A little scratch behind the ears no longer brings a grin to your kitty’s face. Instead it fires up a scratching frenzy that sends his back leg whirling like an eggbeater.
Sometimes itchy ears are a symptom of ear mites—tiny, eight-legged pests that can take up residence by the thousands in the ear canal. When they get all stirred up—as a result of a vigorous head-scratching, for example—your cat may feel as though he has an earful of jumping beans. Without treatment, cats have been known to scratch themselves raw, sometimes causing skin infections.
Cat ear mites are readily passed from animal to animal, so unless your kitty spends most of her time alone, they can be difficult to prevent. But with a bit of patience and persistence (and advice from your vet), you can successfully fight the mites. Here’s what vets recommend.
Clear out the debris
When treating feline ear mites, it’s important to clear away the crust inside the ear before using medications. Otherwise the mites will take cover underneath the crust, in a space where the medication won’t reach. Using a small dropper, deposit several drops of mineral oil inside your cat’s ear canal and wait several hours for the crust to soften. Then fill a rubber ear-cleaning syringe with equal portions of distilled water and lukewarm white vinegar and gently flush debris from the ear canal. Be careful not to use too much pressure. Use a squeeze and release motion, not a constant stream. After you’ve finished rinsing, gently press cotton inside your kitty’s ear and move it around to clean up the gunk. Repeat the process as often as necessary until her entire ear is clean.
Drop the bomb on ear mites in cats
Once your kitty’s ears are clean, vets usually recommend putting in a few drops of an over-the-counter medication containing pyrethrins—an insecticide made from chrysanthemums. Medicated ear drops are available at pet stores. Directions will vary according to the product, but the procedure is fairly simple: Place the drops in the cat’s ear canal, then gently massage the base of the ear for three to five minutes to allow the drops to penetrate. Step back and let your cat shake her head, which will remove some of the liquid inside. Wipe up the remainder with a soft tissue or some cotton balls. Repeat this treatment every day for ten days, then skip ten days and treat again for another ten. You should start seeing improvements in a week to ten days.
Since medications that are safe for dogs may be harmful for cats, be sure to read the label carefully before using any powder or spray.
Try an oil ear mite treatment
Instead of using medication, you may want to try putting in a couple of drops of mineral oil or baby oil once every day or so. This will smother some of the mites and help soothe your cat’s sore, itchy ears. Heat the mineral or baby oil until it’s just warm to the touch. Then fill a small dropper and put in just enough oil to coat the ear canal–but don’t flood it. Although the oil won’t eradicate all the cat ear mites, it will reduce their numbers and help keep your kitty comfortable for a day or so. The important thing is to continue the process for up to a month. That causes the mites that are popping out of the eggs to die before they’re old enough to multiply.
Go Italian tonight
Garlic and olive oil aren’t just for pizza—they can soothe the itch of feline ear mites as well. Crush four cloves of garlic and let them steep overnight in a cup of olive oil. In the morning, discard the garlic, heat the oil until it’s warm to the touch and put several drops into your cat’s ears.
Repeat the treatment as often as every other day or as seldom as once a week, depending on the severity of the condition. Any kind of oil will smother the mites, and the garlic solution is soothing.
Get ‘em all
While mites rarely leave their secure little nesting grounds, a few adventurers may roam outside—and then return days or weeks later to plan for another infestation. You may have to treat your entire cat. Try using a flea spray or powder twice weekly or flea dips once a week for four weeks to kill mites that may have strayed. While you’re at it, you may want to spray your home and yard, too, since mites can survive for months without a furry host.
Stop the vicious cycle
Mites sometimes travel from pet to pet, so if one of your pets has been infected, chances are good that others will be joining him soon. All animals in the household must be treated at the same time.
Stay the course
It takes about three weeks for an ear mite to undergo the transition from egg to a major pain in the ear. So regardless of the treatment you choose, it’s important to continue treating your cat through the entire growth cycle in order to eradicate present and future generations. Stick it out for solid month. Ear mites are easily treated, but pet owners usually stop too soon.
Establish a clean routine
Keeping your cat’s ears clean can help ward off future infestations by removing ear mites before they have a chance to build their colonies. Use a cotton swab—dry or dipped in hydrogen peroxide—to gently clean out the ear canal, but don’t go in too deep. If you can’t see the cotton tip, you’re in too far. Plan on cleaning your pet’s ears about once a month.
Ear mites it might not be
There are a number of conditions other than feline ear mites that can set up an itchy—and sometimes dangerous—ear infection. Some warning signs are:
- Dark, creamy wax that resembles peanut butter and smells a bit like yeast. Your pet could have a yeast infection.
- A red ear canal with moist yellow paste with a fruity or strong smell. This could indicate a bacterial infection, which may require a trip to the vet for oral or topical antibiotics.
- Continual head tilting. This could signal problems with the inner ear, like a punctured eardrum. In chronic inflammation of the ear canal, a cat’s eardrum is perforated (torn) in half the cases.
If you suspect your cat has ear mites but you aren’t entirely sure, start with the ear test. Gently pull his ear flap down and rub it over the opening. If his hind leg swings into action, it may be mites—an uninfected kitty won’t scratch.
Another way to diagnose feline ear mites is to gently swab the ear canal with a cotton swab, then rub the swab on a dark piece of paper. Shine a bright light on the paper and look for little wiggly white specks. Mites are comfortable where it’s dark, and the light will send them into a frenzy.
Another way to spot mites is to look into the ear. Mites typically leave behind a dry, crumbly, reddish-black crust that resembles coffee grounds.
When to see the vet
When cat ear mites don’t go away within a month of home treatment or if your kitty develops an ear rash or painful irritation, put away the over-the-counter medications and see your vet. He may prescribe a stronger solution that contains an antibiotic to prevent infection and a topical steroid to ease pain and inflammation.