Ear mites are tiny parasitic insects that make themselves at home in an animal's external ear canals and surrounding skin. The mites are easily transmitted through direct contact with a parasitized individual. Ear mites are most frequently diagnosed in kittens or in adult cats and dogs that have been housed under crowded conditions (e.g., animal shelters).
Typical symptoms of an ear mite infestation include scratching at and wounds around the ears, head and neck, head shaking, and debris in the ears that looks like coffee grounds. To definitively diagnose the condition, a veterinarian will often look in the ears with an otoscope and/or take a sample from within the animal's ear canals and examine it under the microscope. Pet owners can sometimes diagnose the condition themselves by placing some debris collected from an animal's outer ear canals and placing it on top of a dark background. Mites may be visible to the naked eye or with the use of a magnifying glass. They look like tiny, white, moving specks about the size of the head of a pin.
Animals with ear mites should have their ears thoroughly cleaned and be treated with one of several different types of medications that kill the parasites. All animals that could be harboring the mites in the household need to be treated to prevent the parasites from being passed back and forth.
Written by: Jennifer Coates, DVM
Last reviewed: October 2, 2008