This page has been checked, added-to, and republished as at January 27, 2022. It was first published about 13 years ago. Nowadays I don’t write about feline medical matters or if I do it is usually with great caution because this is veterinary work. However, knowledge of feline health is important for a cat caregiver. It makes the owner more aware and more alert to potential health problems which allows them to take proactive steps. And they can discuss the topic with their vet with understanding.
For instance, it pays dividends to check the ears for wax or debris (ear mites). This can be done in passing when petting your cat. Inside a cat’s ear there may be surplus clear colourless wax which is not uncommon in indoor cats. It can be removed with a cotton bud but TAKE CARE. Used incorrectly a cotton bud makes matters worse. Cotton buds are convenient but are they any good?
Certainly, no one will advise a cat owner to clean their cat’s ears with a cotton bud. That might sound a little strong. The problem is obvious. You just push the mites, the wax and the debris further into the ear canal towards the eardrum. This makes them harder to remove. If you see a problem in your cat’s ears you should take your cat to the vet as soon as possible. There is no other option. Ear mites are incredibly irritating to a cat. They may not show it but they will be in intense discomfort. The matter requires urgent attention. Your vet will be able to provide you with an effective treatment.
Cat mites generally
Cat mites are spider-like cat parasites that can hardly be seen unless by microscope and which live on the cat’s skin and/or ear canals. You might just seem them moving without a device to assist. They cause skin conditions called mange. Mange can take the form of patches of hair loss, sores, crusty skin or dandruff.
There are several types of feline mange caused by different types of cat mite.
Important: mites are killed with insecticides. These are chemicals that should be administered with great caution. Check with a vet and personally I would seek out the least toxic treatments and the ones with the least side-effects. One example is Defendex™ Flea, Tick, Lice, and Mange Shampoo. This is a “a proprietary homeopathic pet shampoo”. Homeopathy for Cats. Ask your vet for advice and/or do due diligence, please. These are inherently dangerous chemicals.
This mite is called a “normal resident of the cat’s skin”1. It causes a mild localised infection if the cat is healthy and the cat has a normally functioning immune system. Demodex mange is “extremely rare””1 in cats and more commonly seen in kittens; the symptoms of which are hair loss around the head, neck and ears that progress to scaly, itching sores that become infected. The mange can cover the whole body.
The treatment for localised mange can be carried out without veterinary supervision. Generalised mange treatment requires veterinary supervision1. Localised mange can be treated with Pyoben shampoo (see below) followed by Rotenone. These are USA products. Caveat: Please check with your vet before applying chemicals to your cat. You can cause problems that are worse than the one you are trying to cure.
The scientific name of this cat mite is Notoedres cati. It causes head mange or feline scabies. It is uncommon and it is highly contagious through direct contact. It can also be present around paws and genitalia.
This horrible cat mite causes intense itching when they burrow into the skin to lay eggs. The cat scratches the skin causing hair loss and raw skin. Yellow/grey crusts form on the skin. Wounds caused by scratching can become infected.
Treatment: Note: see a vet please. I will add some treatments briefly for completeness. This takes the form of an insecticide lime sulphur dip (2.5%) – see image above. This is given weekly after a bath in warm water and soap which loosens the crusts and should continue for 2 weeks after apparent cure. Dips are safe on kittens older than 6 weeks – caution please. All cats on the premises should be treated. Itching can be relieved with an anti-itch product and infected sores can be treated with Panolog (the illustrated links are USA products) – see images below. Vets in the US and UK or in Europe generally should be able to provide these over the counter if you ask for lime sulphur dip or substitute and anti-itch creams and shampoos etc.
Another horrible microscopic but relatively large, reddish, cat mite that causes “walking dandruff”; more scientifically called Cheyletiella mange.
Walking dandruff is:
- highly contagious;
- seen over the back, neck and sides of the cat in the form of lots of dry, scaly skin;
- not common in cats and can infect people.
Treatment is the lime sulphur dip referred to above for 2 weeks beyond apparent cure. An alternative is a pyrethrin shampoo insecticide (this may be a toxic chemical and should be used with caution). All cats/dogs on the premises must be treated and the premises treated generally in the same way as for a flea infestation – see Cat Flea Treatment.
The common term for this little devil is “Chiggers” or the harvest mite. It is the larvae of this cat mite that infests the cat. The larvae cause severe irritation to the cat by sucking on the skin. The larvae are just visible as red/orange specks particularly on the areas where the fur is thinnest (e.g., between the toes and ear canals).
Treatment is as for walking dandruff and head mite: the lime sulfur dip as illustrated above. A single application would appear to be sufficient. Anti-itch creams can also be applied. Proactive steps are to keep cat away from decaying vegetation where th e mite lives.
I have covered this nasty cat mite elsewhere and below as they are common: Cat Ear Mites (opens in a new window). The scientific term is Ododectes cynotis. See also: Natural Cure for Cat Ear Infection.
I will add some further detail as I am upgrading this page. Ear mites produce a sandy, gritty debris in the ears. They are often contracted from mothers or neighbouring cats. Cats may have an itchy skin response to the presence of ear mites in the ear canal. Dr. Bruce Fogle says that he sees lots of itchy cats. There are many reasons, one of them being the dreaded ear mite.
Ear mites are common. They are tiny spider-like white parasites. They love the warmth of the cat’s ear canal. They like the humidity as well. They feed on debris and earwax. They cause inflammation and irritation. The body produces more nutritious wax in response. Cats scratch their ears. They shake their heads because of the intense itching. Some cats flatten their ears back. Some cats resent their ears and/or the area around ears being touched. Some cats cry out when scratching their ears. You will see a dark reddish-brown or black debris in the ear canal. And you might just see these white parasites, like white dots moving around. The condition may be complicated by a yeast and bacterial infection. Under these circumstances the discharge is smelly and more liquid.
Britain’s best-known veterinarian and author, Dr. Fogle, suggests a treatment containing the ingredient selemectin. This kills ear mites both inside and outside the ear. Yes, ear mites can migrate out of the ear canal to areas around the ear.
When using one of the oily ear lotions, the cat caregiver should make sure that the medicine is massage daily and deeply into the ear canal. You need to treat the cat two weeks later for a few days because mites that are around the ear return to the ear canal and they can be caught by the second treatment. Ear mites are very contagious and therefore you will need to check other companion animals in the home.
Personally, I don’t think you can do this without the intervention of your veterinarian. I know they can be expensive and the whole process is fraught with anxiety both for the cat and the human caregiver but sometimes it is necessary. Ear mites are one of those occasions.
Sarcoptic Mange Mites
These cat mites are rare in cats fortunately and more commonly seen on dogs. Treatment is as for head mange above.
Feral and stray cats
Feral cats are more likely to have ectoparasites and endoparasites (parasites inside the body). Almost the first thing you do when you rescue a stray cat is to check for ectoparasites and I am referring to cat fleas. They are almost bound to have them and there might be a bad infestation. And of course, they are likely to have mites on them. A veterinarian check is a prerequisite in my view when rescuing a stray cat.
Perhaps it goes without saying that cats allowed outside are more likely to pick up mites and other ectoparasites. There are other dangers to being outside. It’s a balancing act. I won’t get into this very difficult conversation about whether a cat should go outdoors or not on this page. There are pluses and minuses as we all know.
1. Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook by Drs Carlson and Giffin et al. I have also used Dr Fogle’s Complete Cat Care as a source. Plus, personal experience.