- Ear mites are tiny parasites in the same family as ticks and spiders.
- Symptoms include head shaking, scratching, and dark brown buildup.
- Treating ear mites in cats is relatively easy.
- Using flea and tick medications that also prevent ear mites in cats.
If your cat just won’t stop scratching her ears and shaking her head, she might have a case of ear mites.
While any number of parasites or allergens can trigger itchy ears, ear mites are often responsible for a cat’s discomfort, according to a 2016 review in Veterinary Dermatology (1). Keep in mind that ear mites are far more likely if your cat spends time outdoors.
While ear mites can quickly make your feline friend miserable, the good news is, they’re easy to diagnose and treat with the help of a veterinarian.
Wondering if ear mites are to blame for your cat’s must-scratch itch? Read on to learn everything you need to know about ear mites in cats, including how to check for them, what diagnosis and treatment entails, and whether home remedies for ear mites in cats actually work.
What Are Ear Mites?
Ear mites are tiny parasites in the same family as ticks and spiders. Typically, these crab-like mites live on the surface of your cat’s skin inside her ear canal, though sometimes they can venture out onto her body, causing widespread itchiness.
If you have multiple pets in your household, you may be wondering: Are ear mites contagious in cats? Unfortunately, they’re highly contagious and can spread to other cats, dogs, and some small mammals, such as ferrets, says Dr. Cherie Pucheu-Haston, an associate professor of veterinary dermatology at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge.
Starting to feel itchy, too? Thankfully, pet parents are very rarely infected with ear mites. The most likely scenario would be a brief itchy rash where ear mites managed to crawl onto your skin.
Symptoms of Ear Mites in Cats
So, what do ear mites look like in cats? The main symptoms are pretty obvious—infected cats will scratch at their ears and shake their heads almost all the time, as if they’re trying to fling the mites off of them.
While you likely won’t be able to see the ear mites themselves (they’re extremely tiny white dots), you may notice your cat’s ears are crusty, red, or even missing hair in areas due to her constant scratching. If she lets you anywhere near her ears, they might smell less-than-pleasant, as ear mites cause a nasty build-up of stinky, dark-colored debris and ear wax.
Wondering how to check for ear mites in cats? Naturally, signs of ear mites can vary based on how severe the infestation is. Common symptoms of ear mites in cats include:
- Head shaking
- Scratching at ears, head, and neck
- Scratches, sores, and crusty skin on ears and sometimes other parts of the body
- Dry, dark red-brown build-up inside ear flap
- Dark, smelly ear discharge that may resemble coffee grounds
- Hair loss from excessive scratching or grooming
What Causes Cat Ear Mites?
As ear mites are extremely contagious, cats frequently pick them up from each other while playing, grooming, or sleeping close together.
In particular, kittens often pick up ear mites from their mothers and may struggle to fight them off. “Ear mites are more commonly found in young animals as their immune systems are still developing,” explains Dr. Jennifer Schissler, an assistant professor of dermatology at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital of Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
If you’ve recently rescued a neighborhood cat or own multiple cats, your pets might be more susceptible to ear mites compared to, say, a lone indoor cat. Infestations are more common among strays and cats living in crowded conditions, says Dr. Schissler.
No matter your pet’s lifestyle or living conditions, though, ear mites can latch onto any kitten or cat. So, if you suspect yours might have them, it helps to know how to check for ear mites in cats.
Diagnosing Ear Mites in Cats
If you think your cat might have ear mites, keep in mind that many other conditions (including allergies, ear polyps, tumors, and reactions to improper use of rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide) can also trigger head shaking and a funky ear discharge. For this reason, your best line of action is to schedule an immediate appointment with your veterinarian for a solid diagnosis.
In the exam room, your veterinarian will review your cat’s medical history and ask you about her symptoms. If possible, she’ll look inside your cat’s ears with an otoscope (a handheld instrument with a light and magnifying lens), though some cats are in too much pain and some kittens are too small for this exam, says Dr. Pucheu-Haston.
Your veterinarian will swab the inside of your cat’s ear to view the debris under a microscope—ear mites are usually plentiful, especially in kittens (eek!). Your veterinarian will also test your cat for secondary infections, as the swelling inside her ear can cause bacteria and yeast to overgrow, worsening her pain and itch, explains Dr. Schissler.
If your veterinarian discovers your cat does indeed have ear mites, she’ll prescribe the best treatment for your cat’s individual case.
How to Treat Ear Mites in Cats
In order to get rid of ear mites, your veterinarian will clean your cat’s ears, then apply the proper medication.
Often, treatment involves a topical spot-on treatment (which is applied in between your cat’s shoulder blades), plus ear drops for any secondary bacterial infection, says Schissler. While these drops can help with cleaning ear mites in cats by drowning the itch-inducing bugs, some veterinarians also prescribe ear drops that specifically target the mites to make sure they’re fully eradicated.
“Lastly, and most importantly, all of the animals in your house have to be treated as well, at the same time,” says Dr. Pucheu-Haston. Your other pets might not be showing signs of ear mites, but these parasites are extremely contagious and some cats (especially older ones) might show no initial symptoms. To fully clear your home of ear mites, every pet under your roof should be treated for them and all bedding should be washed.
While you’re letting the medication work its magic, keep your cat inside or in a restricted area so she won’t become reinfected from stray animals, suggests Dr. Pucheu-Haston. Since ear mites don’t last for long once they’ve crawled off of their host, vacuuming your carpets and washing your pet’s bedding should suffice for a clean, mite-free home.
Common Medications for Ear Mites in Cats
To get rid of ear mites in cats, your veterinarian may prescribe a topical solution or ear drops. Common ingredients found in medications for ear mites in cats include:
- Milbemycin oxime
Cost of Treatment for Ear Mites
The cost of treatment for ear mites can vary vastly (think: $50-$300), depending on how difficult they are to eradicate and which medications you use. If your budget is limited, ask your veterinarian for an estimate, suggests Dr. Schissler.
Natural Remedies for Ear Mites in Cats
There are no approved natural remedies for ear mites in cats, hard stop, Drs. Schissler and Pucheu-Haston agree. Olive oil, coconut oil, and mineral oil may help with cleaning ear mites in cats (as they drown the mites), but oils can actually promote yeast infections, as the yeast involved thrives on oil, explains Dr. Schissler. Plus, drowning is unlikely to kill all of the mites so your cat will still be infected and itchy.
NEVER apply tea tree oil to your cat, advises Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, a veterinarian based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “It is deadly to cats at very low doses,” she warns.
Considering the “natural” route? Know that prescription medications are much easier to give and tend to work much better, too, says Dr. Pucheu-Haston.
Prevention Cat Ear Mites
In order to avoid ear mites in the future, ask your veterinarian about a regular parasite preventative medication. Your cat (and her ears!) will thank you. Advantage Multi, Bravecto Plus, Revolution, and Revolution Plus all fit the bill, says Dr. Schissler.
Left untreated, ear mites in cats may also lead to:
- Bacterial infections
- Yeast infections
- Ear canal and ear drum damage
- In rare cases, a blood blister (hematoma) inside the ear flap