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Ear mites: all you need to know

An ear mite is a tiny parasite which can affect cats, dogs, small animals and even humans (although this is rare). Ear mites are highly infectious and can cause serious discomfort to your pet.

As the name suggests, ear mites live in the ear canal, the tube between the outer ear and eardrum and they travel easily between pets, particularly in households with lots of them.  

Most ear mite infections in dogs and cats are caused by a parasitic mite known as Otodectes cynotis – a name which originates from the Greek for "dog ear-biter." This name is a little misleading though, as cats and other small animals can be infected with this species of mite too.

While ear mites are bad news for your pet, they don’t dig deep and they’re easier to treat than many parasitic infections.

FACT FILE: 3 things to know

  • Ear mites are extremely contagious and travel easily between pets
  • If your pet spends a lot of time outdoors they are very vulnerable to an ear mite infection
  • Ear mites are treatable – seek veterinary advice immediately if you think your pet is affected

What does an ear mite look like?

Ear mites are incredibly small, but if you’ve got good eyesight you might be able to notice them as fast-moving tiny white spots.

Ear mites are part of the arachnid class of animals. If placed under a magnifying glass, you’ll see that they have eight legs, with a noticeably smaller pair of hind legs.

How do ear mites attach themselves to pets?

Ear mites can move surprisingly quickly, so if one pet is infected, your other pets may become infected within a very short space of time too. If an ear mite lands on your pet, your pet will usually brush it away – however, when the mite gets to the ear canal, they’re particularly dangerous because your pet won’t be able to remove them easily.

There are a number of known ways ear mites can move between animals:

  1. Physical contact between pets
  2. A pet shaking its head – causing the mites to be flung through the air towards a nearby animal
  3. Ear mites transporting themselves from loose animal hairs on the ground to other animals nearby

If your pet spends most of their time outdoors or interacts with other animals frequently, they’re very vulnerable to an ear mite infection. Alternatively, if you’ve been on holiday recently and left your pet in a kennel or cattery while you were away, your pet may have picked up ear mites while they were around other animals.

Spotting the signs of ear mites

Ear mites are really uncomfortable. The first sign of an ear mite infection is that your dog or cat will be scratching their ears far more than usual as ear mites cause severe itchiness around the ear canal. Secondly, your pet may shake its head repeatedly to try and dislodge the build-up of mites and gunk in their ears.
As a result of all the scratching, your pet may also have extremely sore or sensitive ears. You might notice marks left over from bleeding, so be extra cautious when inspecting their ears.

Next, carefully look inside your pets’ ear. If you can see a dark colored substance, usually accompanied by a foul smell, blocking or surrounding the ear canal, it’s a strong indication that your pet has been infected with ear mites. At this point, you should contact your veterinarian as soon as possible, so they can fully diagnose the issue to ensure the right treatment is applied.

If you look carefully at the dark colored substance, you might also notice tiny white spots moving around quickly – these are most likely ear mites.

The dangers of ear mites

The itching can be really uncomfortable for your pet, but unfortunately that’s just the beginning of the problem. Repeated scratching of the ear can cause cuts and wounds, which can easily become infected. In extreme situations, these infections can lead to deterioration in hearing and balance, as a result of blocking the ear canal.

If infected wounds are left untreated, your pet may be left with permanent hearing damage, so it’s essential to go and see your veterinarian as soon as possible if you notice a wound.

Mites reproduce rapidly once they’ve infected your pet. While each adult mite has a lifespan of less than a month, female mites are capable of laying five eggs each day. After four days, the eggs will hatch and four weeks later they’ll be fully grown adults that can lay eggs too. At this rate, an untreated mite infection can quickly spread, so it’s important to detect the signs early on and get your pet checked.

How to treat ear mites

First up, contact your veterinarian and book an appointment. It’s critical that a professional examines your pet to ensure the right diagnosis has been made and that the correct treatment is carried out. Your veterinarian will most likely examine your pet’s ear with specialized equipment to determine the exact cause.

If you have more than one pet, make sure you get all of them checked at the same time, to make sure that if the mite infestation has spread, it can be treated. If a mite infestation is detected, the first step that needs to be taken is a thorough cleaning of the inner ear to remove the debris within the ear canal. 
After the ears have been thoroughly cleaned, your veterinarian may prescribe a parasiticide medication to be applied to the inside of your dog or cat’s ear, or directly on their skin to remove the mites. Depending on the severity of the infection, your veterinarian may also recommend a course of antibiotics.

Once your pet has been prescribed medication, check with your veterinarian to find out how frequently you’ll need to administer it and make sure you keep to the recommended timings.

Running the full course of medication is the best way to make sure your pet is fully disinfected. Your veterinarian may encourage you to wash and shampoo your pet weekly for a month or more to remove any remaining mites. They’ll then ask you to return for a check-up a few weeks later to monitor the results of the treatment and adjust if necessary.

Finally, make sure you thoroughly clean your house (and kennel, if you have one), taking extra care to get rid of any stray animal hairs lying around. This will reduce the risk of a repeat infection.

How to prevent ear mite infections

To keep your pet safe from ear mites, organize a monthly check-up and ear-cleaning with your veterinarian so you can keep ear mites at bay.

Then, set a bi-weekly reminder to clean your house, kennel and pet bedding to reduce the risk of an infection at home.

This article is intended as an informative guide for pet owners, but is not a replacement for veterinary care. If you believe your pet may be infected with ear mites, seek professional advice from a veterinarian. 

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