All About Ear Mites in Cats, Dogs and Rabbits

Ear mites are little creepy-crawlies that live off your pet’s earwax and skin cells.

Cats and dogs can have thousands of mites living in their ear canals. By: M.L. Duong

Kipper was a rescue cat I got as a companion for my first cat, Skate.

Kipper’s foster home was crammed with feline waifs and strays, and their caretaker was blind — but that’s a different story.

This story is about Kipper and his ear mites.

Kipper and His “Guests”

This ultra-friendly tuxedo cat was a purr-fect fit with Skate. However, taking on Kipper meant taking on his unwanted hitchhikers. Kipper had ear mites — thousands of them.

Kipper had so much wax plugging his ears I was surprised he could hear. Indeed, when I cleaned the ears, my husband stood open-mouthed at the quantity of thick black lumps.

Back then, the treatment was medicated drops. So twice a day, we played “catch Kipper” to clean and medicate his ears. Happily, persistence won out before he infected Skate.

These days, it’s much easier to get rid of ear mites. But medication only goes so far when you realize that you need to battle these things as well:

  • Ear mites lurking in bedding.
  • Ear mites shared with other pets.
  • Ear mites that aren’t in the ear but on the coat!

Know Your Ear Mite Enemy

Ear mites are teeny-tiny. With perfect vision, you can just about see glistening white dots that scurry from the light. However, there can be huge numbers (over 1,000) deep in the ear canal, and you won’t see a single mite at the entrance.

To help you take control of an ear mite infection, here are things you need to know:

  • Ear mites love earwax and skin cells but hate clean ears, so keeping your pet’s ears clean starves them of food.
  • Ear mites pass back and forth between pets. If your fur-buddies snuggle together, then you must treat all pets in the house.
  • Ear mites don’t just live in ears. Picture your dog scratching his ear. His uses a back paw and digs it deep into the ear, probably with a groan of satisfaction. Likewise, the cat who curls up with her head on her tail is apt to deposit ear mites on her rear end. So paws and tails can harbor ear mites.
  • Ear mites can survive on bedding and soft furnishings, as can other mites. OK, to be 100% truthful, they don’t survive long in a dry environment (they dessicate in warm, dry conditions), but the risk warrants washing pet beds and regular vacuuming.
Rabbits have to deal with a different species of ear mite from that of cats and dogs. By: Jannes Pockele

Can People Catch Ear Mites?

Yes and no.

Indeed, back in the 1990s, one dedicated veterinarian, Dr. Robert Lopez, deliberately infected himself to see what happened. He reported an almost unbearable rustling and scratching sound deep in his ear. He experienced terrible itching that interfered with sleep. But after less than a month, the infection cleared itself.

In theory, there’s nothing to stop people from catching ear mites — but they rarely do. Often, the worst that happens is an itchy skin rash, and the mites don’t make it as far as the ear canals.

How to Treat Ear Mites

First, get a definitive diagnosis of your pet’s problem from the vet. There are other ear infections (needing different treatment) that present with similar symptoms of:

  • Itchiness
  • Head shaking
  • Thick, dark wax

A good starting point is regular ear cleaning, because depriving the ear mites of waxy debris starves them out.

There are many effective ear drops available (some prescription, some over-the-counter) that kill ear mites. The big drawback with these is they need regular application and ear cleaning, which isn’t easy with an uncooperative cat.

The good news is that topical anti-parasite products containing selamectin (Revolution in the U.S., Stronghold in the UK) also kill ear mites. Just apply the dose to the back of the neck (not in the ear canal) every 2-4 weeks to bring infection under control. Of course, it speeds things along if you clean the ears also.

Here’s some advice from a vet on how to clean a cat’s ears:

A Word About Rabbits

The rabbit ear mite is a different species (Psoroptes) to the dog and cat (Otodectes) mite. Typically, a rabbit develops severe crusts and scales that stick tightly to the skin.

Don’t forcibly remove these crusts — they take the skin’s surface with it. Instead, seek systemic treatment from the vet to kill the mites. Then, over time, soften the crust with mineral oil until it is ready to lift harmlessly away.

Is it just me, or do you feel itchy now?



This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed June 9, 2017.

Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS

View posts by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS
Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, is a veterinarian with nearly 30 years of experience in companion animal practice. Dr. Elliott earned her Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from the University of Glasgow. She was also designated a Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Married with 2 grown-up kids, Dr. Elliott has a naughty puggle called Poggle, 3 cats and a bearded dragon.

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