Ear Mites in Cats: Everything You Need to Know

Unfortunately, ear mites are a common occurrence in cats. If you’re a cat owner, it’s important to be familiar with these microscopic mites.

Jan 5, 2024By Heather Jarek, BA Veterinary Technology
ear mites in cats everything you need to know

Ear mites are an uncomfortable nuisance for cats, and if left untreated, they can lead to infection or other health issues. Fortunately, there are signs and symptoms to watch out for that can tell you if your cat may be suffering from an ear mite infection. Treatments and medications for ear mites are readily available at your vet’s office. Learning about these creepy crawlies will help protect your cat from discomfort and keep your feline friend happy and healthy.

What are Ear Mites?

feline cat ear mite microscope

Ear mites (Otodectes cynotis mites) are tiny surface mites that cause ear disease (ododectic mange) in cats, dogs, ferrets, and rabbits. They most commonly infect the external ear canals but can also live on the skin and cause hair loss and skin infections. They cause inflammation and intense itching and can infect one or both ears.

The image above is of an ear mite taken under a microscope. They are about the size of a pinhead, not quite microscopic, but barely visible to the naked eye. If you focus hard enough, it is possible to see their tiny movements without a microscope. Since these parasites live in the ear canal, they usually go unnoticed until the infected cat shows signs of an ear mite infection.

Signs of Ear Mites in Cats

orange cat scratching ear

So, if you can’t see ear mites, how do you know your cat is infected with them? Fortunately, there are several signs and symptoms a cat infected with ear mites may exhibit, and they include the following:

  • Excessive scratching at the ears (one or both)
  • Shaking of the head
  • Blistering or scabbing around the outer ear
  • Hair loss around the ear
  • Brown or reddish-brown discharge
  • Dark debris that resembles coffee grounds
  • Strong odor coming from the ears

The above list begins with the first symptoms of an ear mite infection and progresses to signs of a prolonged ear infection. The cat’s eardrum can be damaged if no treatment is provided, potentially leading to hearing loss and balance issues. If you notice any of the symptoms listed above, it’s time to call your veterinarian.

How Do Veterinarians Diagnose Ear Mites?

veternarian checking cats ears

Your veterinarian will first perform a complete examination on your cat. This includes checking the ears with an otoscope instrument (pictured above). This allows your veterinarian to visualize the cat’s ear canal to check for inflammation and determine the condition of the eardrum. Once the exam is finished, your veterinarian may recommend an ear swab and microscopic examination. They will take a long Q-tip, gently scrape the inside of your cat’s ears, and examine the sample under a microscope. If the infection is significant enough, your veterinarian may be able to see the ear mites or their eggs under the microscope. Sometimes no ear mites can be found, but that doesn’t mean your cat is not infected with them.

If no ear mites are seen under the microscope, but symptoms indicate an ear mite infection, your veterinarian may still recommend treating your cat for ear mites. Additional testing may be recommended to check for bacterial or yeast infections that can be caused secondary to ear mite infections.

Treatment for Ear Mites in Cats

administering ear drops for cat

Fortunately, ear mites are a treatable and curable condition that can be resolved with medications. Your veterinarian may prescribe systemic or topical medications. Systemic medications travel through the bloodstream to reach the affected cells, while topical ear medications will be placed directly into the ear. An ear cleaning may be needed depending on how much debris or discharge is present. Putting medicine into an ear blocked by debris will diminish the effects of the treatment.

Other medications may be necessary if the ear mites have caused a secondary infection. Topical cream may be prescribed for sores around your cat’s ears caused by scratching. Steroids may be needed if the inflammation has caused significant swelling that could block medications from getting into the ear. The veterinary staff can demonstrate how to administer the medications.

orange cat cuddling with human

The cost of treatments and diagnosis is relatively low, but they can take up to several weeks to resolve the infection. Most cats tolerate treatment without much complaint, but it can be painful. You may need the help of a friend or family member when treating your cat at home. However, your cat will thank you in the end. Nothing is more bothersome than an itch that you can’t scratch!

Preventing Ear Mites in Cats

two cats playing with praying mantis

The cost of treating ear mites is low, but the price to prevent them is lower. Keeping your furry friend parasite free will save them from pain and discomfort and save you time from weeks of daily ear treatments. Ear mites are contagious. Cats can get them from other cats, dogs, or wild animals. If your cat goes outdoors, it is more likely to come in contact with ear mites. They can also contract ear mites from infected surfaces like bedding, grooming tools, or toys.

So how do you prevent your cat from getting these bothersome mites? Keeping your cat indoors and routinely cleaning toys and bedding is the best way to avoid ear mite infections. Many flea and tick preventatives protect against ear mites and other parasites. Be sure to talk to your veterinarian about the best preventative for your cat before starting any new medication. Lastly, make sure to schedule regular veterinarian visits to keep your feline friend happy, healthy, and parasite free!

Heather Jarek
By Heather JarekBA Veterinary Technology

Heather is a lover of all animals, big and small. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in veterinary technology in 2014. She has been working as a licensed veterinary technician for the last eight years. Her favorite hobby is horseback riding, and she has been riding horses since the age of eight. She enjoys spending time with her family at the lake with their golden retriever Calista in her free time.