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Ear Mites: They're Not Just For Ears Anymore

Updated on October 22, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.

Ear mite magnified
Ear mite magnified | Source

These Tiny Parasites Can Also Thrive Outside The Ears

They're usually called ear mites, although I know some of you just call them Otodectes cynotis. But no matter what you call them, they're among the ugliest of parasites.

If you're a fan of The Far Side® think of how its creator, Gary Larson, might draw a gall bladder. That's kind of what an ear mite looks like. Only hairier.

They live and breed inside the ear canal (but can live anywhere on the body), spread easily through close contact, and can be difficult to treat. In advanced cases, the ear canals may bleed.

Telltale signs of ear mites
Telltale signs of ear mites | Source

Mites also irritate glands lining the ear canal, which stimulates the increased production of ear wax. The wax can collect dust, dirt and debris, making it a little more difficult for the pet owner to determine if ear mites are present.

If your pet has ear mites, you'll see a collection of dark, crusty stuff that looks like coffee grounds in the ears.

What you’re seeing is a blend of wax and its attendant blend of dirt and debris, mite poop and possibly blood.

While it may look suspiciously like evidence of ear mites, your veterinarian will likely confirm the diagnosis by taking a scraping from deeper in the ear canal and examining the collected specimen under a microscope.

The mites and their movement are visible under the microscope, thus solidifying the diagnosis.


Many pets sleep in a curled up position, with the hind end in close contact with the ears. Bingo. Ear mites can spread from the ears to the hind end and disperse further from there.

That's why, when treating for ear mites, you should also give the animal a bath with flea shampoo.

If you have a multi-pet household, and one of your pets has ear mites, you might as well treat them all.

Unlike fleas, ticks, mosquitoes or other pests, ear mites can't live for long off the host, therefore you don't need to treat bedding, carpets, or the yard.

And more good news...ear mites aren't considered a zoonotic disease which means we don't get them from our pets.

Left untreated, they can cause serious infections, resulting in damage that can cause permanent hearing loss.

Vets commonly diagnose ear mites visually, sometimes they'll take a swab for microscopic examination.

Obviously your vet will have medication to treat ear mites, but you can also get ear mite products over the counter.

Just be aware that there are ear cleaning products on the shelves. They'll help remove cerumen (earwax), but they don't contain a miticide, which is necessary to kill mites.


Dogs and cats have ear canals that are shaped roughly like loosely flexed arms, and a lot of mite activity occurs in the “forearm” area or horizontal canal.

Therefore, in addition to shaking the head, the animal may scratch behind the jaw, below the ear, or rub his face along the floor or ground.

Treatment is lengthy. Because of the mite's 21-day life cycle, you should treat for three weeks to get a complete kill.

The canals may look great after a few days of treatment, but there are pre-adult mites still present that must be killed after they complete their metamorphosis.

And each treatment is an adventure. Instill the prescribed number of drops into the infested ear, fold the ear flap over, and massage it for two or three minutes. Your pet won't want you to do this.

The drops will tickle and your pet will want to immediately shake his head. It's your duty to prevent this from happening, lest the drops be ejected from the ear, rendering the treatment ineffective.

After successfully massaging the folded-over ear flap, take your hands away and let 'er rip.

You will be grossed-out by the crud (appearance and volume) that will fly out of your pet's ear as he vigorously shakes his head.

And it will fly, so you might want someone to hold a towel between you and the animal’s head when you release those ear flaps.

You can clean the external ear with cotton balls and cotton swabs, but under no circumstances should you try to probe deeper than the external ear with either.

No matter how good the ears look after a few treatments, you must keep using the drops for the full course of treatment, otherwise the condition will return.

You should be able to find products for various pet species, but if you can only find products for cats and dogs, and you have a rabbit or other small animal with ear mites, it's generally safe to use a product labeled for cats and kittens.

But the prudent advice is to check with your vet first.

© 2012 Bob Bamberg


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