Ear Mites and Itchy Ears in Cats

Ear Mites and Itchy Ears in Cats

Why Does My Cat Keep Scratching Her Ears?

In the middle of the night there are few things more annoying than a cat scratching her ears (especially when she’s sleeping on the pillow by your head.)

One of the commonest causes of itchy ears in our feline friends is the ear mite, Otodectes cyanotis, a tiny bug that definitely has the “Yhew!” factor. This microscopic mite is not only highly infectious, but they aren’t fussy about which species they infect. All of which makes ear mites an unwelcome visitor, and to prevent a population explosion it’s a wise cat guardian who acts early at the first hint of an infection.


Where do Ear Mites Come From?

With a name like ‘ear mites’ it’s no surprise they live in the ear canal, but how does the cat acquire them? The answer is, from close contact with other infected animals. This is why ear mite infections are so common in young kittens, because they pick them up from the mother when she nurses and grooms them.

The bad news is this little critters aren’t fussy about who they infect. In a multi-cat house they quickly become shared around, so if you have one cat with ear mites it’s best (for treatment purposes) to assume all the pets are infected.

Of course some of you may now be wondering if people can pick up ear mites. Unfortunately, yes they can, although happily this is very rare. Indeed people are more likely to get itchy raised red spots on their arms and chests from cradling the cat, than an actual ear infection.

(The exception to this is one plucky vet in the 1950s who wanted to understand what his feline patients went through when they had ear mites. He deliberately transferred infected wax into his own ears – double yhew. He reports an almost unbearable itching, and also a lot of noise from the mites scrabbling around in his ear canal. Experiencing this for himself gave him a new perspective on what his feline patients were suffering.)


What are the Signs my Cat has Ear Mites?

In a nutshell the symptoms are itchiness and a brown waxy discharge.

But be aware that plenty of other parasites can cause itchiness, so it’s worth getting up-to-date with common problems like flea control if your cat is scratching her head a lot.

Other clues the issue may be ear mite related include the skin of the ear becoming red or inflamed, a brown waxy discharge, scabs around the forehead, and a narrowed ear canal. The irritation causes the cat to scratch or paw at her head, which then leads to secondary bacterial infections which invade the damaged skin.

A vet check is definitely advisable, especially as putting drops into an ear with a ruptured ear drum can cause serious (and permanent) hearing loss or balance problems. Your vet will look with a lighted magnifying instrument called an otoscope, to check for complicating factors and make sure the ear drum is intact.

Through the otoscope the vet may even spot these tiny mites scurrying away from the light, or else confirm the diagnosis by examining a wax sample under the microscope.


Options for Treatment

Which treatment is right for you cat depends on:

  • Your cat’s age
  • How severe the infection is
  • If secondary (bacterial) infections are present
  • How sore the ear is
  • How many pets you have in the house

Those treatment options are:

  • Ear drops
  • Spot on parasite products
  • Injection

Let’s take a quick look at the pros and cons of each

  • Ear Drops: These often contain a cocktail of active ingredients such as an antibiotic and anti-inflammatory. Thus they can “Kill two birds with one stone” because they not only kill the ear mites but also sort out bacterial infections and soreness. The disadvantage is that drops can be messy, not to mention difficult to get into the ear an uncooperative cat with a sore head.
  • Spot on Parasite Products: Some spot-on parasite products that contain variations on the ivermectin molecule are licensed to treat ear mite infections in cat. You apply the drops to the shoulders in the regular way, and the medication travels over the skin to kill the ear mites. This is a super way to get to grips with an infection in a multi-cat house, as it’s easy to treat all the animals. However, because nothing goes into the ear canal itself, there’s nothing to soothe down very sore ears.
  • Injections: This is mainly reserved for feral cats as other, better options exist. An injection of ivermectin can help control ear mites, but isn’t licensed for the purpose.


Treating Kittens with Ear Mites

This poses a real dilemma, as no product is licensed for this purpose in kittens under the age of eight weeks. After eight weeks, spot-on products containing selamectin can be used between the shoulder blades or Otomite drops put into the ears from 12 weeks of age.

So what can you do for 4 – 8 week old kittens with ear mites? The answer is to use an ear cleaner that’s safe for young kittens, and keep the ears as clean as possible. By whisking away the wax that contains ear mite eggs, and flushing out the adults, you’ll go somewhere to keeping things under control.


Essential to Effective Treatment

OK, so the vet prescribes your cat’s some ear drops. That’s it right?


Top tips for get complete resolution are:

  • Treat all pets in the house
  • Wash bedding and grooming tools
  • Repeat treatment after 14 days.

This cuts down the options for the mites lurking in wait to repeat the infection. Plus, by treating again at the 14 days point, this kills the next generation of mites that have attached out of their protective eggs.

So there we have it. A quick romp through the itchy subject of ear mites. And if you managed to avoid a quick scratch whilst reading, well done you!