Ear Mites in Cats

Many ear infections in cats are caused by ear mites. The ear mite is an eight-legged parasite, which is affectionately named Otodectes. It can also infect dogs, rabbits and even ferrets.

This ugly mite has hairs over its body and, as it moves around the cat’s ear canal, the hairs cause intense irritation that can lead to infection and even to the rupture of the ear drum.

How can I recognise an ear mite infection?

If your cat is scratching its ears regularly this could be the first sign of an ear mite infection. Infected cats often shake their heads and will hold their heads at an angle. Such cats will have a brown or black, crumbly, ‘coffee ground’ discharge in their ears and possibly an offensive smell will come from the ears too.

What problems can result from an ear mite infection?

The scratching can become intense and because a cat’s hind claws are so sharp, the constant scratching can abrade and lacerate the ears, cheeks and neck as the cat endeavours to alleviate the discomfort. The scratching can also cause an aural haematoma to develop. This is a blood-filled blister that develops on the earflap. The scratching damages blood vessels inside the ear. Subsequently, leakage of blood from these vessels between the skin and cartilage of the earflap causes a large, soft, blood-blister to develop.

If left untreated, a mite infestation can lead to further infections with bacteria or yeasts. The infection can also damage the eardrum and enter the inner ear.

To confirm a diagnosis, your veterinarian will look down your cat’s ears with an otoscope. The mites can often be seen at this time but your veterinarian may also take a smear of the discharge from the ear and examine that under a microscope.

How are ear mite infections treated?

If the problem is caught early enough, then home treatment may be useful. Ask your vet for a good ear cleaning solution that also contains a compound to kill the mites. These preparations contain compounds to dissolve the wax, to reduce bacterial infection and to kill the mites that are present. Put the medication into each ear twice daily or as indicated. Be careful when cleaning your pet’s ears. The old rule of ‘putting nothing smaller than your elbow’ in your pet’s ears is still a wise one. Many owners will attempt to clean their pets’ ears by using cotton buds. Buds will often ramrod the wax down onto the eardrum. This makes it much more difficult to eliminate the infection, and may lead to a rupture of the eardrum.

To clean the outer part of the ear, a cotton ball, not a bud, moistened with an ear-cleaning solution will do the job well. Only clean the part of the ears that you can see.

When should I take my cat to the vet?

However, many ear mite infections are very difficult to treat at home because the cat may not allow you to clean its ears, or because the ears are so badly infected and full of discharge that you cannot clean them properly.

In such cases, your veterinarian will need to help. In severe cases, your veterinarian will need to use a general anaesthetic to enable the ears to be cleaned properly.

Once the ears are clean, a topical medication is used to kill the mites and to eliminate any bacterial or yeast infection that may be present.

Controlling ear mite infestations

Ear mites are spread from cat to cat by contact. They are more common in young cats and all kittens in a litter can suffer from an ear mite infection. Ear mites can live outside the cat’s ear as well. Therefore, good flea control products will help to control mites.

Remembering that ear mites are a contagious condition is important. If you purchase a new kitten or if your purring puss develops an ear malady, be sure to consult with your vet quickly to prevent the ‘monster from the deep canal’ infecting other cats or dogs in your home.

By Dr Cam Day BVSc - Last updated 16 November 2012

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