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canine health problems
German shepherd lying down

📷 by Adam Kontor

The essentials

  • Ear mites are common in puppies — Though adult dogs can and do get ear mites, younger dogs and puppies are more likely to get them.
  • They’re hard to see — Ear mites are barely visible. Under a microscope, they look like tiny ticks or spiders. To the human eye, ear mites look like white specks.
  • Dog ear mites spread quickly — If one of your pets gets ear mites, you’ll need to treat them all. These mites spread very quickly and can cause secondary skin infections, so it’s important to act fast.

What are ear mites? 

Ear mites are a type of surface mite that live on dogs, cats, rabbits, and other household pets. They’re a form of mange caused by mites that feed on oil and wax. Since they burrow deep within a dog’s ears and cause intense irritation, affected dogs tend to itch and scratch.

Ear mites are related to nasal mites, which tend to inhabit a dog’s nasal cavity. Mites, in simple terms, are tiny arachnids, somewhat similar to spiders. The word “mite” is applied to several different organisms and is more of a catch-all name than a scientific term. The Otodectes cynotis mite is the culprit more commonly known as an “ear mite.”

How do dogs get ear mites?

Ear mites are spread through direct contact. If your dog plays or socializes with an infected dog, it’s highly likely they will get ear mites, too. Adult ear mites will move from one dog to another and begin to reproduce by laying eggs.

Ear mites grow from an egg to an adult in about 3 weeks’ time and continuously reproduce during their two-month lifespan. All the while, they feed on the skin oils and wax inside your dog’s ears, making your pup itchier and itchier.

Ear mites can spread quickly and are highly contagious. They need to be treated as quickly as possible, especially if you have more than one pet. Even if you don’t have multiple pets, tackling ear mites early on in the infestation can spare your dog a lot of pain and frustration, and reduce the chances of your dog getting a secondary skin infection.

Containing the contagion

Containment should be one of your top priorities if you think your dog has ear mites. Check every animal in your house for mites, especially cats if you have them. Cats are actually more likely to contract ear mites than are dogs, so if you live in a multipet household, there’s a strong possibility your dog contracted ear mites from the family cat. The point is this: If one pet in the house has ear mites, it’s safe to say they all do.

Unlike pets, it’s highly unlikely for humans to get ear mites. While pet owners dealing with an ear mite infestation typically aren’t at risk of contracting mites, they can develop a skin rash as a result of coming into contact with the parasite. The skin rash is nothing to worry about, and there is no risk of illness or other adverse effects. Removing ear mites from your house will help the rash go away.

What do ear mites look like?

Ear mites are very hard to see with the naked eye, but if you do, they’ll look like tiny white specks. While the mites themselves are hard to see, their effects on your dog’s ears will be easy to spot. Pet parents should look out for the most common signs of ear mites — rather than the presence of mites themselves — and head to the vet for a full diagnosis.

Close up of ear mite

Common symptoms of ear mites in pups

How can you tell if your dog has ear mites? Look for these symptoms:

  • Head shaking
  • Rubbing of the head or ears
  • Dark, crusty debris in your pup’s ears
  • Itching and scratching
  • Secondary ear infections
  • Inflammation, swelling, and redness on or around your dog’s ears

If left untreated, ear mites can also spread to other parts of your pup’s body, like their nose.

Diagnosing ear mites in your pup 

To make a diagnosis, your pup’s vet will need to look at a sample of your dog’s ear wax under a microscope. Dogs with ear mites will have a characteristic ear discharge (resembling coffee grounds). This discharge, made up of earwax, blood, inflammatory chemicals, and actual ear mites, should be instantly recognizable to your vet.

If that discharge is spotted, your veterinarian will recommend treatment based on the severity of the case.

Other possible explanations for your dog’s itchy ears

What happens if your vet determines there are no ear mites? They’ll look for other causes of itchy and inflamed ears, such as:

  • Yeast infections
  • Otitis externa (inflammation of the external ear canal)
  • Secondary bacterial infections
  • Water or objects lodged in the ear canal
  • Wax buildup
  • Injury to the ear or ear flap

Treating your pup’s ear mites

Treatment can vary depending on what course of action your vet thinks will be best for your pet. A few of the most common treatment options for ear mites in dogs include the following:

  • Thorough cleaning. Your vet will carefully and completely clean out your dog’s ear canal, removing ear mites, excess wax, and discharge. Cleaning is always part of the treatment process, regardless of what type of medicine or antibiotics are used.
  • Long-term medications. These easy-to-find medicines kill living mites but not eggs. When using OTC meds for ear mites, it’s best to do so regularly for 30 days to ensure all mites hatch and are killed.
  • Tresaderm. This is a specific topical medication that has been favored by vets for years. It’s applied to a dog’s ears for 10 days to kill mites and eggs and soothe inflammation.
  • Single-use medications. Acarexx and Milbemite are two medicines that can eradicate an ear mite infection in one fell swoop.
  • Medicine applied to the skin. Medicines such as Selamectin and Moxidectin are applied to dogs’ skin, usually behind their shoulders. The medicine absorbs into the oil glands of the skin and secretes back out, killing the mites. These medicines are very helpful for preventing future infections and should be used on an ongoing basis.
  • Oral antibiotics. In dogs with damaged skin due to excessive itching, a round of oral antibiotics may be required.

Preventing ear mites in your pets

Some topical flea and tick treatments also prevent ear mites. Bravecto, K9 Advantix, and other products make your dog’s skin and fur an inhospitable place for parasites, killing what’s there and preventing new parasites from spreading to your dog.

To prevent another ear mite infection, you should also regularly give your pup a thorough ear cleaning by using cotton balls, gauze, or an ear cleaner made for dogs. This has dual benefits: First, it wipes away any parasites that may be present on your dog’s ears; and second, it rids your dog of the excess ear wax that mites love to feed on.

Frequently asked questions

Can humans get ear mites from dogs?

No. If there is a large outbreak of ear mites in your household (with several pets affected at once), you may get a skin rash. This will clear up easily, and there is no risk of illness or need for medical attention. Most of the time, though, pet owners are not affected by ear mites at all.

How can you tell if your dog has ear mites?

If your pup is scratching their ears excessively or you notice inflammation, sores, or wounds on their ears, get them checked for ear mites. The inflammation and sores are usually a result of your dog’s continual scratching, which can lead to secondary infections.

How fast can my dog’s ear mites be treated?

Most cases of ear mites can be treated in less than three weeks. Depending on the severity of your dog’s case and the method of treatment, it may take up to 30 days for the parasites to be completely removed.

How do dogs get ear mites?

Dogs get ear mites when they come into contact with other infected animals. A recent trip to a dog park, socializing with other dogs during walks, or playing with the family cat are all ways dogs can get ear mites.