Last week I talked about how kittens and ringworm (dermatophytosis) go hand-in-hand. Today, let’s touch on another condition that is diagnosed most frequently in young animals: ear mites.

Ear mites are tiny parasitic relatives of ticks that infest the area in and around an animal’s external ear canals. The mites are easily transmitted through direct contact with a parasitized individual. Kittens are the most frequent victims, but puppies and adult animals that have been housed in close contact with one another (e.g., in a shelter or feral cat colony) are also at higher than average risk. Otodectes cynotis most commonly affects dogs and cats. Other species have their own mites. For instance, Psoroptes cuniculi typically infests rabbits.

It’s not difficult to imagine how itchy and annoying ear mites must be. I remember a professor in veterinary school relating a story about how someone he knew went so far as to give himself ear mites so he would know what the sensation felt like. He said he could actually hear them chewing away on his ear wax. Now that’s dedication! Thankfully, under normal conditions (i.e., not putting the mites directly in your ears) it is extremely rare for people to be adversely affected by their pet's ear mites.

Animals with ear mites scratch themselves around the ears, head, and neck, and shake their heads excessively. They also often have discharge in their ears that looks like coffee grounds (a mixture of dead and live mites, mite poop, and debris). To differentiate a mite infestation from a bacterial or yeast infection, veterinarians will look in the ears with an otoscope and look at a sample of debris under the microscope. With magnification, the mites are readily visible.

If you want to check for mites yourself at home, place a chunk of debris collected from the outer ear canal on a dark background. Live mites look like white, moving specks about the size of a pin head. If you see them (using a magnifying glass helps), bingo, you’ve got your diagnosis. If not, you can’t completely rule them out, as a small sample may not contain live mites.

Treating ear mites used to be an ordeal, necessitating days on end of ear drops to kill new mites as they hatched from their eggs and repeated cleanings to remove the debris that built up over time. Now, medications are available that kill all the mites with a single application to the skin or ears — what an improvement! I generally treat my patients by performing a thorough ear cleaning (I use an otoscope to make sure all the debris is gone) and applying one of these single-use products while the pet is in the clinic. I also send home doses with the owner to treat any other susceptible pets in the home. It is very important that all the animals that could be harboring mites be treated to prevent the parasites from being passed back and forth between pets. The only time I won’t treat housemates is if they are already on a monthly flea preventive that also prevents ear mite infestations.

Since ear mites are most frequently diagnosed in young animals or those just being adopted, we usually have the opportunity to recheck the ears (and maybe clean them out again) when we vaccinate in three or four week’s time. If this isn’t the case for you, and you’re concerned that treatment hasn’t completely eradicated your pet’s mite infestation, schedule a progress check with your veterinarian.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Sherwood / via Shutterstock