how do cats get ear mites
Cat Health and Wellness

Does My Cat Have Ear Mites or an Ear Infection?

Although ear mites are responsible for half of all ear infections that are diagnosed in cats, the other 50% can be caused by a variety of issues. Infections that are non-mite related can often be attributed to a secondary condition. Getting to the root of the matter requires expertise.

Being able to identify trouble is your job. Monitoring your cat’s behavior and physical actions can shed light on a potential problem. Conducting routine inspections of your cat’s ears can also prove invaluable.

Both ear mites and other forms of infection produce visual symptoms within the ear and ear canal. From discharges, foul smells, and the presence of tiny particles of debris, you can be your cat’s best advocate.

In this guide, we will dissect the topic of ear mites and ear infection individually. While both issues present many similarities, the differences can be striking. Being able to identify common symptoms can enable your cat to get the urgent treatment that they need.

Ear Mites vs. Ear Infection

Both ear mites and ear infections can display many of the same cursory symptoms. This can make it difficult to assess the situation appropriately. However, once you become familiar with some somewhat distinguishable visual differences, you will have a better understanding of each issue.

Although you should never draw your conclusions without the help of a vet, having a basic understanding of the differences between mites and ear infections can enable you to be more proactive.

What are the Core Differences?

Known as otodectes cynotis, ear mites are parasites that prey and feed on the oils and wax buildup that reside in a cat’s ear canal. Almost impossible to detect with the naked eye, a single mite undergoes a three-week life cycle.

Causing irritation and swelling, ear mites can invade and infect both the inner and outer areas of the ear canal. If left untreated, ear mites can cause a variety of ear and skin infections.

The infection caused by ear mites can result in a dark-colored discharge from the ears in the most severe cases. Additionally, the visual of what looks like coffee grounds can be present within the ear canal. This dark debris is often the hallmark visual of an ear mite infestation.

  • Ear mites are highly contagious and are often passed from cat to cat. Far more common in cats than dogs, ear mites are responsible for an estimated 50% of all ear infections that are found in cats. Most people are generally immune to ear mites.

While dark debris is the core visual that can define a mite infestation, a moist and gooey appearance can define the existence of an ear infection. Waxy buildup within the ear canal, as well as redness and swelling of the ear, may also be prominent.

Ear infections that are not related to mites are classified as secondary infections. This generally means the issue is being caused by a more serious medical concern. Whereas mites are the product of a parasite, an ear infection can be brought on by both internal and external factors.

  • Cats with existing health concerns such as allergies and diabetes are more inclined to suffer from non-mite related ear infections.

how to check for ear mites in cats

Understanding Ear Mites in Cats

Ear mites are the most common form of cat ear infection and often one of the more complex to treat.

Complicated by the formation of skin infections and blood vessel rupturing within the ear, surgery can be required to treat some of the more urgent conditions caused by an ear mite problem.

  • Ear mites have eight legs and have the appearance of tiny spiders. Not all mite infestations lead to ear issues. Some infections only affect the skin.

What Are the Symptoms of Ear Mites?

The more ear mites infiltrate your cat’s ear(s), the more symptomatic your cat will become. Because many of the earliest symptoms can be dismissed for simple behavioral traits, it is vital to continue to monitor your feline if you begin to notice secretions, odor from the ears, blood scratches near the ear, and dark debris within the ear canal.

Some of the most common (and concerning) symptoms of ear mites include…

  • Aggressive scratching and rubbing of the ears
  • Frequent head shaking
  • Hair loss (in and around the ears) and skin irritation
  • Dark colored secretion from the ears (Waxy in texture)
  • Foul odor emitting from the ears
  • Inflammation of the ears
  • Coffee ground-like substance and debris within the ear canal (Classic symptom)
  • Blood, bleeding, and scab development near the ear caused by intense scratching

What Are the Causes of Ear Mites?

The cause of ear mites is often environmental. Cats that live outdoors, have lesser levels of hygiene or occupy space in a pet store or animal shelter are more likely to attract this particular parasite.

Mites can spread due to contact with other carriers. Ear mites can infect both dogs and cats.

  • Mites are often groomed away by cats. If a mite is caught on the back or belly of a cat, it is often swept away through the process of licking or scratching. But, if mites can make their way inside the ear canals, they have entered a safe haven. This is why mites often house themselves within the ears of a cat.

Treatment Options

Successful treatment of ear mites requires professional care from your vet. In most cases, prescription medicine can be applied to the ear or infected skin.

If your cat’s ears have become infected with a buildup of wax and symptomatic debris, a cleaning will be required before proper medication is administered. The use of an ear cleanser is often necessary in moderate-to-severe cases.

After cleansing and on-site treatment, you may be asked to give your cat ear drops or antibiotic medication as a home treatment.

While complications can arise, most notably the formation of an aural hematoma due to aggressive head shaking, most felines respond well to treatment and will slowly recover.

It is crucial that all medication be given regardless of your cat’s behavior. Similar to humans, you are always encouraged to “finish the bottle” when taking prescription drugs.

cat ear yeast infection signs

How Do I Prevent Ear Mites?

Although prevention is impossible, routine cleaning and examining of your cat’s ears can enable you to detect an issue.

Depending on your living situation, reducing your cat’s time outside can be beneficial. Limiting contact with other cats can also decrease the chance of infection.

Noted below are several additional steps you can take…

  • Maintain a clean living environment. This means regular home maintenance and the washing and cleaning of bedding and toys.
  • If you have multiple cats and one has been diagnosed with mites, make sure all of your cats are treated.
  • Schedule routine checkups with your vet. While taking your cat to the vet when you suspect an issue is wise, taking them to the vet for a simple health check is equally important. You can safeguard your cat from disease and illness if you schedule monthly vet care. Treating your cat for mites before a problem develops is a solid plan of action.

Does My Cat Have Ear Mites or Ear Wax?

If your cat is exhibiting many of the same symptoms associated with ear mites but does not appear to have brownish (coffee ground-like) debris in the ears, the cause could be ear wax. While more common in older felines and cats that reside outdoors, a heavy wax buildup can cause a series of problems.

While easy to treat, wax can cause ear damage if the problem is ignored. Wax can also be a sign of an underlying condition such as diabetes, hypothyroidism or an autoimmune disease.

Consult your vet if your cat has excessive wax and is exhibiting strange behavior.

Can Indoor Cats Get Ear Mites?

Although the likelihood is far less compared to that of outdoor cats, pets that reside indoors can get mites.

If you live in a home with an expansive yard, the likelihood of parasites entering your home increases dramatically. In the same way that fleas, bees, spiders, etc., can enter your home, mites can do the same.

While nature will call quite naturally, the most significant factor involved in this equation is the presence of another cat. If you have multiple cats and one or more reside outdoors the outdoor cat(s) can bring mites into the home. Once they come in contact with your indoor cat an infestation can occur.

Understanding Ear Infections in Cats

Cat ear infections are rare and often complicated to treat. Since the primary offender is a mite infestation, once that issue has been eliminated, the water can become a bit muddy. Because ear infections can often involve other health concerns, finding out to the main culprit is essential.

Allergies, physical mass, and a foreign object(s) are three of the most common causes of cat ear infections.

What Are the Symptoms of an Ear Infection?

They are not dissimilar to those of ear mites. This can make an infection tough to diagnose during the early stages.

Additionally, because an ear infection can lead to many issues, not every cat will present the same symptoms. There is a significant difference between a wax buildup infection and a foreign object being lodged in the ear.

  • Black, brown, yellow or black discharge
  • Redness and inflammation of the ear or ear canal
  • Wax build-up on or deep within the ear canal
  • Foul odor
  • Partial hearing loss
  • Equilibrium issues
  • The presence of a foreign body within the ear canal

What Are the Types of Ear Infection?

The type of ear infection is determined by which area of the ear has been affected.

  • Otitis Externa is an infection of the outer portion of the ear.
  • Infections that originate or spread to the middle part of the ear are known as Otitis Media.
  • Otitis Interna is the name for an infection that has reached the inner ear.

Otitis Interna can lead to partial or total hearing loss, equilibrium concerns, and facial paralysis. Inner ear infections are the least common of the three conditions.

What Are the Causes of Ear Infections?

Because mite infestations are the most common, any infection that is not mite related can be hard to diagnose in some cases. When the possibilities are endless, receiving a timely diagnosis from a veterinarian is crucial.

Listed below are a variety of potential causes…

  • The growth of bacteria or yeast within the ear canal
  • Wax buildup
  • A thick clump of hair in the ears. This primarily affects long-haired cats.
  • Allergies
  • Poor immune health
  • Tumor and polyps within the ear and ear canal
  • Ruptured eardrum
  • Cleaning has led to damage to the ear
  • Foreign object (Grass, stick, rock, paper, etc.)
  • Diabetes (diabetes mellitus)

What causes a cat's ear to become infected?

What Treatments Are Available?

Treatments for an ear infection can be difficult to determine due to the expansive number of possible causes. In many cases, an antibiotic or anti-parasitic will be administered, but that depends on the true nature of the infection.

One of the first things your vet will likely do is determine if ear damage has taken place. Middle and inner ear infections can harm the eardrum, so making sure that hearing and balance are optimal is advised.

In some cases, your vet may decide to clip or trim the fur around the ear canal to clean and treat the ear properly. If the cause is related to thick hair in the canal, then unwanted fur can be extracted.

For home care, your vet may prescribe ear drops that you have to administer. While this can be a daunting task, as long as the drops reach the ear canal everything should be fine.

How Can You Prevent Ear Infections?

Routine ear checkups are crucial. Similar to mite prevention, examining your cat’s ears for swelling and unusual debris is recommended. Healthy ears are pink, free of odor, and have minimal ear wax. Knowing what an ear should look like can enable you to detect changes.

  • Aggressive cleaning should never be done by an owner without training. There are too many risks involved when inserting a cleaning device without the correct level of skill. Leave the cleaning to the professionals.

Monitor your cat for behavioral changes, physical trauma (from scratching), and debris in the ears. This will set the wheels in motion for a timely diagnosis and treatment.

The presence of a coffee ground-like substance in the ear or gooey discharge is considered to be a red flag warning. Consult your vet ASAP if you notice these two classic symptoms.