Q. I acquired a kitten a couple of weeks ago, and she has been scratching at her ears like crazy with her hind paws. Is this just a weird habit resulting from the stress of going from a shelter to someone’s home, or could something medical be going on?
A. Dear Ms. Field,
There’s a reasonable chance your new cat has ear mites, especially if she is also shaking her head. Scratching the ears followed by head shaking is a telltale sign, and it keeps repeating itself. Ear mites can absolutely drive a cat to distraction.
It’s not surprising that your pet is young. While adult cats get ear mites, they are much more often found in kittens. Yours probably picked them up at the shelter. They are highly contagious from cat to cat (but not to people).
Parasites that most often live and reproduce inside the ear canals, ear mites can prove so uncomfortable for cats that they end up creating small wounds around the base of their ears with their scratching. In some cases, they develop a bacterial or yeast infection that’s secondary to the mite infestation, increasing their discomfort even more. If the condition gets bad enough, a cat might even develop an aural hematoma — an earflap filled with blood because a blood vessel there breaks from the violent head shaking. It looks like a small water balloon on the inside of the pointy earflap (called the pinna) and needs to be treated surgically.
Fortunately, ear mites are easy for the veterinarian to diagnose. Most cats with the condition develop a dry, crusty, black ear discharge that can be put under a microscope to check for mites as well as their eggs.
Treatment involves medication — either oral or applied topically between the shoulder blades. Make sure to get the medication from the vet. Over-the-counter drugs don’t kill the eggs, making the infection take much longer to heal.
If you have other cats, the vet will probably recommend that you treat them, too. Because ear mite infestations are so contagious, your other cats probably already have the condition even if you don’t notice it yet.