So your pet is shaking his head and scratching at his ears.  Could he have ear mites?  It is a good possibility.  Ear mites are tiny parasites that live mostly inside the ear canal. They are quite common, and can cause severe irritation and itchiness of the ears.

Cause
Ear mites primarily live in the ear canal, where they feed on skin debris. Having ear mites causes inflammation, and can lead to secondary ear infections.

Eggs are laid in the ear.  The eggs hatch in about 3 weeks and then develop into adult mites that can also reproduce.

While ear mites are generally found in the ears, they can also wander out onto the body, causing irritation and itchiness of the skin as well.

Risk Factors
Cats are more commonly affected than dogs. Ear mites are spread mostly by direct contact with another animal that has ear mites (they are commonly seen in outdoor cats). They are more common in young animals.

Signs and Symptoms of Ear Mites

  • head shaking
  • scratching at ears
  • dark waxy or crusty discharge from the ears (looks a bit like coffee grounds)
  • sometimes there will be scratching or irritation of other parts of body

Diagnosis of Ear Mites
Ear mites are confirmed when they are found in a sample of the ear discharge examined under a microscope.  They can even be seen as little white specks moving around in the ear (when using a magnifying scope to examine the ear). Confirming the presence of the mites is necessary to distinguish whether your pet has ear mites or an ear infection.

Treating Ear Mites
There are several ways for treating ear mites, and your veterinarian will recommend a treatment protocol for your pet. Over the counter medications are often less effective or require extended treatments compared to medications prescribed by your vet, especially the newer medications that require a single application to be effective.

A thorough cleaning of the ears can help clear the discharge to help calm the irritation and remove some of the mites. This can be followed up in several ways:

  • One-time treatments applied to the ear.
  • One time treatments applied to the skin: medications such as Revolution® or Advantage Multi® (these are typically used as monthly parasite control medications; a single dose usually takes care of an ear mite infection but you may consider using them monthly to prevent reinfection and control other pests).
  • Repeated treatments applied to the ear. It is important to strictly follow your vet’s recommended dosage schedule for successful treatment of ear mites (usually twice daily treatments for a week or more).
  • Injectable meds can also be used.

All pets in the home should be treated at the same time, even if they are not showing symptoms.

Ear mites do not survive for long on humans and as a result do not cause any long term infections. Rarely, however, they will briefly hang out on humans, and may cause a short-lived but very itchy rash.