Battling the Tiny Tormentors. Why Ear Mites Are So Hard to Defeat in Cats

What Are Ear Mites?

Ear mites, known scientifically as Otodectes cynotis, are tiny parasitic insects that live on the skin surface inside the ear canal of cats (and dogs). They are just barely visible to the naked eye, measuring about 0.4 mm long. Under a microscope, ear mites have 8 legs and oval, crab-like bodies. They are whitish-grey in color.

Ear mites spread rapidly from host to host through direct contact. The primary route of transmission is from an infected mother cat to her kittens. Ear mites can also spread between cats in multi-cat households or shelters through grooming behaviors that bring cats into close face-to-face contact. Less commonly, ear mites can be transmitted indirectly by sharing bedding or grooming supplies. However, ear mites only survive around 3 weeks away from a host, so transmission this way is less likely (Source).

Signs Your Cat Has Ear Mites

There are several common signs that may indicate your cat has an ear mite infection, including:

Black discharge – One of the most common signs of ear mites in cats is a dark, crumbly, black discharge in the ear canal that resembles coffee grounds or wet dirt. This is composed of dried blood, mite excrement, and ear wax.

Odor – Along with the discharge you may notice a strong odor coming from your cat’s ears. The waste and discharge can produce a foul, yeasty smell.

Excessive scratching/head shaking – Because the mites cause severe irritation and inflammation, you may notice your cat excessively scratching at their ears and shaking their head. The itchiness leads them to scratch which can cause cuts, bleeding and infection.

If your cat is displaying these signs, it’s important to get them checked by a vet, as untreated ear mites can lead to more serious infections and complications. Your vet can examine the discharge under a microscope to confirm the presence of ear mites and recommend the best treatment plan.

Complications of Ear Mites

If left untreated, ear mites can lead to some serious complications for cats.

One of the most common is ear infections, known as otitis externa. The inflammation and irritation from the mites can allow yeast and bacteria to overgrow and infect the external ear canal (source). These infections, which are extremely painful, could result in partial or total deafness if left untreated.

Ear mites can also damage the delicate ear drum of cats after prolonged infestation. Ruptured ear drums can cause long-term hearing problems and balance issues.

In addition, the intense itchiness caused by ear mites often leads to behavioral issues in cats. The discomfort may cause them to shake their head violently, scratch at their ears obsessively, and become withdrawn or aggressive.

For all these reasons, it’s critical to diagnose and treat ear mites promptly. Allowing the infestation to persist can seriously impact a cat’s health and quality of life.

Diagnosing Ear Mites

If you suspect your cat has ear mites, the first step is to take them to the vet for a diagnosis. Ear mites can’t be confirmed just by looking in your cat’s ears, an exam by your vet is required. As stated by Small Door Veterinary, “Your veterinarian will examine your cat for clinical signs as well as assessing their overall condition” (source).

To diagnose ear mites, the vet will use an otoscope to look deep inside your cat’s ears. An otoscope is a tool that shines a light and magnifies the ear canal. As noted by Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, “A veterinarian can readily diagnose suspected ear mite infestation by using an otoscope” (source).

The vet will look for the presence of ear mites and their debris. Mites may be visible moving around. The debris looks like dark coffee grounds. Your vet can also take a sample of the discharge and examine it under a microscope to confirm if ear mites are present, as stated by VCA Hospitals, “A diagnosis is made by observing the mite. This is usually straightforward and may be done either by examination of the pet’s ears with an otoscope or by taking a sample of the crumbly dark discharge and examining it under a microscope” (source).

Treating Ear Mites

There are a few main treatment options for ear mites in cats:

Medicated ear drops are commonly prescribed to kill the mites. These usually contain ingredients like pyrethrins, pyrethroids, or amitraz. The drops are applied directly into the ear canal. It’s important to follow your veterinarian’s instructions closely and administer the full course of treatment. According to Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, you may need to continue treating for 2-4 weeks (“Ear Mites: Tiny Critters that can Pose a Major Threat,” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine,

Oral medications may also be prescribed, such as selamectin, sarolaner, or moxidectin. These systemic treatments kill mites and can provide additional relief (“How to Get Rid of Ear Mites in Cats,” Lake Cross Veterinary Hospital,

The ear canal should be thoroughly cleaned to remove debris and discharge. Your vet may perform a deep ear flush to fully eliminate buildup. Proper cleaning allows medication to effectively reach the mites (“Ear Mites in Cats and Dogs,” VCA Animal Hospitals,

Tips for Application

Properly applying ear mite medication can ease your cat’s stress and ensure the treatment is effective. Here are some tips:

Warm the medication to body temperature before applying. Cold drops can startle your cat. Place the bottle in your pocket for a few minutes beforehand. A quick rub between your hands can also warm the medication (Applying Ear Drops to Cats – VCA Animal Hospitals).

After putting the drops in your cat’s ear, gently massage the base of the ear in a circular motion. This helps spread the medication throughout the ear canal. You should hear a “squishing” sound as you massage (Applying Ear Drops to Cats – VCA Animal Hospitals).

Reward your cat with a treat after the process. This creates a positive association with ear treatments.

Cleaning the Environment

Ear mites can quickly spread through a multi-cat household. Even after treating your cat’s ears, any remaining mites in the environment can reinfect them. Thorough cleaning is essential for getting rid of ear mites.

Start by washing all bedding, towels, blankets, and plush toys in hot, soapy water. The heat will kill any lingering mites. Dry them on the highest setting. Vacuum all carpeting, upholstery, cat trees, and other fabric surfaces. Use the hose attachment to get into crevices. Empty the vacuum or seal and dispose of the bag after.

Disinfect any hard, nonporous surfaces like floors, countertops, and litter boxes. A general household cleaner or diluted bleach solution works well. Let it sit for 5-10 minutes before rinsing. Avoid ammonia-based cleaners, which can irritate your cat’s respiratory tract.

With diligent cleaning, you can eradicate ear mites from your home. Combine with treatment and prevention methods to keep infestations from recurring. Frequent laundering of fabrics and vacuuming will help maintain an environment free of ear mites.

Preventing Reinfestation

To prevent your cat from getting reinfested with ear mites, you need to take some precautions:

First, make sure to treat all pets in the household. Ear mites are highly contagious between animals, so leaving just one untreated can allow the mites to spread again. Discuss options with your vet for treating your other pets.

You should also schedule regular vet exams and ear cleanings for your cat. Your vet can check for signs of ear mites and thoroughly clean out your cat’s ears to remove any eggs or debris that might allow mites to take hold again. Frequent vet visits can catch any reinfestations early before they worsen. See reference:

Limiting your cat’s outdoor access can also be helpful. Ear mites can be picked up from other animals or environments outdoors. Keeping your cat inside reduces potential exposure and makes reinfestation less likely.

With diligence about treating all pets, veterinary care, and limiting outdoor access, you can prevent frustrating recurring ear mite infestations in your cat.

Providing Comfort

You can help provide comfort and relief to your cat while treating their ear mites. Some tips include:

Gently massaging the base of the ears can help relieve itchiness and discomfort. Be very gentle and stop if your cat seems bothered. Massage for just a minute or two at a time.

Keep your cat’s ears clean by using a cotton ball dampened with a veterinarian-approved ear cleaner to gently wipe out debris and wax buildup. This helps reduce irritation. Only clean the parts you can see, don’t insert anything into the ear canal. [1]

Try to reduce stress levels, as stress can worsen ear infections in cats. Make sure your cat has a quiet, comfortable place to rest and retreat when needed. Stick to your cat’s normal routine as much as possible.

When to See the Vet Again

If your cat’s ear mite symptoms don’t improve within 1-2 weeks of starting treatment, you should take your cat back to the vet for a follow up exam. Ear mites can be stubborn parasites, and sometimes multiple treatments are needed to fully eliminate the infestation. Your vet will examine your cat’s ears under a microscope to check if live mites are still present. If so, they may prescribe a second round of medication.

You should also bring your cat back to the vet after completing the full course of treatment, usually 2-4 weeks. Your vet will perform another ear exam to confirm the mites are gone. If they find no evidence of active infestation, your cat is cured! But if mites still persist, additional treatment may be warranted to kill any remaining parasites.

Follow up exams are important to ensure ear mites are fully eliminated. Even if your cat seems better, dormant mites can survive in the environment and reinfect your cat later. Left untreated, chronic ear mite infections can lead to complications like ear hematomas, wounds, and secondary infections. So continuing care until your vet gives your cat a clean bill of health helps prevent relapses and potential problems down the road.

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