Ear Mites On Cats: Signs, Symptoms, & Treatment

As pets, cats are a unique balance of loving companions and fiercely independent animals, a combination that can lead to a worrying habit of hiding physical issues. Many parasites that bother feline-kind can be spotted by the diligent eyes of pet parents – flea “dirt” and adult fleas, tapeworm segments in stool, and so on – but others are craftier. One such nuisance comes in the form of ear mites on cats – troublesome little hitchhikers that can make an otherwise healthy cat absolutely miserable over time. Protecting a cat from these nearly-invisible bugs is challenging, but knowing the symptoms of canine ear mites and treating them as rapidly as possible will help avoid painful infestations.

What Are Feline Ear Mites?

Contrary to popular belief, mites are not insects: they are actually more closely related to arachnids like spiders or ticks. They sport four pairs of legs – allowing them to stubbornly hang onto a cat’s fur –and are extremely small, roughly the size of a pinhead. Ear mites on cats are extremely hard to see with the naked eye, but may be easier to spot on cats with darker skin or fur since their bodies are white. These mites live in a cat’s ears and eat skin cells, blood, and other debris found naturally in the area and reproduce prolifically, making them difficult to eradicate. 

Ear mites are not necessarily a symptom of a poorly-kept or “dirty” cat. Just like all parasites, they are prolific and opportunistic, and breed at startling rates that make them difficult to eliminate. These behaviors mean that, given the communal nature of cats, unchecked ear mite infestations can spread like wildfire through a home or an outdoor cat colony.  

Are Ear Mites in Cats The Same As Mange?

A “mangy” dog or cat is afflicted with one of two types of mites – sarcoptic scabei (which is commonly associated with “scabies”) or demodex canis – neither of which is the same as the otodectes cyanosis ear mite. This means that ear mites, while painful and potentially medically threatening to the feline ear on a long enough timeline, won’t progress to causing body lesions or hair loss. Ear mites in cats are not the same as the mites that cause canine mange or scabies, though the latter two are also caused by stubborn, highly-contagious mite infestations.

What Are The Symptoms Of Ear Mites In Cats?

A cat infected with ear mites will exhibit signs of discomfort in the ear region, particularly as the infestation spreads and the egg-to-adult mite life cycle perpetuates inside the ear. As the mites move and bite the sensitive skin inside a cat’s ear, he will naturally attempt to remove the offending mites, usually by scratching outside – and inside, if he can manage – the affected ear or ears. The concern with this reaction is that those sharp claws that he uses to scratch at his ear are the same sharp claws that he uses to dig and cover his waste in a litter box. When bacteria from his environment or the litter box is introduced to open scratches, particularly in a covered, semi-moist area like the inner ear, serious infections can occur. These infections only increase the blood and fluids that mites feed on, continuing the mite life cycle and discomfort for the affected cat.

If a cat is affected by mites, he will persistently scratch at his ear and may vocalize while doing so – as he continually scratches, the area becomes inflamed and painful. The longer a cat is affected, the more obvious the symptoms will become: pus and drainage, fluid in or around the ear, matted or bloody fur around the ear, and so on. In particularly serious cases, a cat may also experience a loss of balance as an outer ear infection moves into the middle and outer ear and damages equilibrium and hearing.

Other symptoms include dark, waxy, or foul-smelling debris on a sleeping or lounging surface, “listing” or uncharacteristic tilting to the site while walking, and diminished hearing – such as not responding to a familiar “dinner call” when a wet food can is opened.

Are Ear Mites On Cats Contagious?

Mites, given their relatively rapid egg-laying cycle, have a nasty habit of making themselves at home on every furry ear they come across. While they are not able to jump like fleas or fly like gnats, they are persistent crawlers and don’t mind biding their time. Cats, being naturally social creatures, typically lay together, rub their cheeks and heads against one another, and groom their fellow felines. While these are important bonding behaviors, they’re an express route for mites in search of expansion to new hosts. If a cat affected by ear mites has any contact or shares any common spaces with another cat, it’s a safe assumption that the other cat is likely affected as well.

Unfortunately for any other furry friends in the immediate area, ear mites don’t discriminate when it comes to their host of choice. While cats are statistically more prone to getting ear mites, dogs can introduce ear mites to the home as well, where they can spread to other dogs, cats, rabbits, and even ferrets and rodents. Even in a home with indoor-only cats, mites can be introduced by hitching a ride on humans or a family dog that walks outside, which means that no cat is completely safe from mites, no matter how careful and clean their human keepers are in day-to-day life.

One small piece of good news when it comes to cat ear mites: they aren’t typically zoonotic, which means that humans are very unlikely to pick them up from their feline friends. Some humans may, however, experience mild contact skin rashes from mite debris, if they happen to have an allergy.

How Are Ear Mites Treated In Cats?

While an abundance of “home remedies” for cat ear mites can be found in any corner of the web, the truth is that any suspected ear mite infestation needs to be treated and examined by a vet. There are a number of cat ear diseases that mimic ear mite side effects, such as inner-ear yeast infections and even feline fleas. Treating the wrong issue can cause serious harm over days and weeks, leaving a cat vulnerable to hearing loss and a great deal of discomfort in the interim. 

Bringing a cat to the vet, rather than trying an unproven home remedy, means:

  • The vet can microscopically examine samples and scrapings from the cat’s ear to confirm mites.
  • They can prescribe strong ear drops or a topical treatment to eradicate the mites.
  • Depending on the presence and severity of an infection, they can prescribe prescription antibiotics.
  • They can offer advice and/or additional checkup visits for other pets in the home, who may also be infected with ear mites.

If the goal is to spare a mite-affected cat further pain and discomfort, just remember that pouring baby oil down his ears or similar “at-home treatments” may be unnecessarily painful, and can actually do more harm than good.

How Long Do Cat Ear Mites Live?

Much like fleas, these unwanted parasites are particularly stubborn once they get their proverbial hooks in. While most of a colony of adult ear mites may be cleaned out with a thorough scrubbing, or topical treatments, the eggs often remain behind – either in the ear or in the home environment. From an egg to an adult mite capable of reproducing, only three weeks need to pass – that means that right around the time pet parents start letting their guard down, the mites can come back in full force. The best way to eliminate ear mites for good from a cat is to work with a vet for a clear diagnosis, strong medication as prescribed by a veterinarian, and assistance with potential grooming to keep the ears clean of the debris mites love to eat.

Cleaning the area in which a cat (or an affected dog/rabbit/ferret or other small indoor pet) lounges or sleeps will also be important when it comes to preventing an ear mite resurgence after treatment. Bedding and pillows should be washed in hot water, along with bleach whenever possible. Vacuums, carpet shampooers, and steam cleaners for upholstery will also help manage any ear mites “waiting in the wings” for a new host to infect.  

While generally quiet and secretive about any health ailments he may be suffering, a cat will let his owners know ear mites may be present by his persistent ear scratching, discharge, and potentially – as the infestation worsens – balance issues. The only way to completely rule ear mites out as a diagnosis is with a microscopic sample examination, which is why fast, decisive vet care is so important when symptoms arise.

Sources Cited:

  1. “Ear mites in cats.” Blue Cross For Pets (bluecross.org.uk), (no publish date), https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-advice/ear-mites-cats. Accessed July 24, 2020.
  2. “Ear Mites: Tiny Critters that can Pose a Major Threat.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine (vet.cornell.edu), (no publish date), https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/ear-mites-tiny-critters-can-pose-major-threat. Accessed July 24, 2020.
  3. Weir, Malcolm, DVM, MSc, MPH; Ward, Ernest, DVM. “Ear Mites in Cats and Dogs.” VCA (vcahospitals.com), (no publish date), https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/ear-mites-otodectes-in-cats-and-dogs. Accessed July 24, 2020.
  4. Pickett, Robert. “How to Treat Ear Mites in Cats.” Animal Planet.com, (no publish date), http://www.animalplanet.com/pets/how-to-treat-ear-mites-in-cats/. Accessed July 24, 2020.
  5. “Mange and mites.” The Kennel Club (thekennelclub.org.uk), (no publish date), https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/health/for-owners/mange-and-mites/. Accessed July 24, 2020.

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