When a litter of rescued kittens were brought to see me recently, a careful examination of their ears was an important part of the check-up. I introduced the tip ofthe auroscope into each kitten’s ear, and by looking through the instrument I was able to see a magnified view of each ear canal. In normal animals, the pale blue-grey of the eardrum itself can often be seen. However, in these kittens, I could hardly see any normal ear canal. My view was blocked completely by thick, brown, sticky earwax. The cause of the excessive ear wax could be seen very clearly. Tiny white wriggling insect-like creatures could be seen swarming around the inside of each ear. The kittens were infected with ear mites.
Ear mites are very common in kittens. They are very small mites, each measuring the size of a pin-head. They are very active, and they tend to move away from bright light. When examining an ear with an auroscope, ear mites can often be seen moving quickly out of the field of vision, as if running away from the vet.
Ear mites are highly infectious, and they are especially common in feral colonies of cats. The adult mite feeds on the secretions produced by the lining of the ear. Eggs are laid inside the ear. These hatch out into tiny larvae which then mature into adults, and the life cycle continues. If one cat pushes its head against the body of another cat, ear mites can easily be transferred from one to the other. Kittens are obviously in very close contact with their mothers and with each other, so it is very common to find entire litters of kittens affected by dramatic infestations of ear mites.
Most of us are familiar with the discomfort of an irritation in the ear, even from something as harmless as a small quantity of water lodging in our ears after swimming. The concept of live, wriggling insects crawling around inside the ear canal is very unpleasant! In many cases, kittens do show dramatic signs, such as repeated scratching of the ears. In other cases, an owner may have noticed the animal shaking their head more than usual,. However some cats, even with severe infestations, show no obvious external signs. Close examination of a kitten’s ears with an auroscope is essential to detect such ‘invisible’ cases.
Ear mites can also affect dogs, but they are less common. Fortunately, there is no risk to humans. Those alarming, tiny, wriggly creatures are not going to crawl onto your hand, up your arm and into your own ear. However, if you have a household of dogs and cats, you do need to treat every animal individually to ensure that you have completely eradicated the infestation.
Treatment of ear mites is not always easy. The mites are sensitive to most insecticides and a range of drops and ointments are available from your vet. The only complication is that the eggs of the ear mite are resistant to treatment, and these can remain unhatched for up to three weeks. This means that it may be necessary to continue to medicate affected kittens for an entire three week period, to ensure that all eggs have hatched with the resulting larvae being eradicated. Young kittens can be difficult to hold still, and they often learn how to escape from your grasp, so after the first few days of treatment it can become more difficult to continue.
I saw the kittens again two weeks after their first visit. They were all in wonderful form, purring, playing with each other, and growing rapidly. Their ears were clean, both inside and out. They were ready for their new homes – with no passengers included!