Ear mites vs ear wax in dogs

Key takeaway

Dog ear mites and ear wax may look similar, and pet owners are often curious how to differentiate the two. While foreign bodies and ear infections are the most common cause of ear issues in dogs, it’s important to understand what mites look like and how to treat them after vet diagnosis.

Ear wax is normal, but excessive ear wax can become a problem—and so can ear infections. Many pet owners may also mistake ear wax for ear mites, a rare problem that occasionally occurs in dogs with symptoms similar to an ear infection.

While ear infections and foreign bodies are the most likely cause of ear issues, it’s important to understand how to look for signs of ear mites, and determine the appropriate course of action.

This guide will help you better understand the differences between the different kinds of ear-related ailments that dogs can suffer from, as well as what you can do to connect your dog with the medicine they need.

Here’s what we’ll cover in the article.

Before we can explain how to check for them, it’s a good idea to ask, what are ear mites? And how can you distinguish ear mites vs ear wax?

What Are Ear Mites?

Ear mites, scientifically known as otodectes cynotis, are a type of surface mite that usually affects the ear canal but may also be found on other areas of the skin. They cause a form of mange that infests the external ear, causing inflammation. This condition is more common in cats, and can occur in dogs as well, though it is much more rare.

Ear mites cannot be seen with the naked eye. You need a microscope to appreciate them amongst the debris they cause.

Clinical Signs Of Ear Mites (Otodectic Mange)

Ear mites can show a variety of symptoms that you should be aware of. Dogs will commonly shake their head and scratch due to the irritation they cause. The external ear of a dog with typically erect ears ,may droop. Itching varies in intensity and can be quite severe. The external ear may become inflamed and swollen in severe instances. Eardrum damage is also a possibility.

Clinical signs of ear mites in dogs

In addition to itching and irritation, you may also notice blackish or brownish discharge almost like coffee grounds. If left untreated, excessive scratching could lead to an infection. Note that ear irritation is also a common sign of skin allergies in dogs, which has different causes and treatments from ear mites.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis of ear mites requires a visit to the vet, as the only way a vet can determine if your dog has mites is to look at the wax under a microscope. Your vet will determine whether ear mites are the cause of your dog’s symptoms by conducting a physical examination, asking about your dog’s history of contact with other potentially infected animals, and attempting direct observation of mites.

Vet examining a dog’s ears

Mites tend to be rare for dogs, so it’s likely that your vet will diagnose your dog with something else entirely, after making the necessary observations.

Treatment

Ear mites in dogs should be treated with a parasiticide applied to the ears or the entire body. Your veterinarian will suggest a treatment plan for you, which will include medication and ear cleaning instructions. Dogs who encounter infected animals (dogs or cats) should be treated as well.

It’s important to note that ear mites should be treated as soon as possible, as they can infect your other pets too. This is why all household pets should be treated if one animal is infected, as ear mites can spread from one animal to another, even across species—including, in some rare cases, humans.

Further, excessive itching and scratching can lead to serious infections that could become dangerous to your dog’s health. Bacterial and fungal infections are commonly associated with ear mites, so be sure that your vet screens for such infections when they are diagnosing and treating your dog’s ear mites.

Vet examining a dog’s ears

What Is Ear Wax?

Ear wax, also known as cerumen in technical terms, is an oily emulsion that covers and protects the inside area of your dog's ear canal. Its naturally water-repellent characteristics act as a protective barrier against excessive moisture getting into your dog's skin cells and other delicate areas of the ear. Cerumen is made up of glandular secretions in normal dog ears and is kept in balance with the quantity required to protect your dog's ear.

Definition of earwax

A normal amount of ear wax is healthy and necessary, but it’s possible for excessive earwax build up to cause problems, or to be a sign of an underlying infection.

What Color Should Dog Ear Wax Be?

Ear wax ranges yellowish to light brown to black or white. The inner area of the ear should be a healthy pink color. A small amount of black discharge from earwax may be present (and shouldn’t be assumed to be ear mites).

It’s a good idea to look out for the following accompanying symptoms as they may indicate ear infection

  • Redness in or around ear
  • Discharge leaking from ears
  • Unpleasant odor
  • Head shaking
  • Ear scratching
  • Rubbing ears on the floor, carpet, or other surfaces
  • A swollen ear pinna
  • Excessively hot feeling ears

Ear Cleaning & Wax Removal

Not all dogs need ear cleaning and wax removal very often, though some, especially dogs with ear hair or droopy ears, may need more frequent cleanings to prevent ear infections. It’s usually good to wait until you see an excessive buildup of earwax in or around the ears before deciding it’s time for a cleaning.

Ear cleaning tips for cleaning a dog’s ears

  • Note: It's probably time for a cleaning if you notice a slight odor or your dog shaking his head more than normal. Contact your veterinarian if your dog's ear seems to be red and inflamed, smells strongly, or appears to be in discomfort. These signs and symptoms might suggest an ear infection, fleas or ear mites, or allergies, and should be treated by a doctor.

When it is time to clean your dog’s ears, try following these steps to make the process painless (or even enjoyable!) as possible.

  1. First, get together your supplies: veterinarian-approved ear cleaning solution is best, as these cleansers are specially designed to break down the oily, waxy material. You’ll also need your dog. Try to catch your dog in a calm or tired mood, that way they are more likely to relax into the ear cleaning.
  2. Next, squeeze the solution into your dog’s ear and massage it at the base of the ear for about 30 to 40 seconds, ensuring your firm but gentle enough not to hurt your dog. Let the dog shake their head to release some of the excess cleaner and ensure none goes into their eyes or mouth.
  3. Use a soft towel to wipe down your dog’s ears and face. You can also use a sterile cotton ball or gauze pad to wipe away broken down wax and debris. Note: You may want to repeat steps 2 & 3 several times, as often, wax buildup takes several soakings and washings to break down fully. If you see blood, stop!

Ear wax is common in dogs, and it’s good to remember that some amount of ear wax is normal and even necessary to keep your dog healthy. Be sure to consult with your vet if you’re not sure whether the amount of earwax your dog is producing is within the healthy boundaries. And if cleaning out your dog’s ears causes visible pain, be sure that you consult with your vet too, to see whether your dog is suffering from an ear infection.

Dog Ear Mites Vs. Ear Wax: Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some of the most common questions we get about ear mites and ear wax.

How do I know if my dog has ear mites or just dirty ears?

Mites tend to be itchier, but are much more rare than run-of-the-mill ear infections. Ultimately, a veterinary professional can provide the best diagnosis, and provide you with next steps depending on what your dog’s ear problem turns out to be.

Should I clean my dog’s ears if he has ear mites?

In some cases, cleaning your dog’s ears may cause more damage if they have ear mites and have been scratching excessively. Your best bet is to schedule an appointment with your vet, who can clean out mites and apply medication to prevent them from spreading further.

Do dog ear mites infect people?

In some rare cases, ear mites can spread from dogs to humans. They can also more easily spread from dogs to other dogs and cats. If a dog in your home is confirmed to have ear mites, it’s critical that you have them treated immediately along with all other pets in your home.


Final Notes

Sometimes, ear irritation can be caused by allergens. In that case, your dog may need medication to help with chronic allergy symptoms. That’s where Dutch can help. For dogs suffering from ear discomfort due to allergies or anxiety, Dutch telemedicine for pets can be a good option to seek science-backed help. Our veterinarians have been trained to spot the signs of allergies and anxiety in dogs and can prescribe any allergy or anxiety medicine for dogs you need to keep your pet healthy at an affordable price.

References

  1. “Mite Infestations in Animals”, Merck Vet Manual, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/ear-disorders/diseases-of-the-pinna/mite-infestations-in-animals
  2. “Ear Infections and Otitis Externa in Dogs”, Merck Vet Manual, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/dog-owners/ear-disorders-of-dogs/ear-infections-and-otitis-externa-in-dogs