Dealing with Parasite Problems in the Ears

Ear Mites
Sarcoptic Mites
Demodex Mites
Canker Ear
& Fly Strike

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Ear mites have adapted as parasites to most all mammals, birds, and reptiles. I'm not sure about fish.  But in modern, small animal practice, ear mites are most commonly seen in cats.  The problem is easily recognized by any good vet and he or she will check for irritation of the ear canals at each visit.

Ear mites are microscopic little parasites that love to burrow into the tender skin inside the ear and lay their eggs.  They drive pets nuts with irritation.

They spread from pet to pet through direct contact and do not live off a warm body for long.  There are multiple subspecies of ear mites but we really don't care from a treatment stand point.

Diagnosis:  I mentioned above that any good vet can easily recognize what appears to be an ear mite problem.  And that's true.  But it's important to confirm the diagnosis with inspection under the microscope.  Because sometimes the problem that appears to be ear mites is really due to infection and/or allergies.  Or the problem might be due to sarcoptic or demodex mange mites that will require whole body treatment.  We discuss these different types of mites a little further down the page.  We discuss ear infections and allergies on another page.


There are lots of pyrethrin and mineral oil based, over the counter treatments for ear mites available.  They certainly help, but like fleas, ear mites have become resistant to these weaker treatments.  Vinegar based ear washes also help but once again, don't usually work well.

The most effective treatment involves cleaning out the ear canal well (I like to use mineral oil) and then applying one of the ivermectin based ear products to the inside of the ears.  Some products (Acarexx and Milbemite) claim perfect control with a single application but I like to follow up with a second treatment in 3-4 weeks or better yet, put the cat on monthly prevention with Revolution or Advantage Multi.  These 2 products do a good job of controlling not only ear mites, but also fleas, other types of mites, heartworms, and intestinal worms.

Treatment of the secondary infection and/or irritation may be needed too.  Often all that's needed to make your cat more comfortable until the ear tissue heals is the application of a little hydrocortisone cream once or twice a day for a few days.
I avoid giving cats antihistamines because the benefits aren't worth the dangers and effort of giving a cat a pill.  But I recommend oral diphenhydramine (Benadryl) to dogs being treated for ear mites.

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This page will be about dealing with parasites of the ears in cats, dogs, rabbits and other pets

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Biting flies are a common problem in cattle and horses.  This horse is protected.   But flies cause nasty sores on dog ears too.  The pictures just below are what "fly strike" looks like in dogs.  The case on the left is fairly mild.  The case on the right is pretty severe.  Sometimes mild problems can become severe in just a few days due to self mutilation (scratching madly) and the rapid replication of bacteria.
Ticks love to attach to tender ear tissue.  This patient would best be treated under light anesthesia and also needs to be tested for Lymes Disease, Ehrlichia, and Anaplasmosis.  And if your vet is practicing in the South, he or she would know that a dog in this condition is also likely to have heartworms and intestinal worms. 
The main thing to know about preventing fly strike is that you have to keep your yard clean of fecal material, rotting food, and other organic garbage that flies lay their eggs in.  It takes approximately 4 days for fly eggs to hatch, so that means cleaning up at least twice a week. 
You also need to keep your pet reasonably clean.  And if your dog hangs around the stable, cattle pasture or other places where flies are prevalent, you may want to apply a small amount of fly repellent cream to the ears each day.  It's sold at country vet clinics and feed stores.
As for treating wounds like the one in the pictures above, I would recommend gentle cleaning, laser therapy, and Zymox cream.  The enzymes in Zymox break down and digest necrotic tissue leaving nice healthy, healing, pink tissue behind.  The laser speeds up the healing process, kills germs, and reduces much of the pain and swelling overnight.
In addition to causing irritating sores, ticks carry and transmit several nasty diseases that affect both animals and humans.  If you and your pet live in an area where ticks are prevalent, you need to protect yourselves.  There are lots of tick products on the market, but only a handful work really well.
The more expensive tick collars tend to work well at repelling ticks away from the tender ears that they prefer (the packaging typically claims "up to 3 months" but the reality is 3-6 weeks).  My favorite recommendation is NexGuard, a fairly new once a month chewable treat that is very safe for dogs and offers near perfect flea and tick control for at least a month.  Your vet may prefer a different brand.
Canker Ear & Ear Mites
"Canker ear" is the non scientific name country folk use for really bad ear mite problems in sheep, goats, and cattle.  Rabbits frequently get severe ear mite problems as in the picture above.  But the term "Canker" is confusing because some people call any ear problem "Canker" whether it's due to mites or not, and "Canker" is also an all purpose word used to describe nasty looking sores on the hooves of horses, mules, cattle, sheep and goats.  And camels as far as I know.  (None of the red necks in my area have camels)
The picture above is a microscopic view of 2 ear mites.  The large capsule like object is an egg.  I've always been a little curious as to how the eggs always seem to be larger than the adult mites that lay them ???  The rest if the crud in the picture is ear wax and pus.
All the consistently effective ear mite treatments contain an active ingredient, usually ivermectin or a sister compound that comes from the fermentation of Streptomyces, which is a bacteria found in some soils. 

Ivermectin like medications have changed the world, saving hundreds of millions of human and animals from the agony and death of all sorts of parasitical diseases

Revolution, the product I like to recommend for cats because it does a good job of treating or preventing so many different types of parasites, including fleas, contains selamectin ... which is a sister molecule to ivermectin.

I was in boarding school when the Ivermectins were discovered, and the story of this not too long ago discovery is quite interesting.  I write about it on our pages about veterinary history; the 1970's
About using Avon Skin So Soft Lotion or Oil as a fly and mosquito repellent for your pet's ears:

If you don't know about Avon Skin So Soft, it's a brand of women's skin moisturizer that just happens to be a fair insect repellent for humans and pets.  It seems to work well diluted about 1 part Avon SSS oil to 9 parts water or any brand of water based skin lotion.  Or you can apply it full strength, but then it's a little greasy.  Or you can simply buy the Avon SSS Lotion ready to go. 

It's what I use for mosquitos when fishing or out in the field and it works well for about half a day.  It's lightly scented, so you might have to explain the perfume smell to your wife. 

At any rate, it's gentle, soothing, and fairly effective on cat and dog ears for repelling flies and other biting insects.
On Other related topics:



West Nile Disease

Mange Mites, Scabies, Demodex, Red Mange, and Sarcoptic Mange

Intestinal Parasites, worms, cestodes, tapeworms, coccidia, giardia, and cryptosporosis



Diseases people get from pets from mosquitos, fleas, ticks, and lice
(malaria, yellow fever, encephalitis, plague, heartworms, Rift Valley Fever, Lymes Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Tick Paralysis, Monkey Pox, etc)

Other types of mites found in ears
Not all ear mite cases are due to the common ear mite.  Sarcoptic and Demodex mange mites that we usually associate with skin disease can also cause severe irritation in the ears.  Treatment once again involves using an ivermectin based product, but instead of treating just the ears, your vet will recommend treating the whole dog or cat with some combination of topical dip and/or systemic treatment.  Antibiotics, antihistamines and other secondary treatment is often needed as well.

The picture above is a microscopic view of a demodex mite.  They live fairly deep down in the hair follicles and sebaceous glands of the skin... including the ears.  They often require aggressive treatment.

The picture to your right is a microscopic view of a sarcoptic mite. they burrow under the skin to lay their eggs and are intensely itchy and highly contagious among dogs and cats.  Luckily, humans are rarely affected.

We discuss these skin parasites in more detail on our pages about parasites