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Ear mites are tiny multi-legged creatures that feed on the waste products and dead skin particles that accumulate in an animal's ear. Although they at first sound somewhat benign, their population can quickly multiply and cause damage to the ear and surrounding tissue as the infestation spreads. The symptoms they can provoke can be quite painful for the ferret and in some cases can lead to serious complications that can have a significant impact on the animal's quality of life.
Most owners will notice the symptoms of an ear mite infestation rather quickly, as the behaviors and physical appearance of the ferret should quickly start to change. Although unsightly and often painful, ear mites can be easily removed by a medical professional.
Soon after the ear mites have taken up residence inside the ferret's ear, the animal will begin to display signs of physical discomfort. Owners will notice the ferret starting to scratch at its ear with its paws, especially after the outer body of the ear has just been moved or adjusted in order to focus on a particular sound. The ferret may also show a degree of redness on the skin of the inner ear, with some possible cracking becoming visible after the first few days of the infection. As the mite population grows, the level of irritation will worsen, with the ferret scratching more and more frequently and possibly even starting to draw blood. It should be noted that some ferrets may become agitated and may react negatively to attempts to touch the affected ear.
Another tell-tale sign of an ear mite infestation is hair being shed from the areas of the head immediately surrounding the ears. This is due to the animal and the mites themselves damaging the hairs as they constantly scratch and irritate the surface of the skin. Although this usually appears quite late into the infestation, hair loss is generally regarded as a good indicator that the ferret requires immediate medical attention.
Once the ear mites have taken root in a ferret, their activities will cause changes in the materials coming out of the ear. Instead of the usual thin, pale orange ear wax that can be expected to be visible inside the ferret's ear, owners may start to notice a darker, more viscous wax leaking out. This may develop into a crust of sorts around the entrance to the animal's ear, which can provoke irritation and provide a harbor for bacteria.
A common consequence of an untreated ear mite population is the development of a bacterial infection, or even multiple ones as time goes on. As the skin within and around the ear becomes cracked and broken by direct damage from the mites and the scratching of the ferret's claws, the potential for bacteria to be able to make a home there increases. This is especially true within the ear canal itself, where, due to a buildup of wax and dead tissue, there is the perfect damp, dark environment for bacteria to thrive. Owners will usually notice an unpleasant odor emanating from an infected ear, as well as odd-colored pus leaking out. Left untreated, bacterial infections of the ear can cause permanent damage to hearing or even spread through the body and have an impact on the function of other organs.
Ear mites generally transfer between animals via an uninfected animal coming into direct contact with a host animal. The mites can also live on surfaces such as grass or carpeting for a limited amount of time before being transferred to a suitable host. The majority of the symptoms of a mite infestation stem directly from the normal activity and movements of the mites themselves. This is because the barbed hind limbs they use to gain traction in the ear canal cause a great deal of irritation, which provokes scratching from the ferret as well as an involuntary allergy-like reaction in the ear itself. This results in redness and cracking of the skin as well as the overproduction of ear wax as the body attempts to move the source of the irritation out of the ear.
Once the ferret has been brought to their clinic, the vet will usually start the diagnostic process by performing a physical examination of the animal and its ear. This will allow them to rule out any other possible causes and also check that the ferret is not suffering from any hitherto unnoticed complications. Due to their distinctive symptoms, ear mites can often be diagnosed by physical examination alone, however, there are additional ways to make absolutely sure. The most common method is for the vet to take a sample of wax for observation under a microscope. This will give them the opportunity to inspect the material up close and will usually immediately reveal the mites and their egg casings.
A large variety of topical drugs are available for direct application to the ear. These drugs will kill the mites upon contact. However, in order to be absolutely certain that the mites have been fully wiped out, applications will have to continue for just over two weeks in order to kill any mites that may have been gestating inside their eggs and therefore protected from the first application. If a bacterial infection has taken hold, then the vet will administer some form of antibiotic in order to treat it. These antibiotics will have to be continued for a full course, which can take several weeks.
Depending on the amount of damage and irritation that the ferret's ear has experienced, it could take several weeks to fully heal and return to normal. The vet will usually provide owners with the drugs and antibiotics before sending them home to apply to the animal themselves. To make sure that the ferret makes a full recovery, they will typically want to schedule a quick follow up appointment in a couple of weeks' time. It is advisable for owners to restrict their ferret to the house for the duration of the healing process. This will both help them conserve their energy and prevent them from picking up any potentially harmful bacteria.
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I was wondering what I can do to help my ferret, Odin, he hasn't been wanting to play, just sleep. He hasn't eaten or drank much. But is having normal stools. I saw his ears and his right ear was filled with a really dark, almost black ear wax and now I'm scared.
July 31, 2020
Dr. Michele K. DVM
Thank you for your question. Ferrets can get ear mites and infections, and he should probably be seen by a veterinarian, as they can examine him, make sure that he is okay and see if anything else is going on that is causing him to not feel good, and get medications if needed. I hope that all goes well for Odin!
July 31, 2020
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