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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

We recently adopted a 9-week-old kitten, Pip, from the local humane society.

The other night, I noticed that Pip has dark-brown-colored gunk in his ears (easy to see because he’s a pure white cat). I’m told that’s a sign of ear mites. It’s not a huge surprise, as Pip came from a litter of barn cats. Although his documentation says he was treated for the pesky buggers already, I’m guessing that he didn’t get follow-up treatments and the mites came back.

His ears don’t seem to bother him at all. There’s no excessive scratching or pawing, just the gunk.

We’ll be taking him to the vet soon for his follow-up vaccines, so any infestation will be confirmed then, but I was curious: Is there a safe home remedy for ear mites? And are treatments for young kittens different from those for adult cats? We have two other cats who will probably need treatment, too, just to prevent the mites from recurring. Thank you!

~Caro

Siouxsie: Oh, ear mites: The bane of kitties everywhere!

Thomas: We’ve been quite fortunate that we’ve never been infested with the nasty little things. Other cats who have tell us that it’s truly miserable! They itch as they move around, and there’s this constant scritchy-scritchy sound in the ear as the mites move. It’s no wonder we scratch our ears and shake our heads when we get them!

Dahlia: Of course, all that itching and scratching only makes our ears hurt more, so cats with ear mites not only have ears full of nasty black or brown gunk, but our ear flaps get all red and irritated from all of our attempts to get rid of the itch. Some cats even scratch their ears to the point where they have scratches or blood blisters!

Siouxsie: The most commonly prescribed treatment for ear mites is a special medicine that kills them. The treatment comes in the form of ear drops that your veterinarian will give you. You’ll be told to administer the medication as prescribed for probably a month.

Thomas: The reason for this is that the medication only kills the adult mites. It does not kill the mites’ eggs, which can take several weeks to hatch.

Dahlia: Another problem with ear mites is that they often lay eggs outside the ear–on the head just outside the ear canal, for example. So if you only treat the cat’s ears rather than the whole cat, you’re much more likely to see a re-infestation.

Siouxsie: There’s some anecdotal evidence that spot-on parasite prevention medications containing fipronil (including such products as Frontline or Bio-Spot) can kill adult mites and prevent infestation. Ask your vet about this.

Thomas: Your vet may also suggest that you shampoo your cat to help get rid of mites or eggs that might be outside the ears.

Dahlia: Because of the scratching we undertake to resolve the mites’ itching, it’s even possible that we can have dormant ear mite eggs on or near our claws!

Siouxsie: Caro, you are right in thinking that if your kitten has ear mites, it’s very likely that the rest of your cats (and dogs, if you have any) are or soon will be infected. So any prevention program will have to involve the rest of your animal family, too.

Thomas: There are some home remedies for ear mite treatment, but we’re rather doubtful about their effectiveness. They involve putting substances like olive oil or certain teas in your cat’s ears and sloshing them around.

Dahlia: We strongly recommend against putting anything in your cat’s ears without the explicit permission of your veterinarian. For one thing, these treatments can drive the infestation deeper into the ear rather than resolving it. Because these treatments can change the acid-alkaline balance of the ear, they can also lead to infections that further complicate the problem. We know several animals that have been home-treated for ear mites who actually developed these secondary infections and got even worse off because of it.

Siouxsie: The other problem is that if you assume your cat has ear mites and do home treatment, but he really has an infection, you won’t be treating the right problem and you’ll cause your cat undue suffering.

Thomas: But since you say your kitten’s ears don’t seem to be bothering him, we’re not sure he actually has ear mites! As we said earlier, ear mites are very itchy and annoying. Aany cat that has ear mites would definitely be showing signs of discomfort.

Dahlia: Ear mite gunk is dark-brown stuff with the consistency of coffee grounds. If your cat’s ear residue is of a lighter color, it’s more likely that he has an infection or he’s having an allergic reaction to something in his environment. Your vet will be able to sort this out for you when you take your kitten for his checkup.

Siouxsie: On another ear hygiene-related note, we want to inform all of you readers that you should never stick cotton swabs in your cat’s ears for any reason! For one thing, if your cat does have ear mites or some other infection, you would drive that infection or wax buildup deeper into his ears. If your kitty has a foreign body in his ear, you could drive that deeper in, too

Thomas: And you could also unwittingly puncture the eardrum or damage other delicate structures in your cat’s ear. Leave the swabbing to your vet!

Dahlia: If you think your cat has any kind of ear problem, the best choice is to call your vet and bring your cat in for a checkup. Your vet will be able to tell you what’s going on and how to treat that problem without causing undue damage and suffering to your cat.

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