Mites are microscopic external parasites that are part of the arachnid family of bugs (spiders, scorpions, ticks, etc.). There are thousands of different species of mites, and their diet is as diverse as the number and type that live and thrive on earth. Mites feed on a host of things, including plant matter, insects, and the skin or blood of animals—including pets and their humans. Although mite-related illness isn’t common in the United States, almost all mites are highly contagious among dogs and/or cats. Depending on the species, they can be contagious for humans as well.
What are the most common mite species affecting dogs and cats?
This is a species affecting mostly dogs (Demodex canis), but also cats (Demodex cati). Demodex mites are tiny—about 0.3 millimeters in length. They spend their entire life cycle inside hair follicles and/or the sebaceous glands that are attached to the hair follicles. These mites live mostly unnoticed on their host; however, a severe infestation (called demodectic mange or demodicosis) is a serious disease that can develop in an animal with a weakened immune system. Dog breeds most susceptible to demodectic mange include Beagle, Boxer, Bulldog, Chihuahua, Chow Chow, Dalmatian, Doberman, German Shepherd, Great Dane, Pointer, Pug, Shar Pei and Terrier.
Symptoms of demodectic mange include itching, hair loss, reddened skin, scale formation and pustules. More severe symptoms include inflamed foot pads, enlarged lymph nodes, lethargy, fever, and pus-filled inflammation of the deeper layers of the skin. Diagnosis is confirmed by taking a sample of skin scrapings and observing the mites under a microscope. False negatives (no mites found in the scraping) are common; therefore, clinical symptoms, history and response to treatment should considered.
Otodectes Cynotis (Ear Mites)
These are more common in cats than in dogs. Kittens are more at risk that adult cats. Ear mites are 0.25 to 0.5 mm long, highly contagious, and live in the external ear. They feed on skin debris resulting from an allergic reaction to the mite saliva. Ear mites can cause a secondary bacterial infection and the appearance of pus. If not diagnosed and treated, a dark secretion like wet coffee grounds accumulates in the ears. Severe infestations can lead to local bleeding, eardrum perforation and deafness if the infection reaches the inner ear. Symptoms include intense itching, head shaking, licking, and rubbing against objects, sometimes to the point of self-mutilation. Diagnosis is made with microscopic examination of ear debris.
Notoedres Cati (Feline Scabies)
This mite affects only cats, and is not common in the United States and Northern Europe. Adult mites are 0.15-0.3 mm long; they dig tunnels in the skin where they lay their eggs. Larvae crawl out to the skin surface and dig their own tunnels where they molt into nymphs and adults. Infestations begin on the head and the ears to later spread to the neck, back and other parts of the body. Affected skin looks wrinkled and thickened, and is accompanied by intense itching, scratching and licking of the affected parts.
Diagnosis is confirmed using skin scrapings, and like Demodex mites, false negatives are not uncommon. If there are multiple cats in the household, the infestation must be removed as soon as possible, as the infestation can manifest itself repeatedly.
Cheyletiella SPP ("Walking Dandruff")
These mainly infest cats but can also affect dogs, foxes, rabbits and humans. They live on the skin surface and feed on the keratin (protein) in the skin. Infestations are often benign and usually result in mild dermatitis; however, massive infestations can lead to the formation of skin scales, hair loss and itching, most often on the back of the animal. Moving mites carry small skin scales around with them, giving the impression that the dandruff is moving. Diagnosis is confirmed using skin scraping or use of a sticky tape applied directly to the skin and examined under a microscope.
Pneumonyssoides Caninum (Nasal Mites)
These mites occur in dogs and are present worldwide, but infestation is not common. Nasal mites often cause minor or no symptoms, but strong infestations can lead to chronic sneezing, nasal discharge, coughing and nose bleeds. Diagnosis is challenging because the symptoms point to other upper respiratory disorders. Confirmation of this mite is made by examining a sample of nasal discharge under the microscope or examining the nasal cavity with a rhinoscope.
Sarcoptes Scabiei, Var. Canis (Dog Scabies)
Highly contagious among dogs, these mites can be spread to household cats and/or humans. Dogs can pick up mites from the immediate environment, then passively transmit to other animals when in close physical contact. These mites are small (0.15-0.55 mm) and can only be seen under a microscope. They are best found using a sticky tape applied to the coat, then examined under the microscope. A nonspecific, but effective diagnostic tool, is the "pinnal-pedal reflex", resulting in intense scratching when the edge of the ear flap is rubbed.
Harm to dogs can be substantial. Sarcoptes mites dig tunnels beneath the skin and their saliva has potent enzymes that dissolve the skin tissues. The mites then feed on the resulting liquids. Symptoms include skin irritation, allergic reactions to the mite saliva and feces, crusty pimples and pustules, hair loss, intense itching, head shaking, scratching the head, ears and other affected parts and rubbing against objects.
How are mite infestations treated?
Conventional treatment for mites uses oral and topical synthetic parasiticides. Synthetic parasiticides are mostly broad spectrum, and not reliably effective against pet mites. Other products may control one or two mite species, but not all species. Still other products are approved for certain other parasites but not for mites. Avoid giving your pet potentially dangerous chemicals it does not need, if at all possible. Flea and tick “preventative” products containing insecticides such as flumethrin, isoxazolines, and imidacloprid, are reported to cause seizures and other neurological disorders in pets. Medicated shampoos and dips are often used to treat more severe (generalized demodicosis) cases and can take several months to clear. Do your research on the chemicals used in recommended products including dosage and instructions for use. Treatment for ear mites may include an antibiotic ear drop if there is a secondary bacterial infection.
It is not necessary to treat your pet or his/her environment with synthetic chemicals. There are a variety of natural products, recipes and strategies to rid your household and pets of mites. Natural products contain natural parasiticides; do your research and read ingredient lists before use. Know what ingredients your pet may be reactive to.
If your pet is infested with mites...
- Wash ALL pet beds, blankets, plush toys, etc. in very hot water. Use the hottest setting in your dryer as well. (Treatment should include all household animals that have been in contact with one another.)
- Clean or replace all tools or equipment used for pet care (combs, brushes, scissors, etc.) to avoid transmission among pets.
- Thoroughly vacuum carpets and floors. Throw away the vacuum bag or thoroughly clean bagless systems.
- Bathe your pet using a shampoo with natural and soothing ingredients to minimize itching.
- Apply coconut oil to your pet’s coat to smother mite eggs, larvae and adults.
- Apple cider and tea tree oil-based products can get rid of mites. Be sure to use products approved for use in pets, as cats can be very sensitive to tea tree oil.
- For mites that cause demodectic and sarcoptic mange—use a solution of Borax and 3% hydrogen peroxide to eliminate.
- For ear mites—use a solution of almond oil and Vitamin E, applied inside of the ears three times per week, for up to 30 days.
Can mite infestations be prevented?
Mites are everywhere and currently, there is no known repellent for them. It is important to remember that mite infestations do not always develop into a disease. Animals that are healthy and well-nourished with a species appropriate diet often show only minor symptoms or no symptoms at all. A pet’s strong immune system can keep the mite population under control. Mites tend to proliferate in weak, sick, stressed and neglected animals. Keep your pet’s immune system strong by adding mushroom powders and tinctures, antioxidants and probiotics to your dog or cat’s daily nutrition regimen.
Although mite bites themselves aren’t dangerous, there’s a slim chance that they can pass along a disease. The best prevention is to keep your pet at his/her optimum level of health. Work with your veterinarian to diagnose potential mite infestations, and consider natural treatment options when at all possible.