A guide to ear mites in dogs

8 July 2024 - 5 min read

The information in this article has been reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Coates on . Although it may provide helpful guidance, it should not be substituted for professional veterinary advice.

A human hand using a q-tip to clean a brown dog's ear

If you've noticed your dog persistently scratching their ears or shaking their head, they might be dealing with ear mites. These tiny pests are not just bothersome; they can significantly disrupt your pet’s wellbeing.

Understanding what ear mites are—and how to address them—can save your dog a lot of discomfort and even prevent more serious complications. This guide will walk you through everything from identifying the symptoms of ear mites to potential treatment options. 

What are ear mites?

woman's hand holds a french bulldog's ear open to display ear mites against a beige background.

Ear mites, scientifically known as Otodectes cynotis, are common parasites that live on dogs and other animals. These tiny creatures thrive in the warm, dark environment of a dog's ear canal, where they feed on skin oils and ear wax. This leads to irritation and inflammation.

The presence of ear mites is often marked by intense itching. Dogs affected by these pests will frequently scratch their ears or shake their heads. As the mites reproduce and populate the ear canal, they can cause a buildup of a characteristic dark, waxy discharge that resembles coffee grounds. This discharge is not only unsightly, but it can also emit a foul odour.

Ear mites can spread rapidly among pets through direct contact. Puppies are particularly susceptible, although dogs (and cats) of any age can be affected. Ear mites are also highly contagious, so if one pet in the household is infected, there is a high risk that other pets will contract them as well. 


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How to tell if your dog has ear mites

Ear mites are often detectable by a series of telltale signs that can alert any attentive pet owner. These include:

  • Increased attention to its ears: You might notice more frequent scratching, sometimes so intense that it can lead to sores or hair loss around the ears.

  • Head shaking: A very common symptom; a result of your dog trying to relieve the irritation inside their ears.

  • Buildup and inflammation: A dark, waxy substance may build up in the ear canal, often accompanied by inflammation and/or a strong odour.

In severe cases, the constant scratching and head shaking can lead to more serious conditions, such as ear hematomas, where blood vessels in the ear flap break, causing swelling and further discomfort.

While many of these symptoms can suggest the presence of ear mites, they are not exclusive to this condition. Other, even more common ear problems in dogs, such as bacterial infections or yeast infections, can have similar signs. 

To distinguish ear mites from other potential ear health issues, a proper veterinary diagnosis is needed. In the meantime, observing your dog's behaviour and checking their ears regularly can help catch ear mite infestations early, making treatment simpler and less expensive.

Diagnosing dog ear mites

Close-up of Pet Groomer Cleaning Inside of White Dog's Ears

Your veterinarian can confirm whether your dog has ear mites. Vets typically begin by asking about the symptoms your dog is exhibiting at home and conducting a thorough physical examination. This includes looking in the ears for the telltale signs of ear mites, such as the presence of dark, waxy debris and signs of inflammation, and using an otoscope to look for problems deeper in the ear canal.

If your vet suspects ear mites, they may take a sample of the ear debris and examine it under a microscope. This allows them to visually confirm the presence of ear mites by spotting the tiny, white, crab-like parasites. This step is crucial, as it helps rule out other causes of ear discomfort, such as bacterial or yeast infections, which require different treatments.

Your vet might also discuss your dog's history and environment to understand potential sources of the ear mite infestation. This could include interactions with other animals who might carry mites. Understanding the full context helps in not only treating the issue but also in preventing future occurrences.

Treatment for ear mites

Blurry pose of a young veterinarian woman doing ear control to a dog. Focus on dog's ear.

Once your vet has confirmed an ear mite infestation, they will recommend a treatment plan tailored to your dog's needs. Treatment options can include:

  • Drops or ointments that are put directly into the ear canals

  • Products that are absorbed through the skin

  • Oral medications

  • Injectable medications

Some of these treatments need to be administered over a few weeks to ensure all mites and their eggs are eradicated, while others only need to be given once or twice. Always follow the directions on the medication’s label. To prevent re-infestation, it's also critical to diagnose and treat all other animals who have come in contact with your dog. 

Cleaning your dog’s ears also plays a vital role in the treatment process. Depending on the specifics of your dog’s case, one cleaning performed by your veterinarian may be all that is needed, or your vet will show you the proper way to clean your dog’s ears safely at home. They may recommend a specific ear cleaner that helps to remove mite debris and soothe irritation. Following the prescribed treatment regimen and maintaining good ear hygiene are key to your dog’s recovery and comfort.

Preventing ear mites in dogs

Preventing ear mites in the first place involves a combination of regular care and vigilance. Starting with routine ear checks, make sure to examine your dog’s ears regularly for any signs of irritation, discharge, or foul odour. Cleaning with a vet-approved ear cleaner can also help prevent the buildup of wax and oils that mites feed on.

For households with multiple pets, it’s particularly important to monitor all animals for signs of ear mites, as they can easily spread from one pet to another. And again, if one pet is diagnosed with ear mites, treating all pets in the home is often necessary to prevent re-infestation.

Many products that are used to prevent fleas, ticks, and heartworms will also protect dogs from ear mite infestations. Your veterinarian can recommend a parasite preventive that is best suited to your dog’s lifestyle.

When to see a vet for ear mites

If you notice any of the common signs of ear mites, such as persistent scratching, head shaking, or an unusual odour or discharge from your dog’s ears, it's time to consult your vet.

These symptoms can worsen quickly and lead to more severe complications if not addressed promptly. Only a professional can provide a definitive diagnosis and prescribe the most effective medications to safely and quickly treat the condition.

An immediate vet visit becomes even more urgent if your dog shows signs of a secondary infection, such as increased redness, swelling, or pain in the ears. These symptoms indicate that the situation may be more serious than a straightforward case of mites.

Keeping your dog mite-free and healthy

Keeping your dog healthy and happy requires proactive management and care. Ear mites can cause significant discomfort and lead to more serious health issues if left untreated. By staying vigilant, utilizing appropriate preventive care, and seeking prompt veterinary help, you can make sure your dog stays comfortable and healthy.

Dog insurance can help cushion the financial burden of veterinary care, helping you pursue the best possible treatment for ear mites—or any other covered treatment.

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David Teich
Lead Content Editor

David Teich is Lead Content Editor at ManyPets. He loves pets, Scrabble, Oxford commas, and typing loudly.