Ear Mites in Cats- FAQ

Many people know about these little pests, but there are a few misconceptions as well. Let’s help answer some of the most common questions we have at the clinic.

What are they?

“Ear mites” is a term used to describe a parasite that lives in the animal’s ear canals. The actual name for these parasites is Otodectes cynotis. These tiny pests can be very irritating for your cat and in turn while scratching their ears. The cat can cause more harm to themselves than the mites from scratching and shaking their head with irritation. Ear mites are a commonly contracted parasite among cats. They feed on skin debris and ear wax. In very heavy infections occasionally the mites can be seen as very tiny white specks with the naked eye. Most often, though, they are detected under the microscope while examining a sample of ear wax.

How do they harm my pet?

Ear mites themselves don’t cause much damage other than being extremely irritating. It leads to vigorous ear scratching and head shaking. The cat can cause deep scratches and eventually wounds behind and around the ears if left untreated. If these wounds become infected, the cat may need additional care. Another concern with vigorous scratching and head shaking is an aural hematoma. It is when blood vessels inside the ear break from trauma, which creates a blood-blister like pocket under the skin. It can be treated but requires a great deal more care then ear mites themselves. Chronic ear mite infections can cause permanent damage to the ear canals and eardrums because of the vigorous scratching and shaking.

Are they contagious to other animals?

Ear mites can be passed to other animals, but it’s much less common. To become infected, the animal needs to come in direct contact with an infected animal. The most common other animals to contract ear mites are dogs and ferrets.

What are the signs to watch out for?

The most commonly noticed sign is excessive scratching and/or head shaking. It can lead to scratches, hair loss, or wounds around the ear from scratching or over-grooming. Another sign is a characteristic dry, black debris in the ear. Some say it resembles coffee grounds.

How are they treated?

Luckily, ear mites are one the easier parasites to treat with many treatment options available. Your veterinarian can decide if a topical or ear drop may work best for each specific case. Especially because occasionally, the cat can have an ear infection alongside the mites.

What is the lifecycle of ear mites?

The entire lifecycle of a mite is about two months. Ear mites reproduce quite rapidly once they have infected an animal and their lifecycle happens entirely on the host, meaning they can’t live off the host. An adult mite’s lifespan is less than a month. The reason they can reproduce so quickly is the female mite lays multiple eggs a day. These eggs hatch after only four days, then go through the rest of their lifestyles and start reproducing within a month. Treatment only kills adult mites, so it is important to treat long enough to cover the lifecycle of all the mites.

Can my cat become re-infected?

Yes, cats can become re-infected. When there is more than one animal in the household, because ear mites are very contagious, all animals should follow through with the treatment plan to avoid re-infection between the animals. This includes dogs too if the dog and cat sleep or play closely together. All bedding should be washed, and carpets and furniture where the animals frequent regularly should also be vacuumed. Don’t get too concerned though. These mites can’t live outside the body for very long. Cats who go outside are at an especially high rate of re-infection because they may come into contact with another infected animal. It is why regularly checking for signs of an infestation is very important. Cats who are only indoors with no contact to outside cats are at a lesser risk of re-infection.

Can humans contract them?

Although humans are extremely unlikely to be affected at all by these parasites, there have been some (very rare) cases with a temporary irritation or rash. As mentioned before, though, the mites don’t survive outside their host (which is a cat or dog).

Written by: Miranda Kitzul, RVT