The mighty mighty ear mites

August 12, 2012

Ear mites are a common parasite of cat and dog ears. They are far more common in cats than in dogs. Especially cats that have access to the outdoors, and therefore other cats. Kittens (and puppies) are much more likely to have ear mites than older cats or dogs.

Ear mites are transferred to pets from other pets or animals. Meaning: if you just brought in that brand new kitten that has ear mites, the other pets in your house are sitting ducks just waiting for those ear mites. If you have already exposed the new kitten (or puppy) that has ear mites to your other pets, it is likely that a small ear mite infestation is already brewing in those pets.

Infestation of the ear canals causes a fairly characteristic black discharge said to resemble coffee grounds. This is composed of ear wax, blood, the ear mites themselves and their excrement, and other inflammatory chemicals.

However, ear canals can only respond to any insult in so many ways. Meaning: many different ear problems can produce similar signs. Without actually visualizing the ear mites themselves, it is easy and common to be led astray by black discharge coming from the canals. In dogs, ear infections (not infestations) with bacteria and/or yeast are far more common than ear mites.

This leads to the most common problem caused by ear mites: misdiagnosis. All too often, patients come in after weeks of treatment for ear mites. The diagnosis was usually made by the high school kid at the pet store or Dr. Google.

The owner looked up “scratching at ears” and “black waxy discharge” or mentioned them to the helpful pet store clerk. They were then advised to apply drops of antiquated ear mite medication to the pet’s ears every day for two to three weeks.

After having applied these drops for the specified amount of time, clients will often come into the veterinary hospital disappointed that their pet is not over the ear mites. An important point to remember is that the most expensive medication is not necessarily the one that costs the most. Rather, the most expensive medication is the one that does not work. Applying ear mite medication to a pet that has an ear infection will not help the ear infection.  

Diagnosis is made by actually visualizing the mites. Although they can be seen by the naked eye, this is very difficult. They appear as a small white dot, which is best looked for on a dark background.

At the veterinary office, the doctor can easily see the mites with the use of an otoscope or looking at some ear debris under a microscope. The most dramatic discoveries are usually found with a video otoscope. This camera inserted into the ear canal allows the owner to visualize the mites on a video monitor or computer screen.   

Treatment for ear mites has come a long way. There are numerous over-the-counter remedies available, but these often involve daily treatment for 21 to 30 days. It becomes highly likely that one or more doses will be missed with this kind of dosing schedule.

Newer veterinary treatments involve topical products that can be applied once daily for 14 days, once a week for two weeks, once a month, or once period. Each product has pros and cons.

Obviously, society loves laziness. If a treatment only requires being administered once per month or once period, sign us up. However, some products that require multiple applications also aid in flushing debris out of the ear. This helps to eliminate the waxy home that the ear mites love.

Ear mites live approximately two months. They develop from an egg to an adult capable of producing eggs in three weeks. Applying ear drops every day for three weeks gets tedious, for both the owner and the patient.

A better and more broad-spectrum approach is to apply Advantage Multi or Revolution once monthly. These products not only eliminate ear mites (Advantage Multi is only labeled for ear mites in cats), but also prevent heartworm and fleas for a month as well.

A pet afflicted with ear mites will still need his ears cleaned. But cleaning ears two or three times per week for one to two weeks sounds much easier than daily administration of drops in the ears for 21 days.

Dr. Adam Ferguson is co-owner of Baker Animal Hospital in Cridersville.