Lots of things can make cats scratch their ears. When it's a problem and not just everyday itching, the culprit might be ear mites. You may first notice this pest when your cat is shaking her head or pawing at her ears. Or it could be that while you're petting your cat and notice clusters of black coffee-ground-like specks inside the ears. Gross! Read up on what to do if those pesky bugs could be what’s making your cat uncomfortable.
Also known as otodectic mange, the most common ear mite that causes cats trouble is otodectes cynotis. This parasite loves the moist, warm skin of a cat's ear canal, where it lives out most its life cycle and eats skin cells, blood, and even earwax. (We did say they were gross, right?) These mites are contagious, so one cat's infestation can spread to other cats and dogs. If they get too numerous and irritating, cats may scratch so much they cause infections or even permanently damage their ears.
Signs of an ear mite infestation are noticed from cats' behavior as well as evidence in the ears. Cats bugged by ear mites may scratch at their ears, shake their head, or keep their head tilted at an angle—almost like they're trying to dislodge the pests. Waxy or crusty discharge that looks like coffee grounds may be evident on the exterior and interior of the cat's ears.
Those spots that look like coffee grounds are evidence the ear mites have been at work for a while, according to Ernie Ward, DVM, a writer, podcaster, pet nutrition advocate, and veterinarian who works with cats at animal rescue groups in North Carolina.
"That's the blood of the mites, feeding, spilling over," Ward says. "There's already been a lot of suffering by the cat that's gone unnoticed."
Ward imagines these bugs crawling around in a cat's ear, and no matter how much a cat shakes, paws, or scratches, the sensation of movement and itching never stops.
Ear mites are common among outdoor cats and highly contagious between animals, although thankfully not to humans. Eggs are laid in the ear and take roughly three weeks to mature into an adult mite who can then breed and add to the infestation. And mites are not just relegated to your cat’s ears—they can occasionally go wandering and cause itching elsewhere on a cat's skin.
Since ear mites can be hard to see and may not be the only reason for inflammation or damage to a cat's ear, it's best to have your cat checked out by a veterinarian for a professional diagnosis.
Your vet will look for the hard-to-see small, white critters through a microscope or a magnifying scope that veterinarians and physicians use to look into ears. Another way your vet might identify ear mites is by placing a sample on a dark, well-lit background and using a magnifying glass to look for the moving white specks.
If ear mites are the cause of your cat’s itchy ears, there are different ways to rid your cat of these annoying bugs. The fastest and most effective are some newer parasite-killing medications available from veterinarians, some of which can clear ear mite infestations with a single dose.
All options for treating ear mites in cats start with a thorough cleaning of the ears. Once wax, crusty discharge, and other debris is clear in the ear, medication may include one-time or repeated use to get rid of the infestation and prevent another one.
If there's damage or inflammation in the ear, your veterinarian may recommend other medicine to bring down swelling and fight off infections caused by damage from your cat's scratching at her ears.
Ward acknowledges that there are some holistic, at-home treatments that can be found on the internet. But in his experience, the items found in your kitchen cupboard that are supposed to suffocate the ear mites—like coconut oil, olive oil, and almond oil—are highly ineffective. It may seem like a quick-fix to help your cat, but the application of these oils can't kill all the eggs, and may also not kill all the ear mites, who can survive in air pockets in the ear. A single surviving female ear mite with eggs can start the whole infestation over again, meaning using them will only prolong your cat's suffering.
To make sure no ear mites are hanging out in kitty’s fur, your veterinarian can also recommend a parasite preventive to help keep the bugs away for next time and make sure any other ear-mite hitchhikers have been taken care of. After prescribing your cat’s specific treatment plan, your veterinarian may also want to see your feline friend back for a checkup in a week or two to make sure all the bugs are gone for good.