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Are ear mites an emergency?

What are ear mites?

Ear mites are tiny parasites that live in the ear canals of cats, dogs, and other animals. The scientific name for ear mites is Otodectes cynotis. Ear mites are contagious and can spread between animals through direct contact. They feed on ear wax and oils in the ear canal. An infestation of ear mites is called otodectic mange.

What causes ear mites?

Ear mites are highly contagious parasites. They spread through direct contact between animals. Kittens and puppies under 6 months old are most commonly affected. Ear mites can spread by:

  • Playing with infected animals
  • Sleeping near infected animals
  • Grooming each other
  • Sharing bedding or housing with infected animals

Adult animals can carry ear mites without showing symptoms. They pass the mites to young animals through close contact. Mite infestations are common in stray cats and dogs. Pet owners may bring ear mites home after encounters with strays.

Are ear mites species specific?

Yes, ear mites tend to be species specific. However, some cross-infestation can occur:

  • Cat ear mites can infest dogs, rabbits, and ferrets
  • Dog ear mites can infest cats and ferrets
  • Rodent ear mites can infest cats, dogs, and ferrets

But in general, cat ear mites stay on cats. And dog ear mites stay on dogs. The mites are better adapted to complete their life cycle on their natural host species.

Signs and symptoms of ear mites

Ear mites cause intense itchiness in pets. The mites and their eggs and debris in the ear canal provoke inflammation and skin irritation. Common signs of an ear mite infestation include:

  • Head shaking and ear scratching
  • Redness and inflammation in the outer ear
  • Crusty, scabbed areas inside the ear flap
  • Hair loss around the ears
  • Dark brown debris that looks like coffee grounds in the ears
  • Strong odor coming from the ears
  • Changes in behavior such as head tilting or difficulty balancing
  • Parasites visible in ear canal

Pets can develop secondary skin sores and infections from irritating mite debris and from trauma caused by intense scratching and head shaking. Severe ear mite infestations left untreated can lead to ear hematomas, deafness, and chronic ear problems.

Age of affected pets

Ear mites most commonly affect kittens and puppies under 1 year old. Young animals have weaker immune systems and are more susceptible. However, ear mites can infect pets of any age. Older pets with declining immune function are also vulnerable. Any pet that comes into direct contact with an infected animal is at risk.

Diagnosing ear mites

A veterinarian can diagnose an ear mite infestation by examining debris under the microscope. The dark coffee ground-like material in the ear canal contains mite eggs and feces.

Vets may also swab the ears and test the debris for mites. This allows identification of the species to ensure appropriate treatment. The vet will also check for any secondary skin infections that may have developed.

Differential diagnoses

Ear mites cause similar symptoms to other ear problems in pets. Differential diagnoses vets may consider include:

  • Bacterial or yeast infections – these can cause debris and itching
  • Allergies – food or environmental allergies can lead to ear inflammation
  • Foreign objects – debris, grass seeds, etc. trapped in the ear canal
  • Polyps or tumors – growths in the ear canal can cause irritation
  • Trauma – wounds, bites, etc. that cause damage to the ear flap or canal

Thorough ear examination and microscopy are needed for accurate diagnosis. Vets will rule out other potential causes before diagnosing ear mites.

Are ear mites an emergency?

In most cases, ear mites do not constitute an emergency. However, in some situations immediate veterinary attention is warranted:

  • Severe head tilting, loss of balance, or inability to walk – may indicate a middle or inner ear infection
  • Profuse bleeding from the ears – could signal a ruptured blood vessel or hematoma
  • Inability to open the mouth – advanced mite infestation may cause swelling and pain in the joints, head, and neck
  • Severe deafness or disorientation
  • Extreme lethargy, nausea, or vomiting – could signal a systemic illness related to the infestation

Pets that show any signs of acute pain, bleeding, infection, or illness related to an ear mite infestation need to go to emergency vet care. Delaying treatment could result in permanent ear damage or serious health complications.

Monitoring mild cases at home

For mild ear mite infestations with no other symptoms, it is usually fine to book a regular veterinary appointment. Limiting scratching and preventing head shaking can help minimize damage to the ears until the appointment.

Check for signs of worsening irritation, infection, or pain. Be prepared to take your pet into emergency care if the condition seems to be progressing rapidly. Follow your vet’s monitoring and care instructions closely.

Treating ear mites

Veterinarians prescribe medications to kill ear mites and provide relief from the itching and inflammation. Treatment usually includes:

  • Antiparasitic medication – applied directly in the ears, given orally, or by injection
  • Corticosteroids and antihistamines – reduce swelling and itching
  • Antibiotics – treat any secondary skin infection
  • Ear cleaning solution – flush debris from the ear canal

Isolating infected pets prevents mites from spreading to other animals in the household. All other pets should be checked and treated if necessary. Bedding, toys, bowls, and other supplies also need thorough cleaning and disinfection.

Follow-up vet exams are important to confirm the mites and eggs have been fully eliminated. The vet may recommend a second round of treatment if any mites remain.

Over-the-counter products

There are some over-the-counter ear mite treatments available. However, prescription products are often more effective. Follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for treating ear mites. Never use over-the-counter products without a vet’s guidance, as these may cause toxicity if misused.

Home remedies like olive oil and other oils are not recommended either. These can cause inflammation and make treating the actual infestation more difficult.

Preventing ear mites

Proper preventive care is the best way to avoid ear mite infestations in pets:

  • Treat all pets in the household if one is diagnosed with mites
  • Quarantine and treat any new pets before introducing them into the home
  • Groom pets regularly to keep ears clean
  • Check ears often for signs of irritation or debris
  • Ask pet owners about exposure risks before allowing pets to interact
  • Keep cats indoors and dogs on leashes when outside to reduce stray contact
  • Use veterinarian recommended parasite prevention products

Stopping ear mites from spreading is more effective than dealing with an outbreak after it occurs. But even with good prevention, infections can still happen. See the vet promptly if you notice any signs of ear mites in your pet. Fast treatment will help alleviate discomfort and prevent complications.


Ear mites are highly contagious parasites that infest the ear canals of cats, dogs, and other animals. An infestation can cause extreme itchiness, ear damage, infections, and even behavioral changes. Severe cases constitute a veterinary emergency and require immediate care. But in mild cases with no other symptoms, a regular veterinary visit is adequate for diagnosis and treatment. Prescription medications to kill mites and control inflammation are usually effective. Preventing contact with infected animals and keeping pets’ ears clean are the best defenses against ear mites. With prompt treatment and prevention measures, ear mite outbreaks can be well controlled.