“Ear mites are a common presenting complaint in small-animal practice,” says Dr. William Miller, VMD, DACVD, Dermatology Chief at Cornell University. “The disorder can affect both dogs and cats but is far more common in cats.”
Formally known as Otodectes cynotis, ear mites are small, barely visible mites that think your cat’s ears are the perfect place to live. Kittens are frequent carriers, but cats of any age can pick up an ear-mite infestation.
“The mite doesn’t live in the environment for very long, so transmission from one cat to the next is by direct contact with an infected cat or by resting/sleeping in a bed immediately after a heavily infected cat was there,” says Dr Miller. “As the cats, usually kittens, play together or rub each other, the mite can be transferred and then start its life cycle in the new cat. Cats who shun contact with other cats are unlikely to get ear mites.” Outdoor cats do commonly contract ear mites.
Just because your cat’s ears are dirty does not necessarily mean that he has ear mites, as a variety of infections and conditions can cause gross ears. Definitive diagnosis is achieved at the veterinary clinic by looking at an ear swab under a microscope. The technician or veterinarian will look for mites, bacteria, and yeast. Secondary bacterial infections are fairly common along with ear mites, especially in more severe cases.
Ears with mild infestations may only look a little dirty, while ears with severe infestations will look gross and smell.
Ear-mite infestations are treated by cleaning the ears and applying topical medication. Cleaning is an important first step because it removes all of the debris that the mites live and hide in and will also remove some of the mites. Clean ears also allow for better penetration of the medication. The exact medication chosen will vary depending on the severity of the infection and whether or not there is also a bacterial infection that needs to be dealt with. Your veterinary staff can clean your cat’s ears and apply the first dose for you.
Back at home, follow prescription instructions and complete the full course of medication to get the best results. When applying the medication, stick the end of the bottle as far into his ear as you can without forcing it. Getting the medication down inside his ear canal will allow it to reach any mites down there and also makes it less likely that your cat will shake the medication out. If your cat is not a fan of having drops placed in his ears, wrap him up in a towel to protect yourself from his claws (see our February 2018 issue for more details).
When your cat’s treatment is complete, keep any extra medication so that you will already have it on hand if he has any future ear issues and won’t need to buy a new bottle (just don’t forget to have your cat examined, because if he actually has a yeast infection, the ear mite medicine won’t help!).
As for home remedies, Dr. Miller says, “Lots of old-time remedies like baby oil can work, but they are messy and can cause problems if there is a secondary infection in the ear.” Prescription medications generally require fewer doses to be effective.
If left untreated, ear-mite infestations can progress to ear infections that affect the cat’s middle and inner ear, potentially causing irreversible damage to the cat’s hearing and ability to balance.
Keeping your cat indoors will go a long way toward preventing an ear-mite infestation. If you have multiple cats, Dr. Miller warns, “If one cat in a household has ear mites and the cats socialize with each other or share beds etc., it would be assumed that all of the cats might have the mite and should be evaluated or treated for ear mites.” When adding a new cat, check his ears and have an ear swab done by your veterinarian if they are dirty. Ideally, you can start treatment to get the infection under control before introducing him to your other cats.