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How to Tell If Your Dog Has Ear Mites—and How to Get Rid of Them

Updated: Feb. 09, 2023

Ear mites in dogs and puppies is a common occurrence. If you suspect your adorable pooch is dealing with these tiny parasites, here's what you need to know and what you should do.

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What are ear mites?

Ear mites are teeny, tiny parasites that live on or under the skin of the outer ear. Ear mites in dogs are most likely the type called otodectes cynotis. Like all mites, otodectes cynotis are a type of arachnid—in fact, they look like tiny spiders. Otodectes cynotis feed on ear wax and oil. They do not burrow deeply into the inner ear, which makes them easier to treat, but they do have the ability to make your dog extremely uncomfortable.

Another potential offender is the demodex mite. Unlike otodectes cynotis, demodex live outside the dog’s ears, in hair follicles and oil glands. The good news is that most dogs that have healthy immune systems are resistant to demodex. Cleaning your dog’s ears regularly can help you to notice and treat ear mites before they get too bad.

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How do dogs get ear mites?

Any dog can become infected with parasites, including ear mites. However, ear mites in dogs are most common in puppies, who have not built up some level of natural resistance to them over time. Dogs that spend time outdoors in wooded or rural areas are also prone, as are dogs that live in animal shelters, or that spend time socializing with other dogs. Ear mites are contagious and can be acquired through dog-to-dog and other animal contact. According to VCA Hospitals, this type of mite also affects cats, rabbits, and ferrets.

Veterinarian check dog's ear at pet clinic, detailed exam dog's ear

Is it ear mites or an ear infection?

“The clinical signs for ear mites and ear infections in dogs are quite similar to each other,” says Caroline Wilde, DVM, a staff veterinarian at Trupanion. So how can you tell these two conditions apart? The key is in the debris you will find in your dog’s ears. “Ear mites tend to cause dry, dark discharge, which may resemble coffee grounds,” explains Dr. Wilde. If you examine the discharge under a microscope or magnifying glass, you may see tiny white specks moving about in the debris. These are live ear mites. They are very hard to see and also may not appear in the discharge sample you look at, that’s why you’ll always want your vet to confirm a diagnosis.

close up brown dog scratching its ear on siting position
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Symptoms of ear mites in dogs

Some of the most common symptoms of ear mites in dogs are vigorous head shaking, ear twitching, and scratching. The body hairs on mites irritate your dog’s ears as they move about, and these behaviors are your dog’s way of trying to scratch the itch. “Another symptom is a dark, waxy discharge in the ear canal,” says Danielle Bernal, DVM with Wellness Natural Pet Food. Other symptoms are foul odor and inflammation. If your dog is scratching incessantly they may scratch themselves, causing wounds and scabs to appear in and around the ear, and in extreme cases, your pet may lose hair, too. This is how your dog shows he’s upset.

Calendula oil bottle with dried flowers

Vet-recommended calendula oil at-home treatment for ear mites

Ear mites in dogs need to be treated quickly and completely, in order to avoid ongoing discomfort, re-infestation, and health complications for your pet. A vet’s input is always best, but if you’re sure that your dog has ear mites and his symptoms are mild, you can try treating the problem at home. Carol Osborne, DVM at Chagrin Falls Pet Clinic, recommends a homemade solution of one teaspoon of calendula oil, mixed with one-half teaspoon of sea salt, and eight ounces of water. Mix well, then squirt into each ear canal and massage for five to ten seconds. Use a clean cotton ball to gently clean inside the ear. (Never use a cotton swab of any sort and never clean any deeper than you can see.) Dr. Osborne mentions that you can also use this solution to clean your pup’s ears on a regular basis. Other natural remedies for dog ailments include these types of at-home treatments for arthritis and DIY flea collars.

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Over-the-counter treatments

“Over-the-counter ear mite medications are available through many pet supply stores and will work in some cases,” says Jennifer Coates, DVM of Pet Life Today. Dr. Coates recommends following the label directions of over-the-counter treatments exactly, and for only the amount of time recommended. “If a dog has a very severe case of ear mites, or the over-the-counter treatment does not work, it is important to make an appointment with a veterinarian,” she emphasizes. Over-the-counter ear mite treatments for dogs include topical solutions with and without hydrocortisone, antimicrobial treatments, and some with natural enzymes. If you have a puppy or an older dog, make sure the treatment you use is safe for their age group. Could CBD treatments be right for your dog?

Veterinary examination

Prescription treatments

A vet is your dog’s best bet for getting quick, effective diagnosis and treatment. “While there are many over-the-counter treatments available, through proper diagnosis and treatment recommendations from your veterinarian, you can help your dog recover quicker and with fewer complications than you would in trying various OTC remedies,” says Jme Thomas, executive director at Motley Zoo Animal Rescue. Most animal professionals agree. “The good news is that once diagnosed, ear mites are very easy to get rid of with proper treatment,” says Dr. Barnal. “These include topical medications that kill the mites and in some cases, prevent wax from rebuilding. Your dog’s veterinarian will know the best option for your pet’s specific case. Seeing a vet will also ensure that any other underlying health issues are treated,” she adds. Why not make sure your dog’s nose isn’t dry while you’re at it? It’s important for their health.

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Mite-proofing your home against ear mites

You may not get ear mites from your dog, but your home sure can. Mite-proofing your home after your dog has had ear mites will reduce, or even eliminate, the risk of re-occurrence. In addition to treating every pet who lives, or comes into your home, you will also have to eliminate ear mites and their eggs from all soft surfaces. These include your dog’s bed and probably your bed, too. Don’t forget the couch, chairs, plush dog toys, and curtains, if they touch the floor. Wash everything in hot water at least twice, and vacuum everything you can’t wash.

Ear mites can only live for a short period of time if they don’t have a host to feed on. However, they can continually lay eggs during that time, so ridding your home of grown mites and their microscopic offspring is absolutely essential for keeping your dog ear-mite free. This is how often you should wash your dog.

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Ear mites in older dogs

If your older dog has gotten a case of ear mites, there may be an underlying reason why, such as an illness that is weakening her immune system. If your vet suspects an additional health problem, he or she may suggest blood tests for your dog to diagnose or rule out any health conditions. An older dog may also have a harder time dealing with the pain and itching of an ear mite infection. You’ll also want to know these 10 signs your “healthy” dog is sick.

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Must-avoid complications

According to Pet MD, some dogs may have an extreme immune reaction to ear mites. This hypersensitivity can cause unmanageable itching and intense irritation in the external ear and surrounding tissues. If your dog’s reaction is severe, they are suffering and need immediate, aggressive treatment from a veterinarian, which may include an injected medication to calm down the skin and itching.

Any dog who has ear mites that are left untreated can experience other complications, such as damage to the eardrum and ear canal. In some dogs, this can cause permanent and complete deafness or hearing loss.

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Aftercare for ear mites in dogs

Your vet will probably recommend a follow-up visit, to make sure that the infestation is completely gone. You can help long-term by checking your dog’s ears frequently and washing them with a prescription or natural solution. This is particularly important if your dog spends time at dog parks or at doggy daycare. Concerned pet owners will also want to make sure they avoid these 11 everyday habits that put your dog in danger.