Creepy Crawlies: Cats and Ear Mites

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Based on an article that first appeared at

This Halloween, you may think spiders and worms are the creepiest pests around, but cats have a whole other idea of what creeps them out: microscopic parasites that crawl into their ears and make themselves at home. This might sound like something out of a horror film, but it’s a common occurrence for cats (and dogs) – ear mites!

What are Ear Mites?

Ear mites are tiny parasites, barely visible to the human eye, that live on the surface of the ear canal and eat the ear wax inside. They are generally detected with regular cat preventative care and are easy to remove, but if not treated, ear mites can cause serious blockages of the ear canal, as well as severe skin infections.

How Can I Tell if My Cat Has Ear Mites?

Because ear mites are so small, you may not see any actual mites in your cat’s ears; however, you will see their after-effects: a brownish ear wax, similar in appearance to coffee grounds. You also may notice your cat displaying some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Constantly rubbing/scratching their ears and/or incessant head shaking
  • Scratches, scabs, and/or hair loss in and around the ears
  • A strong, funky odor coming from the ears

Cat scratching ear

How Did My Cat Get Ear Mites?

Ear mites are highly contagious, so there are a variety of ways your cat could have caught them. Ear mites can travel from the ears of an infected cat to any other cats in close contact. Outdoor cats are more prone to catch them from other cats while wrestling around or snuggling (basically any social interaction with an infected cat), but indoor cats can also catch them from the toys or bedding of other infected cats. Mites are very prevalent in kittens and shelter cats, so any time you adopt a new cat be sure to check their ears immediately for ear mites. It’s best to bring a newly-adopted cat in for a checkup as soon as you can.

How are Ear Mites Diagnosed?

Although it might seem simple enough to diagnose your cat’s ear mites by yourself (hmmm… mites + ears = ear mites?), just like with fleas and ticks for cats, this should be avoided whenever possible. Certain forms of bacterial infections can easily be mistaken for ear mites by the untrained eye, and the treatments for these different maladies aren’t necessarily the same.

When diagnosing your cat, a veterinarian can help determine if the symptoms are actually ear mites or are caused by a bacterial infection, or even some sort of hereditary ear disorder. You will need to let your veterinarian know of your cat’s medical history, as well as if the cat has had any exposure to infected or unfamiliar pets.

A veterinarian can generally diagnose suspected ear mites by using an otoscope, a flashlight-like instrument used to explore the depths of the ear. In addition, the veterinarian can swab your cat’s ear and examine the sample under a microscope. They can then determine if the problem is ear mites, a bacterial infection, or something else entirely.

How are Ear Mites Treated?

You won’t need an exorcism to get rid of these pests, but it is important to follow all of your veterinarian’s instructions to a T. Once a cat has been properly diagnosed with ear mites, treatment generally begins with a thorough cleaning of the ears to remove any wax or debris that may shield the mites from topical medications that are applied directly in the ear and the areas around it. These topical medications are typically prescribed for a period of two to three weeks and work in a way similar to that of lice shampoo in humans to eliminate ear mites completely.

Close up of a cat's face and ears

Ear mites come with a high risk of infection, so many veterinarians will also prescribe ear drops or a treatment of antibiotics to relieve any infections that the cat may be suffering from. Infection treatment times can vary, but it usually does not exceed one month. Be sure to schedule a follow-up visit to be sure all your cat’s creepy crawlies are completely gone.

Because ear mites are so contagious, all pets in the household (both cats and dogs) should be treated for ear mites. (Ear mites are typically not considered to be a risk to humans.) Additionally, it is important to keep an infected cat away from other animals as much as possible until the end of treatment.

How Can Ear Mites Be Prevented in Cats?

As with most pet parasites, hygiene and regular checkups are always key to prevention. Keep your cat’s toys and bedding clean, and check their ears on a regular basis (especially if they have had contact with other cats or other cats’ items). As mentioned previously, have any newly-adopted pets checked by your vet to help prevent ear mites from spreading to the pets already in your home.

Your cat’s ears don’t need to be a haunting ground for mites – stay vigilant, and keep the creepy crawlies out of your feline’s furry ears this Halloween (and all year round)!



  • Cat Illness & Disease
  • Cat Dermatology
  • Cat Medications