The thought of crab-like, pinhead-sized creatures living in your cat's ears may seem like the stuff of nightmares, but they are disturbingly real. Ear mites attack your cat in a very sensitive spot, causing the feline great discomfort and leaving a mess in his once clean and healthy ear canal.
Mention the word “parasite” and no doubt images of ticks, intestinal worms and fleas come to mind. Lovely mental images, right? The difference between these types of parasites and those of the ear mite variety is their preferred diet — most other parasites feed off your cat's blood, while ear mites nosh on his ear wax and oils. This may not seem too bad, but keep in mind that the average ear mite's life cycle is only about three weeks, and they reproduce very quickly. This could result in a very large, very irritating population of creepy-crawlies in your cat's ear canal in a relatively short period of time.
Symptoms and Complications
Cats are notoriously tight-lipped when they're in pain or experiencing discomfort — unless they're just mad at you or want their food dish filled — so you may not even know your cat's been invaded until the infestation has already gotten out of control. The feel of all those tiny bugs in his ear will cause him to shake his head more often, and maddeningly scratch at the affected ear. The mites will create a discharge that resembles coffee grounds, which can clog your cat's ear and further irritate the sensitive skin inside. Excessive head shaking or scratching can rupture blood vessels in the ear, creating an aural hematoma — which essentially looks like your cat's ear has become a little “pillow” filled with blood — that is only correctable through surgery.
While ear mites can cause considerable irritation, inflammation and mess inside the ear, and your cat can cause considerable irritation, injury and damage outside the ear in response to the presence of the mites, the tiny parasites themselves do not create lumps under your cat's skin around his ears. Skin lumps can fall under a number of diagnoses, ranging from cysts and fungal infections to abscesses and even cancer. Or they could just be mosquito or chigger bites if your cat ventures outside during the summer.
When In Doubt
Not every head shake means your cat has ear mites, just as not every mysterious lump means your cat suddenly has cancer. You know your cat best and can tell if something's amiss. When in doubt, and if something is really bothering him — and by extension, you — schedule a visit with your veterinarian for a quick checkup. If your feline friend does have ear mites, your vet will prescribe drops to kill the little suckers and give your cat some peace. Your vet can also examine the lumps to determine whether or not they're something to worry about.
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