Woman Cleaning a Cat's Ears

Head shaking and ear scratching — it’s noticeable when your cat’s ears are bothering him. The cause can be harder to determine, however. Ear mites are a relatively common type of ear problem in cats, but thankfully, they’re also quite easy to treat. If you think your cat might be suffering from this particular pest, don’t panic. Read on to learn how to tell if your cat has ear mites and what to do in the event that he does.

What Are Ear Mites?

Ear mites are crab-like parasites that live on the skin’s surface. They are about the size of a pinhead. As the name suggests, they prefer the skin of the ear canal. A highly contagious critter, these mites quickly spread amongst cats sharing a space. Kittens are most vulnerable to ear mites, but they can exist in adult cats and dogs as well.

Ear mites feed off of ear debris such as skin flakes, wax, dirt, and tissue fluid and thrive in a warm, humid environment like that found inside a cat’s ear. Their eggs take approximately three weeks to hatch.

In addition to being extremely irritating, mites can lead to other problems. Cats may damage their skin and ears, trying to get relief from itching, which can lead to an infection. If the mites are left untreated, they can permanently damage a cat’s ears.

How Can I Tell if My Cat Has Ear Mites?

One of the first clues that your cat could have ear mites is excessive head shaking and ear scratching. It’s also common for them to flatten one of their ears or walk with a tilted head. Ear problems can cause dizziness and disorientation, so your cat might appear unbalanced.

Take a look inside your cat’s ear and examine the debris. With ear mites, it will look like coffee grounds. If you see tiny, white, moving dots, those are ear mites. They are so small that you may only be able to view them by taking out a sample of the debris, putting it on a dark background, and using a magnifying glass.

Although mites prefer ear skin, they can also travel to other areas on your cat. If this is the case, your cat will probably scratch his skin intensely, resulting in redness and/or hair loss. Depending on how much your cat has scratched, there may also be dried or fresh blood in or around the ears and on any other affected parts of his body.

Most of the symptoms associated with ear mites can also be seen with bacterial or yeast infections of the ear and with other health problems as well. If you have any doubt as to whether or not your cat has ear mites, make an appointment with your veterinarian.

How Do I Treat Ear Mites?

The first step in treating mites at home is a thorough ear cleaning. If you’ve never done this before, you can follow the steps below. You might need an assistant unless your cat is particularly agreeable.

Ear Cleaning Steps

  1. Prepare your working area. Have a towel for your cat to sit on (and to help with the clean-up), an ear cleanser, and tissues, paper towels, or gauze. Only use a safe and gentle cleanser that is approved for cats, such as Cerumene or Oti-Clens.
  2. Gently hold back your cat’s ear and pour a small amount of the cleanser into the ear canal.
  3. Massage the base of the ear. You’ll likely hear a “squishy” sound.
  4. Release the ear and let your cat shake his head.
  5. Use your tissues, paper towels, or gauze to gently clean out the ear. Make sure not to force any debris down the ear canal.
  6. Repeat with the other ear.

You may have to repeat this process a few times to fully clean the ears. If you’re having difficulty removing the debris, you can very carefully use a cotton-tipped swab. This can help you reach difficult spots, but make sure you can always see the tip of the swab. Pushing it in too far can rupture your cat’s eardrum.

Once your cat’s ears are clean, apply an anti-mite medication like Eradimite or Otomite. Different medications have variable lengths of treatment, so follow the directions on the bottle exactly. Products that can kill ear mites in just one or two doses are available through veterinarians.

In addition to treating the ears, you’ll also want to deal with any mites that have traveled elsewhere on your cat’s body. You can do this with a dose of Frontline flea and tick treatment.

Preventing the Spread of Ear Mites

If home treatment for ear mites doesn’t work, consult with your veterinarian. Make sure you also treat any other cats or dogs who share your home, as it’s very likely that they, too, are harboring ear mites even if they are not yet showing any symptoms.