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Ear mites in Cats, Identification, Life Cycle and Control

Ear Mites are a common cause of ear infections in cats. At the very best they can cause almost no visible signs. Many cats are infected and their owners have no idea of the presence of ear mites. However they can cause great discomfort and in the the worst cases they can cause severe infections and inflammation that leads to deafness.

In some cases other areas can be infected such as around the neck and tail.

Some cats become sensitized to the ear mites and have an allergic reaction with itching and irritation on top of the usual symptoms.

Kittens are the most at risk. As cats get older the rate of infection and seriousness tend to diminish. This seems to indicate that cats build up an immunity response to ear mites. (Cats do produce antibodies when infested with ear mites.)

Identifying Ear Mites

Many people have asked "what do ear mites look like?" Because they are very small they are hard to see. You are more likely to recognize the symptoms than the mite itself. An ear mite infestation can be recognized by redness or warmth around the ears, itching and shaking of the head and scratching of the ears sometimes leading to scabs and hair loss.

When you look into the cat's ear, crumbly or crusty brown material might be present making the ears look dirty. If you look closely or with a magnifying glass, it might be possible to see white or translucent mites. You might have to immobilize your cat to have it stay still long enough to see the mites though!

There might also be an unpleasant smell.

If you have good eyesight you can see them.

A sample of the material in a cat's ear might be taken and a microscopic examination will show adults, larvae or eggs present.

The most common Cat Ear Mite is: Otodectes cynotis, this species of ear mite can also infect dogs. In fact cynotis means "of the dog"

The Cat and Dog ear mite cannot normally live on Humans. They can however cause a temporary rash or itch in some people. Treating the cats or dogs will cure problem with the human.

Bayers has a good article on cat ear mites They also produce a mite treatment called Advocate

photograph of an ear mite

What does an ear mite look like

Micro-photograph of ear mite by Joel Mills.
Ear mites appear as tiny whitish translucent insects in the cat's ear. They are about a half a mm. in length. If you have good eyesight and your cat will stand still, you can see the ear mites slowly moving.

Cat ear mites do not burrow themselves under the skin and thus they are referred to as a surface mite.

Cat ear mites look very alien under a microscope but just looking you will be lucky to see small moving spots.


Transmission and Life Cycle of Ear Mites

Ear mites are extremely common and in one study of randomly selected cats 25% of cats were infected. It was also estimated that 75% of long haired cats are infected. (North Carolina State University)

Infection rates in cold climates might be lower.

Ear mites are transmitted from animal to animal either when the cat shakes its head and mites are thrown around or when direct contact occurs between 2 cats.

Ear mites can also found on other parts of the body and can survive on fallen hair or other organic matter from the cat. This makes it easy for the ear mite to pass from animal to animal particularly if cats have close contact or share bedding.

Because Otdectes mites are not host specific many animals can be infected and if a cat is found to have them then animals that have come in contact with it should also be treated.

Adult life span of ear mites is about 2 months. A female can start laying at the age of 3 weeks after being laid, and will lay throughout its life. Once an egg is laid, it hatches in 3-4 days. It then undergoes several larval stages, In total there are 5 stages. There are resting periods of development between the different stages when the ear mite pupates. Finally an adult emerges.

In labs it is possible to raise an ear mite away from a host using cells and earwax, and hair from a suitable host. Under more usual conditions an ear mite will spend its entire life on its host, either a cat or a dog.

The physical presence of the ear mite is irritating as is the mite saliva. The saliva also causes an immune reaction and the cat produces antibodies.

Secondary bacterial, yeast or fungal infections often occur after ear mites have moved in.

Treatment of Cat Ear Mites

Because development of ear mites is about 3-4 weeks until it is an adult, treatment must last a minimum of 3 weeks. When the ear mites are in the egg or pupating they are not easily killed. Larvae and Adults are more easily eradicated.

Treatment usually takes 3 steps.
Treatment of the infected ears of all susceptible cats with a product made for CATS, never use dog medicine for cats.
Treatment of the skin of the affected cats, usually flea medicine will work on the ear mites that have moved to the skin outside the ear.
Treatment and cleaning of the cat's environment and bedding. Ear mites can live for a limited time off the animal. Products used for fleas are often used to control ear mites in the cat's environment.

The first step will usually be to clean the cats ear. This can be done with a specialized cleaner or other substances suggested by your vet. When I was on a farm we used mineral oil to soften the material in the ear and would clean the ear carefully with cotton swabs. In mild infestations we would continue adding oil every week. This killed the ear mites. If there were ear mites on the skin or in the bedding they would come back to the ear eventually.

An insecticide is often used once the ear is clean. Bayer produces Advocate. In Australia, Revolution is a drop parasiticide which is dropped between the shoulder blades and which control heart worm, kills adult fleas and treats and prevents ear mite infestation. More than one treatment is required. In the UK a topical medicine such as Canaural will kill mites in the ears, while regular flea treatment will take care of mites on the body or on the bedding. Treatment should go on for at least 3 weeks. Ask your vet, there are many preparations that work.

They all require several treatments to kill any mite that might have hatched or emerged since the first treatment. Treatment needs to be at least 3 week duration to get all the mites.

It is not safe to use medications designed for other animals on cats.


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This article is provided for information only. It is not to be used instead of consulting a VET. If your kitty is sick get some help.