Understanding Ear Mites in Puppies

Puppies Sleeping
Ear mites are incredibly contagious so if one puppy (or cat or rabbit) in the home has them, treat all the pets. Image Copr. Amy Shojai, CABC

Ear mites, or Otodectes cynotis, are a type of arthropod that resemble ticks. They colonize a puppy’s ear where they feed on cellular debris and suck lymph from the skin. Just three or four adult mites in the ear can wreak considerable discomfort. Imagine a tiny mosquito inside your own ear canal biting and making it itch and you’ll understand how aggravating this can be to your puppy.

Ear mites are extremely contagious, and they also affect cats, rabbits, ferrets and other pets.

Puppies often catch ear mites from their mother. If one pet has ear mites, all animals in contact with that pet must be treated to prevent reinfestation. When left untreated, ear mites can lead to infections of the middle and inner ear which can damage hearing or affect balance.

Ear Mite Life Cycle

The buggy life cycle takes three weeks. First, the eggs are laid and cemented in place within the ear canal. Eggs incubate in only four days, then hatch into six-legged larvae which feed for another three to ten days.

The larvae develop into eight-legged protonymphs which molt into the deutonymph stage. At this point, the immature deutonymph attaches itself to a mature male ear mite using suckers on the rear legs. If the deutonymph becomes a female adult, fertilization occurs and the female bears eggs.

Even the adult stage of ear mite is so tiny that it’s difficult to see. But since all stages other than the eggs feed on your puppy’s ears, he’ll be miserable for all three weeks...and then the life cycle starts over again.

Signs of Ear Mites

Ear mites are the most common cause of ear inflammation—called otitis. You’ll see a brown crumbly debris in the ear canal and/or crust formation. Mites biting and crawling about inside the ear cause intense itching, and puppies typically shake their heads, dig at their ears, or rub their heads against the floor or furniture and may cry.

Trauma to the ear often results when the pup's efforts to relieve the itch bruises the pinna, the external ear flap. Scratching and head shaking, especially in pendulous-eared breeds like Beagles and Basset Hounds, can cause a kind of blood blister called a hematoma where the pinna swells like a balloon.

Characteristic dark ear debris and behavior signs generally point to ear mites, but it’s important for the veterinarian to confirm the diagnosis by finding the mite in a sample of ear debris that's examined under the microscope. The parasite is tiny, white and nearly impossible to see with the naked eye. Never treat your puppy for ear mites until the diagnosis has been confirmed or you risk masking other ear problems or complicating their proper diagnosis and treatment.

How Vets Treat Ear Mites

Your puppy’s ears can be so sore that he won’t want you or the vet to touch them. In that case, the veterinarian may need to sedate the pup before treating. Follow up treatment at home is usually recommended.

Some pets are too difficult for owners to continue treating at home, and in certain instances, an injectable medication may be recommended. Some of the monthly heartworm and flea prevention treatments also prevent ear mites.

Many commercial products are available for treating ear mites; ask your veterinarian for a recommendation. Once you get a diagnosis of ear mites from the vet, you may want to learn to treat ear mites at home. It involves cleaning the ears and/or treating with a liquid at least twice a week for three weeks or more. Otherwise, the ear mite eggs left behind in the ear canal will hatch and start the process all over again.

Treating the Environment

Ear mites sometimes travel outside of the ear to other parts of the puppy's body. Resulting sores may resemble an allergy to fleas; the condition is called otodectic mange. When your pup is diagnosed with ear mites, don't neglect the rest of his body. Flea products also kill ear mites, so choose an appropriate product and do whole-body treatments along with ear treatments.

Ear mites infest the environment for several months, and premise control is helpful, particularly in homes with many pets. Follow the same procedures and use the same products for premise control of fleas to get rid of ear mites in the environment. Treat your house and yard for at least four weeks; experts suggest treating the environment two weeks beyond the pet's apparent cure.