Ear Mites in Dogs: A Tiny But Treatable Menace

Dog ear mites are tiny, common parasites that are really gross; here are treatment options.

Melvin Peña  |  Jan 21st 2014

Ear mites in dogs are a very common problem. Dog ear mites are parasites that live in a dog’s ear canal, where they glut themselves on delicious things like wax and oil. In my research, I’ve seen mites in general described as among the most “successful” of the invertebrates, which makes me picture tiny creatures wearing business suits. It only means that being so small and having such quick reproductive cycles, they can do their thing with relative impunity if left to their own devices.

The more I learn about ear mites in dogs, the more they remind me of the nightmarish Ceti eels in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That’s the Khan played with flair by Ricardo Montalban, not the colder, more methodical Benedict Cumberbatch interpretation. The Ceti eel functions in much the same way as dog ear mites; they enter at the ear, take up residence, and before you know it, your dog is acting strangely by dint of the parasite’s influence.

What are ear mites in dogs?

Ear mites in dogs are parasitic arthropods, known to science as Otodectes cynotis, which basically means “dog ear biter.” I’ve learned more about their mating habits than I ever wanted to know. I’ll spare you most of it, since it’s quite frankly horrifying. Edmund Burke said that small things are beautiful, but microscopic things can be just as imposing and terrible to comprehend as gigantic, sublime ones. Know then that the life cycle of dog ear mites — from larva to protonymph to deutonymph to the final form of a male or female adult — takes anywhere from three to four weeks, and their eggs hatch within three to four days after being laid.

Ear mites in dogs are extremely aggressive in this way, meaning that not long after they take up residence in a dog’s ear canal, symptoms can begin to manifest. Dog ear mites spread through contact and do so with great ease. They can be picked up outside or from other infected animals, especially between cats and dogs, and certainly from dog to dog. Multi-dog households where ear mites are discovered should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, and where one pet has ear mites, the others should be monitored carefully.

Symptoms of ear mites in dogs

With a rapid life cycle, which can start anew once dog ear mites enter the ear canal, the first symptoms of ear mites in dogs you may notice are more frequent activities surrounding a dog’s head. These include a higher propensity to scratch the ears, as well as an increase in dogs shaking their heads. All dogs do these things, but with dog ear mites, the scratching and head-shaking will be more fervent and more reckless. The next common signs of ear mites in dogs result directly from excessive scratching, to wit, reddening, bruising, and even scabbing around the back of a dog’s ears. In an attempt to gain relief from itching caused by dog ear mites, a dog is at increased risk of harming himself and creating the conditions under which other infections can develop.

A look inside a dog’s ears can provide further symptoms of ear mites in dogs. The outer ears of a dog with an ear-mite infestation will present with crusty, brown, black, and dark red discharge, consisting of dried blood, mite excretions, and dead mites. A little further down, the inner ear canal will be littered with a dark, waxy, granular substance that is commonly compared, in appearance, to coffee grounds. The creatures themselves may appear as very small white flecks in the midst of the crusts and secretions.

How to get rid of ear mites

Unfortunately, other bacterial or yeast infections are mistaken by armchair pet aficionados for ear mites, and treated at home accordingly. This can leave the real cause of a dog’s discomfort untreated for weeks as traditional approaches like ear drops or over-the-counter ointments are applied to no effect. Under magnification, a veterinarian with an otoscope or microscope can quickly confirm an ear mite diagnosis and rule out other potential problems.

Routine cleaning of a dog’s ears and head can help to prevent ear mites in dogs, though it is not foolproof prevention. While the person in the photo above is using a cotton swab, this is dangerous because of the risk to the inner ear. Use a cotton ball to clean a dog’s ears with corn oil or a heavily diluted solution of vinegar if there are no open wounds present. The veterinarian may suggest a topical ointment or salve to treat ear mites in dogs for you to apply for a week or two. Within a month of starting treatment, a dog should return to the vet for a final cleaning and assessment.

Can humans get ear mites?

Dog ear mites can pass from dog to dog, or from dogs to cats; indeed, any small household animal may carry ear mites. If one pet has them, all should be checked. Fortunately, while there is a kind of ear mite that affects people, it is not the one that afflicts pets. Dog ear mites are not known to be zoonotic, and humans are not generally at risk of infection.

Share your experiences with dog ear mites!

Have your dogs, cats, or other household pets dealt with ear mites? We would be glad to hear your experiences with these tiny menaces. What signs or symptoms prompted the discovery of ear mites in dogs? What steps did you take to treat the problem? Let us know in the comments!

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