How to Treat Ear Mites in Cats

posted: 05/15/12
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Ear mites are easy to treat, but can also be contagious.
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Ear mites are painful invaders that leave cats shaking their heads -- literally. Our feline friends are understandably distressed by these crawly creatures living in their ear canals. With most cats afflicted at some point in their lives, all cat owners should know how to spot ear mites and what to do about them. Treatment of ear mites is fairly simple, and keeping them away from your cat requires just a little effort. Here's how to fight those mites:

These tiny parasites, the size of a pinpoint or a comma, live and breed in the cat's ear canal, causing the cat discomfort and itching. They can spread to his head, skin, back, neck and tail. Ear mites thrive on ear canal secretions and tissue debris, and multiply by the thousands. They can live their entire life cycle on their host cat. Highly contagious, and as common to cats as fleas, ear mites can lead to bacterial and fungal infections, and cause inflammation of the cat's outer ear canal. In extreme cases, untreated ear mites can cause a ruptured eardrum or permanent hearing loss. While cats of any age are susceptible to ear mites, they are most often seen in kittens.

Easily spread from one animal to another, ear mites are present in roughly half the dog and cat populations. Kittens usually contract them from their mothers, because a kitten's immune system is still fragile, and ear mites are so contagious. Cats that go outdoors are very susceptible to contracting ear mites from other cats or dogs they encounter. Foxes and rabbits are also carriers. If your cat has ear mites, your dog or other pets will likely have them as well. In pet shops, catteries or shelters, where cats live in close proximity, ear mites are a common problem.

A cat with ear mites, distressed by the itching they cause, will shake his head and scratch at his ears vigorously. He may scratch so hard that his ears will bleed or blood vessels may break. Ear mites can cause a cat to flatten or tuck his ears back, and the cat may cry if you touch them. His ears will also give off a foul odor. Taking a peek inside his ear may show you a buildup of brownish or black specks that resemble coffee grounds. This crusty debris is formed by ear wax, dried blood and dead ear mites.

Since cats are subject to other ear ailments such as bacterial or yeast infections, your vet should first examine the cat to confirm that it has ear mites. While ear mites are invisible to the naked eye, your vet can see them with an instrument called an otoscope. Once confirmed, the cat's ears should be cleaned by a veterinary professional, to ensure the ear canal isn't damaged. The vet will rub mineral oil gently into the ears to soften the crusty debris, then flush the cat's ears with warm water. After that, the vet will prescribe ear mite medication -- usually drops containing an insecticide like pyrethrin -- that you should put in the cat's ears.

You'll need to massage the ears to distribute the liquid, which will be given daily for several days. The vet will need to repeat the cleaning twice more at week-long intervals to remove the full lifecycle of adult ear mites and eggs. To be thorough, you should also ask the vet to clean the cat's tail -- and keep it clean yourself -- because cats sleep with their tails curled close to their ears, and ear mites can live on tails as well as in ear canals.

A month after your vet has treated your cat for ear mites, she'll want to swab the cat's ears to be certain the infection is gone. To prevent the return of ear mites, always thoroughly dry your cat's ears after bathing him, because ear mites thrive in a moist, warm environment. Inspect his ears regularly for any signs of dirt, and keep them clean; ask your vet to demonstrate the proper cleaning procedure. At the first sign of any feline ear problem, consult your vet. Wash the cat's bedding often, especially if you have multiple pets. Topical flea preventatives, applied to the cat's skin once a month, also prevent ear mite infestation.

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