Ear mites are gross. They infect our pets’ ears and cause them discomfort. So where do ear mites actually come from? If we knew that, we could eradicate them, right? Easier said than done.
The existence of mites dates to the Cretaceous Period. We’re talking, say, 145–166 million years ago. Ear mites are arachnids, in the same group as spiders, but they are babies compared to spiders, which date to 380 million years ago. During this era, we saw lots of small mammals evolve, serving as hosts for ear mites to feast on.
Because ear mites have been around just about as long as dirt, have predated man and will probably live on long after us, eradicating them is not in the cards. Like other insects and arthropods, they are survivors, sneaky little things that can outlive dinosaurs and ice ages. So let’s figure out how to live with them on Earth but not in your pets’ ears.
How Pets Contract Ear Mites
The common ear mite, Otodectes cynotis, has a name that hails from the Greek language:
- oto = ear
- dectes = biter
- cynotis = of the dog
This “dog” ear mite is also the mite found in about 90% of our cats.
The most common way your animal will get ear mites is from another animal. They are highly contagious. House cats and dogs generally must come in close contact with an infected animal to acquire ear mites. And you’ll want to treat a new pet with ear mites immediately.
In the vast majority of well-cared-for pets, ear mites are uncommon. I see most of my ear mite cases in barn cats, strays, litters of kittens from outdoor moms and puppies from puppy mills or bad pet stores.
Happily, humans are not hosts to ear mites. There are 2 reports of people contracting ear mites and 1 famous report of a veterinarian who worked very hard to give himself ear mites. He finally succeeded, did not enjoy but identified with the uncomfortable experience, and quickly received treatment to get rid of them.
Cats and dogs infested with ear mites will most likely exhibit scratching at ears, shaking or rubbing at the head and face area. The ear canal can be filled with brown debris sometimes visible to the naked eye.
Oddly, some infected kittens and barn cats don’t show symptoms of itchy ears at all. Because kittens have contracted the mites from their mothers and have basically had the ear mites their entire little lives, many don’t do that much scratching.
Eventually though, without treatment, these ears can become badly infected and later scratching can lead to an ear hematoma or even a ruptured eardrum.
Diagnosis and Treatment
If you suspect ear mites, a trip to the vet is important. A quick look into the ear canal with my trusty otoscope reveals the sneaky little mite beasts.
On top of all the big chunks of angry, brown, oily, waxy debris created in the ear by the mite, the magnification rendered by the otoscope allows me to visualize the tiny white creatures. They slowly meander their way over the dark mountains of dried mud, leaving itch and debris in their eerie path.
Ear mites can be treated easily with a prescription drug called Ivermectin. Before treatment, the ear canal should be cleaned out professionally to eradicate the debris clogging the ear canal, alleviate discomfort and ensure that the treatment is successful. Usually 2 treatments of Ivermectin used in the ear, orally or in a topical prep like Revolution, get rid of the mites.
Most people are amazed at the amount of disgusting stuff I can remove from even a tiny little kitten ear. And the kitten, cat, puppy or dog is very thankful once their ear can see daylight again.
Ugh. Ear mites really are gross:
Skip the DIY Diagnosis
Many people think their pet has ear mites because of itchy ears, assume mites are the problem and buy an over-the-counter (OTC) ear mite preparation.
But most animals don’t have ear mites if they’re older, cared-for house pets. Using an inappropriate ear medication with an OTC insecticide can irritate a mite-free ear and does not treat the primary ear problem, which may be a bacterial or yeast infection, allergic otitis or ear polyps (this occurs mostly in cats), to name a few ear complications unrelated to mites.
Ear mites will probably be around forever, but they don’t have to be around your house for more than a few days. Although they are found the world over and are millions of years old, they don’t have to infest any fluffy ears for too long if you get them treated promptly.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Aug. 16, 2017.