates a severe case of mites. Bacteria and yeast can overgrow and cause a secondary infection.
  • If you observe any of these signs, take your cat to the vet promptly for an exam and appropriate treatment. Leaving advanced ear mite cases unchecked can lead to complications like ear hematomas, tissue damage, and deafness.


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