Like fleas, ear mites are highly contagious, incredibly annoying external parasites that commonly infest dogs and cause substantial itching and associated complications. They also affect cats, but generally do not use humans as hosts. While there are a number of ear mite species, the ones called Otodectes cynotis mites are most often the culprits.
These eight-legged mites (they’re arachnids, like spiders and ticks) are tiny—just barely visible to the naked eye. They take up residence in the ear canal and feed on the oils and wax that naturally occur there. The symptoms they cause can be a great source of discomfort for your service dog, as well as a distraction from her responsibilities. For these reasons—and because they spread so readily and because complications can arise—it’s important to address an ear mite infestation promptly.
How Can Your Service Dog Catch Ear Mites?
Ear mites are incredibly contagious, passing from one infested animal to another in the course of casual contact. Where pets are concerned, outdoor cats are the most frequently affected, and they often pass mites to other animals in the home. But even if you don’t have pets, your assistance dog can easily pick up ear mites from proximity to other dogs, even perhaps at the vet’s office or groomer’s place.
Signs, Symptoms, and Complications of an Ear Mite Infestation
The primary symptom of an ear mite problem is itching in the ears, and often on the head and neck. If your service dog is scratching at her ears and/or shaking her head a lot, ear mites are a leading suspect.
In addition, waxy, dark reddish-brown to black crust may form in and on the ears, and you may observe buildup that looks like coffee grounds in the ear canal. Your service dog’s ears may become red and inflamed, too, and wounds from excessive scratching are another sign. Also, there may be a strong odor coming from the ears.
Injuries and secondary infections from excessive scratching are a concern. Your dog may injure the skin in and around her ears, head, and neck, and she can also damage her ear canal or ear drums. Vigorous scratching or head shaking can cause blood vessels in the ear to burst, a condition known as an aural hematoma, which sometimes requires surgical intervention. Some dogs experience an allergic reaction to ear mites, which can significantly magnify the symptoms.
Diagnosing an Ear Mite Infestation
Visit your veterinarian as soon as you think your assistance dog might have ear mites. Give a comprehensive account of the signs and symptoms you’ve noticed,. If your dog has regular contact with other animals, say so.
Your vet will perform a thorough skin and physical examination, and may choose to run some blood tests and urinalysis to rule out other health concerns. The veterinarian will look into the ear canals using an otoscope, and can usually visually identify ear mites if they are present; he or she may also take an ear swab or skin sample from inside your service dog’s ears for analysis.
Treating and Preventing Ear Mite Infestations
Once you have an ear mite diagnosis, your vet will clean out your dog’s ears to clear them of buildup and give you instructions for performing cleanings at home. Your vet will prescribe a topical antiparasitic medication that’s either applied to the skin or inside the ears.
If you have pets in addition to your service dog, they need to be treated simultaneously. Treatment is typically highly successful, but be sure to complete the prescribed regimen, even if you think your dog is better sooner.
If necessary, the veterinarian will also prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs and/or antibiotics to help soothe itching and inflammation and remedy any secondary infection.
Ear mites can’t survive for long without a host, so if you’re diligent during treatment, reinfection is rare; fortunately, these parasites aren’t nearly as stubborn and hard to get rid of as fleas. Once treatment is underway, thoroughly vacuum your floors, carpets, rugs, and furniture surfaces, and launder your animal and human bedding with warm soapy water and a run through the dryer.
About a month after treatment, your vet will want a follow-up appointment to check your assistance dog’s ears. As for prevention, there’s no sure way to safeguard your dog against an ear mite infestation. Limiting contact with other animals and regularly cleaning out her ears reduce the risk, though.