Ear Mites In Dogs: What, How, Symptoms, Treatment, And Prevention

By Chyrle Bonk, DVM November 21, 2019

You are wondering if your dog’s ears are bothering them. Your cause of concern might have been triggered by the sound of their ID tag jangling as your dog scratches incessantly at their ears or the side-cocked position of their head when they look up at you in the morning. Maybe it’s the brown crusties that you see deep down inside their ear canal or the fact that they have been ignoring you for a couple of days (from not being able to hear clearly). Whatever has you wondering, your dog’s ear troubles could be caused by ear mites.

What Are Ear Mites?

Ear mites are one of a number of creepy-crawly external parasites that your pup may come across. They’re related to ticks and spiders, but they are on a more microscopic level just barely visible to the naked eye. They live in the ear canal of the unfortunate host and feed on ear wax, oil, and other debris. Ear mites spend their entire lifecycle from egg to adult on their host animal so they are only able to survive away from the host animal for a short period of time. You can probably imagine what having a colony of tiny bugs living in your ear must feel like, so it’s no wonder that dogs usually present with an extreme, all-consuming ear itch which can lead to destructive scratching.

How Do Dogs Get Ear Mites?

Ear mites are most commonly thought of as a kitty issue, but dogs get their fair share as well. Ear mites are the result of direct contact with an infected animal; this can be through play, sleeping, or even fighting. The most common method of transfer is from infected animals at the dog park, groomer, boarding facility, and from contact with other animals in the same household. On rare occasions, dogs can become infected from using unwashed bedding from other animals, such as from a boarding facility.

Are Ear Mites Contagious To Humans And Other Animals?

The most common ear mite, Otodectes cynotis, is capable of infecting dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets, and other animals of the wild side. It can infect humans but only very rarely and with fairly active trying on the human’s part. However, this still means that your cat can share with your dog and vice versa.

What Are The Symptoms Of An Ear Mite Infestation?

As I mentioned before, extreme ear scratching is usually your first clue that something may have taken up residence in your pup’s ear canals, but that’s not all you may notice.

  • Scratching

I’m just going to mention this one more time, because it can be pretty intense. As a vet, one of my trick tests is to wipe the inside of the ear with a paper towel-covered finger. Dogs with ear infections will usually tilt their head or give some other form of itch-relieving satisfaction, but with ear mites, nearly 100% of the time those dogs will also start to kick a hind leg in a scratching motion. They’re that itchy!

  • Wounds or otherwise

Sometimes your dog’s scratching gets so intense that they actually create wounds and abrasions at the base of the ear or inside the pinnae (flappy part). You may notice bleeding, scabs, or even a smelly, colored discharge if these wounds become infected.

  • Coffee ground discharge

Lifting the ear flap of your dog’s ear may reveal a red-brown crumbly discharge, similar to coffee grounds. This consists mostly of dried blood, and if it’s a severe infection the discharge can spill out over the top of the ear canal.

  • Head shaking

In between scratching, a dog with ear mites may shake their head or keep their head tilted. This is just another effort to relieve the itchiness.

Difference Between Ear Mites And Other Ear Infections

Issues with the ear canal basically show up in the same way, with scratching, head shaking, and a head tilt. However, upon closer examination, it is possible to tell the difference between ear mites and other causes of ear infections.

  • Yeast ear infections

Yeast ear infections are most common type of ear infection in dogs. The infection occurs due to an overgrowth of yeast. Fungi, like yeast, love dark moist environments so infections can occur if ears aren’t properly dried out after baths or swimming. They can also happen secondarily to an allergy. Yeast infections produce a very greasy, brownish-grey discharge that can carry a noticeable odor.

  • Bacterial ear infections

Bacterial ear infections are similar to a yeast infection and usually occur simultaneously with one. Some bacterial infections can create a brownish-grey discharge that is downright soupy and will actually fly out of the ear canal when your dog shakes their head.

Those are just the observable differences between an ear mite infestation versus a bacterial or yeast infection. In order to definitely diagnose ear mites, your veterinarian will need to examine a sample of the ear discharge under a microscope and spot some of those little bugs running around.

What Are The Treatment Options For Ear Mites?

Once your veterinarian has determined that ear mites are the culprit of your dog’s ear agony, they can prescribe a treatment. Some treatments require putting medicine directly into the ear canal on a daily basis for several days. However, these treatments have been mostly replaced by once a month topical skin treatments that usually also treat fleas, ticks, and other parasites. The once a month treatment is easier but typically costs more as well. Since all animals in the house should be treated to prevent reinfection, costs can quickly add up.

Cleaning the infected ears is an important part to provide some immediate relief to your agitated pup. Your veterinarian can provide you with some effective ear cleaning solutions and show you how to do it safely. Some vets may request a recheck after one month to make sure those pesky ear mites are gone.

How Can I Control Ear Mites From Spreading At Home?

The prescribed medication will get to work on the ear mites currently in your dog’s ears, but it won’t do anything for those already in your house. Ear mites can only live for a short time off of a host, but you don’t want to risk reinfection. Wash all of your dog’s and other critter’s bedding in hot water and dry thoroughly, vacuum those heavily trafficked pet areas like rugs, furniture, and even long curtains. You may also want to consider keeping indoor/outdoor pets inside as much as possible until the ear mites are gone to prevent mingling with other animals.

How Do You Prevent Ear Mites In Dogs?

Nobody wants itchy ear mites, especially your dog, so prevention is important. Many dog parents may already be preventing ear mites through regular use of topical anti-parasiticides for fleas and ticks. Another method would be routine ear cleaning which will also help prevent other ear infections as well. Cleaning your dog’s ears weekly or at least bimonthly can really cut down their chances of contracting ear infections and ear mites. Cleaning is especially important following a bath, swim, or even a playful frolic on a rainy day. Dogs with long, heavy ears or excessive ear hair should have cleanings more frequently, think biweekly, to cut down on moisture and wax buildup. Finally, even if you aren’t cleaning your dog’s ears, have a look in there anyway. Under normal circumstances, we don’t typically know what’s going on inside our dog’s ears, so make it a priority to find out. Catching infections early while they’re still small and easier to control is best.

When to See a Veterinarian For Ear Mites?

Anytime you notice your dog excessively shaking their head or scratching their ears, take a peek inside their ear canal. Any form of discharge should be looked at by a veterinarian. While there are over-the-counter ear mite treatments available, they might be ineffective and unsafe if used incorrectly. Having ear mites might not seem like a big deal. But if an ear mite infestation is left untreated, and the scratching continues, then this can lead to permanent damage to your dog’s ear canal and hearing.


If you’re like most dog parents, the idea of bugs living inside their ears gives us the creepy crawlies. Nobody wants that for their furry friend. To help combat this problem, get comfortable with cleaning your dog’s ears on a regular basis. Letting your veterinarian know about any suspicious scratching, discharge, or odor will also help. Generally, ear mites are nothing to fear. However, issues with ear mites can get extremely annoying, so knowing what to look for and getting treatment is vital.

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