Is Your Cat Giving You Mites? The Contagious Truth About Feline Ear Mites

What Are Cat Ear Mites?

ear mites live in ear canals

Ear mites, known scientifically as Otodectes cynotis, are tiny parasitic insects that live in the ear canals of cats, dogs, rabbits, and ferrets. They are barely visible to the naked eye, measuring only 0.3-0.6 mm long. Ear mites have eight legs and translucent whitish bodies. They feed on ear wax and oils inside the ear canal.

Ear mites go through a life cycle of egg, larva, nymph, and adult. After mating, the adult female mite can lay up to 25 eggs per day. The eggs hatch into larvae within 4 days. The larvae mature into nymphs and then into adults within about 3 weeks. The entire life cycle from egg to adult takes place inside the ear canal.

Ear mites are highly contagious between animals and can spread rapidly. Their small size allows them to move easily from one host to another through close contact. They can survive for short periods in the environment, which also enables transmission. Due to their short life cycle, an ear mite infection can quickly populate the ear canal.

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Symptoms of Ear Mites in Cats

Ear mites can cause several noticeable symptoms in cats. The most common signs that a cat has ear mites include:

  • Itching or scratching at the ears – Ear mites can cause severe itchiness inside a cat’s ears. A cat with ear mites will often shake their head or scratch at their ears excessively in an attempt to relieve the irritation.
  • Head shaking – The itching caused by ear mites leads cats to shake their heads frequently. Head shaking is a tell-tale sign that a cat may have an ear mite infestation.
  • Dark ear wax – Ear mites feed on ear wax and oils inside a cat’s ear canal. This causes a dark brown or black crusty discharge to build up inside the ears.
  • Odor – The buildup of ear wax and discharge can lead to a foul odor coming from the cat’s ears.

According to the Blue Cross, other symptoms can include:[1]

  • Red and inflamed ears
  • Hair loss around the ears
  • Ear hematomas caused by scratching
  • infected cats scratch ears

  • Poor balance or ear twitches if the infection spreads

If a cat is displaying any of these ear mite symptoms, they should be taken to a veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment.

How Ear Mites Spread

Ear mites spread primarily through direct contact between infected cats and other animals. The mites can transfer between cats when they groom each other, sleep near each other, or play in close contact.

Ear mites can also spread through bedding, carpets, and other surfaces. The mites can survive for several days without a host. When an uninfected cat sleeps on bedding used by an infected cat or walks on contaminated carpets, they can pick up ear mites and become infested.

Because ear mites spread so easily between cats in close quarters, the mites are very common in multi-cat households and shelters. Any new cats brought into a home should be checked for ear mites to avoid introducing the parasites. Treating all cats in a household is important to control an infestation.

Ear mites pose the greatest threat to kittens and cats under one year old. Their immune systems are still developing, making them more susceptible to infestations. Adult cats with healthy immune systems may be able to keep ear mite populations under control more effectively.

To limit the spread of ear mites, bedding and carpets should be washed thoroughly. Regular vacuuming can also help remove ear mites from the environment.

Can Humans Get Cat Ear Mites?

Although humans can be exposed to cat ear mites, the mites cannot actually survive or complete their life cycle on humans. Cat ear mites, known scientifically as Otodectes cynotis, require a cat to complete their life cycle. The mites feed on ear wax and oils inside the cat’s ear canal (1).

For humans, direct contact with ear mites may at worst cause some temporary skin irritation, but the mites will soon die. According to veterinary sources, ear mites pose little risk for human infestation or infection (2).

That said, humans should take care to avoid direct contact with infected cat ears when applying medicated ear drops or cleaning the cat’s ears. Wearing gloves during treatment can help prevent exposure. Overall though, cat ear mites cannot survive or reproduce on human hosts.

Treating Ear Mites in Cats

There are several treatment options for getting rid of ear mites in cats:

Medicated Ear Drops – Topical ear drop medications like selamectin (Revolution), imidacloprid (Advantage), or fipronil (Frontline) can kill ear mites. Applying drops daily for 1-3 weeks helps to break the mite life cycle and clear up the infestation. According to Cornell University’s Feline Health Center, “There are numerous prescription as well as over-the-counter ear mite treatments available.”

Oral Medications – Oral medications like selamectin, milbemycin, or ivermectin are also effective in treating ear mites in cats. These may be prescribed for several weeks to kill the mites. VCA Hospitals notes that injections like ivermectin can provide longer-lasting treatment with a single dose.

treat ear mites with medicine

Treating the Environment – It’s important to treat the cat’s environment as well as the cat, since ear mites can survive for several days without a host. This includes washing bedding, vacuuming thoroughly, and treating with an acaricide spray. All other cats in the household should also be checked and treated to prevent re-infestation.

Preventing Ear Mites

There are some steps cat owners can take to help prevent ear mites:

Regular cleaning – Keeping your cat’s ears clean can help remove debris and wax buildup where mites like to live. Gently wipe the outer ear with a cotton ball or soft cloth dampened with a veterinarian-approved ear cleaner at least once a week.[1]

Avoid contact with infested cats – Since ear mites spread through direct contact, limiting your cat’s exposure to outdoor/stray cats and cats with ear mites can reduce risk. Keep cats with ear mites isolated and treat them before allowing contact again.[2]

Flea/tick control – Ear mites can spread by hitching a ride on fleas and ticks. Using regular flea and tick prevention medication can help break the cycle of transmission.[3]

Signs of Ear Mites in Humans

While ear mites cannot permanently live or reproduce on humans, temporary skin irritation is possible with exposure. Ear mites prefer to live on animals, especially cats, dogs, rabbits, and rodents.

Some symptoms humans may experience after contact with ear mites include:

  • Itching inside the ear
  • Redness and inflammation
  • A crawling sensation

However, these symptoms are temporary and ear mites cannot establish a long-term infection in humans. The mites feed on ear wax and oils produced by the host animal, which are not present in the human ear canal. The mites soon die off once separated from their animal host.

Any irritation in humans typically clears up within a week or two at most. With proper hygiene and avoiding direct ear-to-ear contact with infested pets, human exposure can be minimized. There are no lasting complications (cite:

mites don't stay on humans

Treating Human Ear Mite Exposure

If you have been exposed to ear mites from an infected cat, there are several treatment options available to relieve symptoms and kill any mites or eggs present in your ear canal:

Anti-itch creams can provide relief from the itching and irritation caused by ear mites. Creams containing hydrocortisone or other corticosteroids can reduce inflammation and itching 1.

Steroid creams prescribed by a doctor may also help reduce swelling and itching. Stronger steroid creams require a prescription but can more effectively treat severe itching and inflammation 2.

Antihistamines, like diphenhydramine, can reduce allergic reactions and itching from ear mite exposure. Oral or topical antihistamines may provide relief from symptoms 1.

In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe antiparasitic ear drops containing medications like permethrin, pyrethrins, or spinosad to kill any mites present in the ear canal. Follow your doctor’s instructions carefully when using these prescription ear drops 2.

When to See a Doctor

Even though human ear mite cases are typically mild, you may need to see a doctor if you experience severe itching, irritation, or signs of skin infection. Some signs it’s time to seek medical care include:

  • Intense itching that doesn’t respond to over-the-counter treatments
  • Redness, swelling, oozing, or crusting around the ear
  • Pain in or around the ear
  • Hearing loss or ringing in the ears
  • Sores or rashes spreading from the ear to other parts of the face or neck
  • Drainage of pus or blood from the ear
  • Signs of secondary skin infection like honey-colored crusts or scaling

See your doctor right away if you experience any of these worrisome symptoms after exposure to a cat with ear mites. They can examine your ears and skin and determine if prescription medications are needed to clear up the mite infection. Ignoring symptoms may allow the mites to burrow deeper into the skin and make treatment more difficult.

It’s better to be safe and get checked out if you have any concerns. Treatment is often very simple with topical prescription medications. The sooner you see a doctor and receive ear drops, the sooner you can kill live ear mites and their eggs [1].


While ear mites commonly affect cats, they very rarely spread to humans. If transmission does occur, it generally causes only minor irritation and no real health risks. The focus should be on properly treating your cat and disinfecting its environment to eliminate the ear mite infestation. With prompt veterinary care and thorough cleaning, ear mites can be fully eradicated in pets. For humans, any symptoms resulting from incidental ear mite exposure typically clear up quickly once the source infestation is removed. There is no need for specific medical treatment in human cases, beyond managing temporary itching or inflammation. Overall, cat ear mites pose very little concern for human health.

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