Ear Mites

By Dr. Karen Burgess

What exactly are ear mites?
Ear mites are microscopic bugs that physically resemble ticks and reside in the ear canal and skin of cats and dogs. The adult ear mite may be visible using a magnifying glass as a small moving white dot. Ear mites produce debris and discharge in the ear canal that can easily be misdiagnosed as a yeast or bacterial ear infection if not looking specifically for ear mites.

What are the signs of ear mite infection?
Ear mites live and breed in the ear canal, specifically on the surface of the skin. During this process the mites feed on oils and ear wax and subsequently cause inflammation in the ear canal producing a black discharge and general ear inflammation. Infected pets will often have painful itchy ears, head shaking, crusting on the skin around the ears, and notable ear discharge. The adult ear mite can travel outside of the ear canal to the surrounding skin and fur making systemic treatment preferable to treating just the ears.

How do dogs and cats get ear mites?
Ear mites are highly contagious and transmitted by direct contact. Cats contract ear mites more commonly then dogs. It is not uncommon to diagnose ear mites in pets coming from shelter or group housing situations.

How are ear mites diagnosed?
A microscopic examination of debris from the ear will typically show actual ear mites or their eggs.

How are ear mites treated?
There are a variety of treatments for ear mites. Topical ear drops have been a common ear mite treatment with some products available even over the counter. A disadvantage of topical treatment is that they do not kill ear mite eggs and thus involve twice daily ear drops for a minimum of three weeks. For some pets this can be uncomfortable and difficult to accomplish. Tresaderm is a prescription topical that does kill eggs and only requires twice daily treatment for two weeks. Neither topical product addresses mites that have migrated out of the ear canal. Alternatively the topical product Revolution can be applied twice (one month between doses) to the skin between the shoulder blades. This treatment effectively kills mites in the ears and on the skin. Another treatment option is the dewormer ivermectin which can be given as an injection or orally. This treatment is considered off-label meaning it is not appropriate for all pets. All pets in the household (including ferrets and rabbits) should be treated simultaneously. Pet bedding should also be washed.

Can humans contract ear mites?
Ear mites are not considered contagious to humans.