Telltale Signs of Ear Mites in Cats

7 min read

Updated - Nov 3rd, 2022

Key Points

  • Ear mites can barely be seen by the naked eye, but may leave a dark residue that looks like dirt or ear wax in your cat’s ear.
  • Mites are highly contagious, so your cat can get them by simply being too close to another infected animal. 
  • Routine cleaning of your cat’s ears can help prevent an ear mite infestation and other ear problems. 

Have you noticed your cat shaking their head or scratching their ears? How about a mysterious ear discharge that looks like coffee grounds? These are telltale signs of ear mites, a common parasitic infection. 

Ear mites look like small white dots that can barely be seen by the naked eye. Although they can’t hop or fly, these tricky little parasites can crawl from one cat to another, and even travel to other body parts besides the ears. If one of these microscopic bugs makes itself at home in your cat’s ear canal, it can make your kitty very uncomfortable.


Recognizing symptoms of ear mites in cats can help you catch infections before they become a bigger problem. The good news is that it’s not hard to notice the signs of ear mites in cats. You may notice your cat continuously shaking their head, or keeping their head tilted at an angle. It may look as if they’re trying to remove the tiny parasites themselves, by tilting their head and scratching at their ear. This intense itching and scratching is a result of the ear mites dropping inside their ear and onto their skin. Cats with ear mites display the following symptoms, usually due to uncomfortable itching: 

  • Frequent head shaking and scratching around their ear, head, and neck 
  • Red and inflamed ears caused by irritation 
  • Dry, crumbly, dark ear discharge or wax in or around the ear canal 
  • Stinky odor coming from the inside of the ear canal 

Ear mites are microscopic parasites, so it’s hard to see the mites themselves, but you will be able to see the crusty ear discharge or substance sitting in your cat’s ear canal. It may resemble dirt or coffee grounds since it’s a mixture of ear wax, blood, and secretions from the mites. If ear mites spread to other parts of your cat’s body, you may notice them scratching in those areas as well, and crusted skin and scaling on their neck, rear, and tail. In severe cases, you may even notice balding in the affected area, from the unusual and excessive amount of body scratching. 


Mites are highly contagious, so your cat can get them by simply being too close to another infected animal. “Ear mites can spread from one cat to another, especially if they spend a lot of time together,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa (DVM), a veterinarian with Cat World. “If one cat in your house has been diagnosed with ear mites, it’s best to check all your cats,” she advises. 

Ear mites can also travel between parent cats and newborn kittens, and between animals of different species. Although ear mites can occur in cats of any age, they are typically more common in kittens and outdoor cats, as well as cats that have spent time in shelters. “Most adult cats that live strictly indoors have never had ear mites,” Dr. Ochoa says. “Even adult cats that live outside rarely have ear mites, unless they have come into contact with kittens.”  


If you’re a pet owner and suspect your cat has been infested with ear mites, you should schedule an appointment with your vet as soon as possible. Aside from relieving your cat’s discomfort, an ear checkup can help curb other infections that may be brewing. If not treated, this parasitic infection can lead to a more serious skin or ear infection for your cat, so it’s best to get professional treatment.


Treatment usually begins with a deep cleaning of your cat’s ears to remove any wax or debris that may shield the ear mites from the medication. Since no medication can effectively penetrate ear mite eggs, treatment of ear mites is directed at killing the adult parasites. A variety of different treatment options are available to treat ear mites in cats, from daily topical medications to injections. Typically, ear mites are treated with FDA-approved eardrops, such as Acarexx, MilbeMite, or Otomite Plus. If the mites have traveled to other parts of your cat’s body, other parasitic-killing medications will be prescribed. Advantage Multi, Revolution, and Bravecto are the most effective medications for treating ear mites. Your veterinarian will be able to determine the most appropriate form of treatment for your kitty. 

Recovery and care 

Generally, it can take up to three weeks after treatment begins for the ear mites to be completely gone, but most cats feel back to normal in about 10 days. During this time, your cat’s itchiness and discomfort should subside as the medication takes effect. Your vet may want to re-examine your cat to ensure the mites are gone and rule out any possibility of a secondary infestation. 


Although cats are meticulous groomers, they can’t reach the inside of their ears. For this reason, one of the best ways to protect your cat against ear mites is by scheduling a regular check-up and ear cleaning with your veterinarian. Your vet can also teach you how to clean your cat’s ears at home if you’d prefer to do them yourself!

There are also preventive medications you can apply directly to your cat’s skin to protect them from tiny parasites. This is the method Dr. Ochoa recommends: “Most products can be applied to your cat each month to help prevent them from getting ear mites,” she says. “Also, making sure that your cat’s ears are clean and free of dirt and debris can help.” 

Since outdoor cats are more likely to become infested with ear mites than indoor cats, another way to prevent ear mites is to keep your cat indoors. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, especially if your cat loves running around and rolling in the grass. In this case, make sure to properly clean your cat’s bedding and toys, too. 

What to expect at the vet’s office

Your vet will look for ear mites through an otoscope, a magnifying glass specifically meant to look into ears. They may also swab your cat’s ear to retrieve a sample they can look at under a microscope. If the tiny parasites are found, your vet will diagnose your cat with ear mites and prescribe the necessary medication, as well as a wellness and recovery plan. It’s important to let your veterinarian know if there are any other animals living in your home to reduce the chances of cross-contamination or secondary infections. You should also inform them of any other medications or supplements your cat takes so they can make the best treatment decision. 

The bottom line  

Ear mites are annoying yet common parasites that can make themselves at home in a cat’s ear canal. If left untreated, your cat can be in serious pain and discomfort – but rest assured that with early detection and proper treatment, your cat will be as good as new in no time. 


Does pet insurance cover ear mites in cats?

Pumpkin Cat Insurance plans reimburse you 90% of all eligible vet bills for unexpected accidents and illnesses including parasitic infections like ear mites. Pumpkin also offers a Preventive Essentials as an add-on. Though not insurance, this optional benefit can help pay for preventive care such as annual exam fees and parasite screenings.

Can you see ear mites? 

Ear mites are tiny microscopic parasites found in both cats and dogs. They look like tiny white dots that can barely be seen with the naked eye. 

Can humans become infected with ear mites?

It’s rare for humans to become infected with ear mites. These tiny parasites cannot survive for long periods of time on humans, so they don’t cause long-term infections in people. “Most people are very good at keeping their ears clean and free of debris,” Dr. Ochoa says. 

Are ear mites in cats dangerous?

Ear mites aren’t life-threatening, but can cause serious irritation and inflammation to your furry friend. Untreated cats can experience bacterial infections and damaged ear canals, as well as severe irritation from the constant scratching and itching. 

Did you know? 

  • Ear mites are the second most common ectoparasite (external parasite) found on pets. The most common are fleas
  • An ear mite infestation produces a buildup of brownish ear wax that resembles coffee grounds. 
  • Pumpkin Cat Insurance plans cover 90% of eligible vet bills – helping you say ‘yes’ to the best care possible if accidents and illnesses arise. Fetch a quote today!

  • https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/ear-mites-otodectes-in-cats-and-dogs
  • https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/ear-mites-tiny-critters-can-pose-major-threat

Christina Rasmussen

Christina is a copywriter and a loving cat mom to an adorable Bombay named Zetta.
Back to Top