Do Ear Mites Hurt? The Truth About Your Cat’s Discomfort

What are ear mites in cats?

Ear mites, also known as Otodectes cynotis, are tiny parasitic insects that can infest a cat’s ears. They are a common parasite found in cats and kittens. Ear mites are highly contagious and spread from cat to cat through direct contact. They can also spread through contact with infected bedding, carpets, and grooming tools.

The ear mite life cycle begins when an infected female mite lays eggs inside a cat’s ear canal. These eggs hatch into larvae within 3-4 days. The larvae mature into adults in about 7-10 days. The adult female mites continue laying eggs, allowing the cycle to repeat. Ear mites can survive for 2-3 weeks in the environment without a host.

Cats become infested with ear mites when the parasites transfer from one cat to another. This often happens during mutual grooming, snuggling, and play. Stray and outdoor cats are more likely to acquire ear mites than indoor cats. Kittens and cats with weakened immune systems are most susceptible.

According to Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine[1], ear mites are highly contagious and can infest cats of all ages, even if they are indoor cats.

Signs and symptoms of ear mites in cats

Cats with ear mites typically show some common signs and symptoms. The most telling sign is the presence of black debris resembling coffee grounds in the outer ear canal. This dark discharge is composed of dried blood, ear wax, and ear mite excrement (1).

Other signs of an ear mite infestation include excessive head shaking and scratching at the ears. Cats will often scratch their ears with their hind legs and may cause wounds by overgrooming (2). The irritation from the mites leads to inflammation that reddens the ears. You may also notice a strong odor coming from the ears due to a buildup of wax and debris.

As the infestation worsens, ear mites can spread from the ears to other parts of the body. Your cat may develop a skin condition called miliary dermatitis, which causes crusty scabs on the neck, back, and face. Hair loss and open sores can also occur from intense scratching. Left untreated, ear mites pose a risk of further infections and damage to the ear canal.




Do ear mites cause pain and discomfort?

Ear mites can absolutely cause pain, discomfort, and irritation in cats. The mites themselves are microscopic parasites that feed on the wax and oils inside a cat’s ear canal. As they feed and move around, the mites cause intense itching and inflammation.

Some of the most common signs of discomfort and pain from ear mites include:

  • Excessive scratching and head shaking as the cat tries to relieve the itchy irritation

  • Inflamed ear canals that appear red and irritated

  • Hematomas or blood blisters in the ear flap from vigorous head shaking and scratching (

  • Loss of sleep and appetite due to the constant irritation and itching

The inflammation and damage from ear mites can also lead to secondary bacterial or fungal infections, which cause additional pain and discomfort on top of the irritation from the mites. Ignoring an ear mite infection allows the discomfort to persist and raises the risk of complications.

While ear mites don’t pose a direct threat to a cat’s overall health, the intense itching and inflammation they cause is extremely uncomfortable. That’s why it’s important to have ear mites diagnosed and treated promptly to relieve the cat’s pain and provide a comfortable recovery.

Diagnosing ear mites

A veterinarian can diagnose an ear mite infestation in cats by performing a physical exam of the ears and looking at a sample of ear debris under a microscope. During the physical exam, the vet will use an otoscope, which is an instrument with a light and magnifying lens, to look deep inside the ear canal. They will look for signs of irritation and inflammation such as redness, scratch marks, and dark crumbly debris. Ear mites leave behind a coffee-grounds-like dark brown debris composed of dried blood, ear wax, and mite waste. The vet may see adult mites which are just barely visible to the naked eye or eggs and larvae under magnification. To confirm the presence of ear mites, the vet will take a sample of the debris from deep inside the ear and examine it under a microscope. The microscopic examination allows visual identification of the mites, eggs, and larvae.

Treating and managing ear mites

Treatment for ear mites typically involves medicated ear drops or oral medications prescribed by your veterinarian. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, “Treatment generally begins with a thorough cleaning of the cat’s ears to remove any wax or debris that may shield the mites from topical medications.”

Medicated ear drops containing ingredients like pyrethrins, fipronil, selamectin, or imidacloprid are commonly prescribed. These drops kill adult mites and eggs. Your vet will show you how to properly administer the drops deep into your cat’s ear canal. Be sure to follow all instructions carefully.

Oral medications like selamectin, ivermectin, or milbemycin oxime may also be prescribed, particularly for severe infestations. These drugs take care of mites systemically. Combination therapy with drops and oral meds is often most effective.

Your vet will also recommend regular ear cleaning and flushing to remove debris and prevent recurrence. Use a vet-approved ear flush solution to gently wash your cat’s ears. Cleaning helps remove wax, dead skin, and mite debris to allow the medication to penetrate. Follow up as directed until mites are fully gone.

With prompt treatment under a vet’s supervision, most ear mite infections can be fully cured within 1-3 weeks. Be patient and follow all directions carefully. Relieving your cat’s painful irritation is well worth the effort.

Providing relief and preventing reinfestation

It’s important to provide relief for a cat suffering from the itching and irritation caused by ear mites. Some options to help soothe itchiness include:

Topical ear medications containing hydrocortisone can provide anti-inflammatory relief and reduce swelling and itching in the ears. These are available over-the-counter or through your veterinarian (PetVet, 2023).

Your vet may recommend allergy medication such as antihistamines to reduce inflammation and itching throughout the body (Matthews Vet, 2022).

Applying a cool compress to the base of the ears can provide soothing relief. Just wrap an ice pack or cold wet cloth in a towel and press gently against the area.

Thoroughly cleaning the cat’s environment is also important to get rid of any lingering ear mite eggs and prevent reinfestation. This includes:

Vacuuming and washing all bedding, cat towers, scratching posts, and other fabric items the cat comes into contact with using hot water and soap.

Thoroughly clean litter boxes and replace the litter.

Wipe down hard surfaces like floors and furniture with an antimicrobial cleaner.

Wash any pet bedding and toys in hot, soapy water or discard non-washable items.

Continue treatment and environment cleaning until follow up exams show the ear mites have been fully eliminated.

Potential complications

If left untreated, ear mites can lead to some serious complications for cats. Some potential complications include:

Bacterial and yeast infections: The excessive scratching caused by ear mites can create wounds in the skin of the ear canal, allowing bacteria and yeast to infect the area. These secondary infections can be painful and require antibiotic treatment.

Damage to ear canal and eardrum: The scratching and head shaking caused by irritated ears can lead cats to rupture blood vessels and damage tissues in the ear canal. In severe cases, the eardrum may be damaged. This can cause hearing loss.

Hearing loss: The combination of damaged ear canal tissue, ruptured blood vessels, and potential damage to the eardrum can cause muffled hearing or deafness. The degree of hearing loss depends on the severity of the damage.

Left untreated, ear mites pose a serious threat to a cat’s ear health and hearing. That’s why it’s critical to identify and treat ear mites promptly. Following treatment guidelines, keeping ears clean, and avoiding reinfestation can help prevent complications.

When to seek veterinary care

There are a few situations when you should take your cat to the vet for ear mites, even if you have started over-the-counter (OTC) treatments:

Persistent head shaking and scratching – If your cat continues to shake their head and scratch at their ears excessively despite OTC treatments, the infestation may be severe and require prescription medication.

Visible inflammation or lesions – Ear mites can cause swelling, redness, scabs, and open sores in the ear canal. These symptoms indicate a more advanced infestation that needs veterinary attention.

No improvement with OTC treatments – OTC ear mite medications often take care of minor infestations. But if you don’t see any reduction in symptoms after the full course of treatment, your cat likely needs stronger prescription medication prescribed by a vet.

According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, it’s important to have a vet examine your cat’s ears to properly diagnose an ear mite infection and rule out other conditions with similar symptoms. The vet can also use an otoscope to look deep inside the ear canal for signs of inflammation or discharge [1].

Caring for a Cat with Ear Mites

Caring for a cat with ear mites involves keeping the ears clean and dry, providing a low-stress environment, and ensuring proper nutrition. Here are some tips:

Keeping the ears clean and dry is important to get rid of debris and dead mites. Gently wipe the ears with a cotton ball dipped in mineral oil or an ear cleaning solution specifically for pets. Be very gentle and do not insert anything into the ear canal. Dry the outer ear thoroughly after cleaning [1].

Providing a low-stress environment can help boost your cat’s immune system to fight off the mites. Cats with ear mites may be irritable due to the itching and discomfort. Try to minimize stress by keeping their routine consistent, providing cozy spots for them to rest, and giving extra playtime and affection.

Ensure proper nutrition by feeding high-quality food and treats. A diet rich in omega fatty acids can help reduce inflammation and support skin and coat health. You may also ask your vet about supplements to boost immunity [2].

Preventing ear mites

Ear mites can be challenging to prevent once a cat is infected, but there are some steps cat owners can take to reduce the chances of infestation:

Regular cleaning and checking of ears – Gently cleaning your cat’s ears weekly with a veterinarian-approved ear wash can help remove debris and wax buildup where mites like to thrive. Examining ears often also helps detect early signs of infection.

Using veterinarian-recommended prevention – Some veterinarians may prescribe monthly topical ear mite prevention medications, such as selamectin. These treatments kill ear mites and help prevent future infections.

Limiting exposure to stray/outdoor cats – Since ear mites easily spread through contact, keeping cats indoors and avoiding interaction with strays or outdoor cats can reduce chances of exposure.

While diligent prevention is helpful, ear mites can still occasionally occur. Seeing a veterinarian promptly at the first signs allows quick treatment to provide relief and prevent worsening infection.

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