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Ear Mites in Cats

By: Dr. Debra Primovic

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If you see your cat shaking his head and scratching his ears excessively, or if there is an abnormal odor emanating from his ears, he may be suffering from ear mites. Ear mites are the most common mite to infest cats – almost 90 percent of all cats become infested – and they are very contagious, usually spreading to most cats in the household.

Ear mites are tiny crab-like parasites that live in the ear canal and head of cats, and sometimes their bodies. Imagine thousands of these tiny insects crawling around in your cat's ears. The mites live on the surface of the skin in the ear canal, where they feed on tissue debris and tissue fluids, but they can also spread to the skin. When this happens, your cat's back, neck and tail areas will itch. The presence of mites can cause severe inflammation in your affected cat's ears.

Although they can occur at any age, ear mites are more common in kittens and younger cats because they haven't built up an immunity. The mites have a three week cycle and can survive off the host for several weeks. Unlike fleas, they do not pierce the skin or suck blood.

What to Watch For

  • Irritation and scratching
  • Increased earwax
  • Thick, black crusty ear discharge
  • Scratching ears
  • Shaking his head
  • Skin lesions around or on the ears from scratching

    Diagnosis

    Symptoms of ear mites often mimic other ear diseases. For example, a yeast infection might also produce a black exudate in your cat's ears. Since using anti-mite preparations may aggravate an ear infection, an accurate diagnosis is imperative. But that's fairly easy for your veterinarian. Ear mites are visible by using a lighted otoscope that magnifies the mites; the light from the otoscope draws the mites out of the ear wax and causes them to move around on the wax. If mites do not show up on examination, your veterinarian will take an ear swab of the discharge and examine the exudate under a microscope.

    Ear mites are highly contagious. All other pets – mites can be also be transferred to your dog – should be examined and treated simultaneously.

    Treatment

    Your veterinarian may begin treatment by cleaning out your cat's ears before applying medication. Some of the newer medications do not require thorough cleaning before applying medication. Your veterinarian may either apply medication or prescribe medication for use at home. For information on how to administer ear medication, go to How to Administer Ear Medication to Your Cat.

    If your cat's skin is also affected, you will have to apply a topical medication to the skin. After following the prescribed course of treatment, you will need to return to your veterinarian for follow-up examinations.

    Home Care and Prevention

    You can prevent ear mites by drying your cat's ears after bathing, checking his ears for foreign matter and promptly visiting the veterinarian at the first sign of trouble.

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