How to Treat & Prevent Ear Mites in Dogs

Does your dog scratch its ears and shake its head often? Or its ears have a black-brown build-up that has a foul smell?

The culprits of these signs are small parasites (ear mites) that live on the surface of the auditory canal. They pierce the delicate skin of this area to feed with dead cells and earwax, thus causing inflammation and discomfort. If the condition is left untreated, bacteria will develop, and over time it can lead to hearing loss.

Ear mites are tiny arthropods that are related to spiders and scorpions. The ones that affect dogs, cats, and other carnivores are Otodectes cynotis. They are contagious and can be transmitted to direct contact. These mites does not present a major zoonotic risk (animal to human transmission), but there are reports certifying human infestations following close contact with an infested pet.

What Are Ear Mites?

There are several species of ear mites, but the ones that infest carnivores and rabbits are Otodectes cynotis.

Ear mites are usually found in the external ear canal but can also survive on other areas of the body in massive infestations, such as the head and base of the tail.

In massive infestations, they can be seen with the naked eye as white specks moving on the black secretion inside the ear. The black build-up in dogs’ ears is a mix of blood, wax, debris, and dead or alive mites. In some cases, the ear canal can become blocked when the build-up dries and thickens.

The entire life cycle of these parasites takes place on the dog’s body. Ear mites need three weeks to reach from egg to adult. Their lifespan is two months, during which time these mites multiply constantly. Ear mites are extremely contagious, and dogs become infested when they live or play together.

How Does Otodectic Mange (Ear Mites) Occur?

Because it is a contagious disease, it is easily transmitted from one dog to another. Puppies can contract this disease even from their mothers during the nursing period.

The pathology of Otodectes cynotis infestation occurs due to mites feeding, being manifested by the accumulation of dark brown ceruminous exudate (black-brown earwax) in moderate or excessive amounts. Ear mites cause:

  • Inflammation
  • Discomfort
  • Itching
  • Scratching

Which Dog Categories Are More Predisposed to Ear Mites?

Here are the categories of dogs most affected by ear mites:

  • Puppies
  • Dogs with long and floppy ears (e.g. Poodle, Cocker, Beagle)
  • Dogs with flea infestations, viral or bacterial infections – in other words, pets with low immune system

The incidence of cases regarding adult dogs is low. There is no breed or sex predisposition, the parasite affecting equally males and females of all breeds.

What Are the Symptoms of Ear Mites in Dogs?

From the moment of infestation and the appearance of the first symptoms, there is an incubation period of approximately 2-3 weeks. This condition develops with the symptoms of itchy external otitis. The infestation is initially unilateral, but it spreads to the other ear in a relatively short time. The presence of parasites in the external auditory canal determines:

  • Excessive scratching
  • Head shaking
  • Dogs spin in a circle
  • Redness and inflammation of the ear canal
  • Black-brown ear secretion with a “coffee grounds” appearance
  • Foul smell
  • Hair loss around the ears
  • Narrowing of the ear canal due to the thickening of the skin

What Happens if the Owner Ignores Their Dog’s Clinical Signs?

If dogs are not treated soon after the clinical signs appear, secondary bacterial or fungal infections can develop. The most frequently encountered are infections with Staphylococcus and Malassezia. Dogs with long and floppy ears are more prone to developing secondary bacterial infections because the ear canal is not properly ventilated.

In some cases, the eardrum may perforate, and the infection can spread to the middle ear. Dogs that are not properly treated can also develop neurological signs.

Another problem that can occur due to ear mites is an auricular hematoma. When a dog shakes its head excessively, the blood vessels between the ear cartilage and the skin can break, thus causing an ear hematoma. This condition needs careful treatment (sometimes surgical) to avoid pain and deformation of the ear.

Ear Mites Diagnosis

Diagnosing ear mites is not difficult and is done based on clinical signs and otoscopic and microscopic examination. Dog’s ear secretion is put on a slide and examined under a microscope. If your dog has ear mites, the vet will see them moving on the slide among earwax and debris.

How to Treat Ear Mites in Dogs

The veterinarian is the one who will recommend and prescribe the appropriate acaricide veterinary products according to the situation and your preferences.

The treatment can consist of cleaning your dog’s ears daily and the administration of ear drops (also daily). The local fight against ear mites must be accompanied by the application of external antiparasitic substances, considering the possibility of its dissemination in other regions of the body (in massive infestations).

There are several products in the form of ear drops for treating ear mites in dogs, but none will have an effect on the eggs or pupae. Therefore, the treatment will be aimed at killing the larvae and adults of ear mites. It may last 2-3 weeks, depending on the degree of infestation.

When bacterial or fungal infections secondary to ear mites are also present, they must be treated simultaneously with the administration of the acaricide.

If you don’t want to administer ear drops to your dog daily, you can opt for injections (e.g. ivermectin) or single-use products such as Milbemite, Advantage Multi, Simparica, Bravecto, and others.

If you want the place where your dog sleeps or your house to be mite-free, you can use authorized products for flea control because there are no authorized special products for home use that kill ear mites.

It is also possible the vet will want you to come with your dog for a re-examination to make sure the treatment is effective and the mites are killed.

How to Clean Your Dog’s Ears

  1. With one hand, lift your dog’s ear flap, and with the other hand, take the ear drops.
  2. Insert the tip of the bottle into the ear canal and drip two drops of the product.
  3. Massage the base of the ear for the drops to penetrate deep into the ear canal and mix with the secretion.
  4. Let your dog shake its head – the secretion goes up the ear canal to the pavilion.
  5. Wipe the ear canal and pinna with a compress.
  6. Repeat the treatment on the other ear.

How to Prevent Ear Mites in Dogs

One of the highly effective measures to prevent ear mites is the constant and sustained hygiene of your dog’s ear region.

Another effective measure is the regular application of external antiparasitic substances.

Other preventive measures:

  • Avoid letting your dog come into contact with other animals that have ear mites, including cats.
  • Wash your dog’s toys and bedding in hot water regularly.
  • Put your pet bedding and toys in the tumble dryer to ensure that any attached mites fall off.

Bottom Line

Dogs’ ears are extremely sensitive. They are responsible for both hearing and the sense of balance. If the signs of ear mites or other ear diseases occur, a visit to the vet must become a priority on your agenda.

Ear mites do not represent a serious health problem for your dog. Once identified, this condition can be easily treated in a few weeks. However, it can generate secondary ear infections, especially in dogs with long and floppy ears. If ear mites are left untreated, the complications can have more severe effects, such as neurological signs or hearing loss.

Photo of author
Dr. Lulia Mihai, DVM

I am a veterinarian from Romania with a Master's degree in pets' pathology and a PhD in pets' cancer. I have experience in researching (I wrote various academic articles for international journals) and writing academic and blog articles. I started writing about pets over 3 years ago and made it a full-time job. I have a bunch of pets and I think they are lucky to have the vet at home. I like to educate people about everything there is to know about pets - nutrition, training, behaviour, diseases, you name it! I've written hundreds of pet articles in these 3 years.