Should you ever decide to adopt a kitten or cat from a shelter, or take in a stray who has been hanging around your back door looking the worse for wear, there is a good chance that it may have ear mites. Ear mites in cats are very common and highly contagious between them. The culprit that causes the problem is a mange mite called Otodectes cynotis. The thought of taking in a cat who might be harbouring a mange mite might initially turn one off the gesture of giving a forever home to a cat in desperate need. However, the traditional “mange” that affects numerous species (and people) is caused by different mites and is very different from ear mites.
Skin mange is usually either Scabies or Demodex and, although cats can get these skin diseases, they are very uncommon. These mites burrow into the skin and can spread around the whole body and, in extreme situations, can even be fatal. Ear mites, though, are not burrowing and take up residence in the ears. However, when cats curl up with other cats, this direct contact allows the mites to walk over to another cat and set up house in a new set of ears. These mites feed on ear wax and the inflammation they cause results in more ear wax being produced. The result is a significant build-up of brown-black crusty material that is easily visible to an owner simply by looking in the ear canals.
The primary clinical sign to watch for is if your new feline family member is either scratching his ears or shaking his head. The itch is very intense and the scratching can be incessant. In addition to seeing the coffee-ground build up within the ear canals, severely affected cats will likely also have traumatic damage to the outside of the ears, which is a result of the back paws damaging the ear while scratching.
Although cats are the most common pet to have ear mites, they can be transmitted to other pets, such as ferrets and dogs. Although rare, people can also be affected, but as the mite cannot reproduce within the human ear, the infection is self-limiting. The life cycle for the Odoctectes mite is about 3-4 weeks from egg to mature adult. The ear mite that affects rabbits is not the same as that which affects cats, although the treatment is the same for both.
Should your new cat be vigorously scratching its ears, it would be very prudent to go to your veterinarian. The diagnosis is usually quick and simple. Examining your cat’s ears with an otoscope will allow your veterinarian to visualize the white mites, often hundreds of them, walking around on top of the ear wax build-up. Treatment involves thoroughly cleaning out both ears and then dispensing one of a number of very effective topical ear drops that will usually clear up the problem within 2-3 treatments. The intense itching will often subside within hours of initial treatment, resulting in a much happier pussycat.
Mites are not commonly found in cats that live indoors and well attended to by their owners. If your cat is outdoors, then it is possible that hanging with his outdoor buddies will allow close enough contact that mites can be transmitted. If, however, you use topical preventive medication for problems such as fleas, usually these same medications will prevent ear mites. Check with your veterinarian to ensure that the flea medication you use is broad spectrum enough to include ear mites.
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