What are Ear Mites?
Ear mites are not as common an occurrence for horses as they are for dogs and cats, but they can be quite distressing when they do occur. Most of the mites that affect the ears of horses belong to the Psoroptes species, a species of mite that feeds on the surface of the skin. They can cause severe itching and can be quite contagious. Horses often spread mites to one another when they itch their ears and heads on fence posts and barn doors, transferring mites to communal areas.
Ear mites are a decidedly contagious infestation in horses that can cause severe itching and discomfort, but it is less common in horses than in dogs or cats.
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Symptoms of Ear Mites in Horses
Mites in a horse's ears are generally visible to the naked eye as groups of small white spots that are often moving either on the surface of the ear itself or on the ear wax. These mites generally cause a great deal of itching and discomfort, and you may see your horse shaking its head or rubbing its ears against objects like fence posts. In some cases, ulceration and scratches can occur on the inner or outer ear.
- Visible white spots on the ear
- Shaking of the head
- Rubbing of the head
Several mites can cause an infestation in the ears of a horse, however, the most common culprits that affect horses and other livestock are in the Psoroptes species. Different categories of mites attack different areas with differing methods:
- Demodectic mites feed in between the hair shaft and the epidermis within the hair follicles
- Dermanyssid and trombiculid mites pierce the skin with feeding tubes to feed
- Psoroptic mites feed superficially on the surface of the skin; the most common psoroptic mites to affect horses and livestock include psoroptes cuniculi, psoroptes equi, and psoroptes ovis
- Sarcoptic mites feed by burrowing into the layers of the epidermis
Causes of Ear Mites in Horses
Psoroptes equi and psoroptes ovis are mites that can affect horses, but Psoroptes equi is rarely found outside of England and psoroptes ovis tends to infest the legs, feet, and base of the tail more than the ears. The most common mites to infest the ears of horses are generally psoroptes cuniculi and are more common in rabbits than in horses.
Diagnosis of Ear Mites in Horses
Mites are not the only type of parasite that can affect a horse's ear and are sometimes hidden deep within the ear canal. In some cases, an otoscope may be required to get an accurate view inside the ear. If your veterinarian does not see the mites right away, earwax and skin samples will be taken to examine microscopically. Some horses require sedation to obtain the samples. Other parasites with similar symptoms include:
Culicoides - These are a type of small, aggressive gnat that attacks horses at the ears, belly, and the bases of the mane and tail. The bites of these gnats, known as buffalo gnats or humpies, are known to be highly allergenic for equines and can cause severe itching that can lead to dangerous infections if left untreated.
Otobius megnini - Also known as the spinose ear tick, this soft-bodied tick can be found in the ears of horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and dogs. They usually infest the ear in large groups and can cause ulceration of the inner ear, blood loss, and even deafness.
Treatment of Ear Mites in Horses
Treatment of psoroptes is usually in a topical solution that is applied directly to the ear. There are several options that you and your veterinarian may choose to utilize in this situation. Some of the flea and tick remedies such as that are available for cats and dogs will also work on ear mites in the horse when mixed with mineral oil, although some animals are so resistant to having their ears handled that sedation may be required to complete the procedure. Pyrethrin and similar insecticides are another to treat this type of infestation. These insecticides are an organic compound derived from plants in the Chrysanthemum family and attack the nervous system of the insect.
The most common prescription medication against parasites that affect equines, such as tapeworms, pinworms, and psoroptes, is ivermectin. A broad spectrum antiparasitic a version of ivermectin is formulated specifically for livestock and comes in several delivery forms including pour-on products, injectables, oral liquids, or additives to food. Putting the wrong fluid in your horse's ears can be more detrimental than helpful, so conferring with your veterinarian before starting treatment is essential to your horse’s well-being.
Recovery of Ear Mites in Horses
In many cases, a liquid solution of some sort will need to be put in your horse's ears, and some horses can be very resistant to having their ears interfered with. When administering a liquid remedy to the ears, hold the base of the ear firmly but gently as this will help to control the horse’s head during treatment. Begin at the tip of the ear and cover the entire ear when dispensing the medication for more effective management of the mites.
Releasing some of the pressure on the bottom of the ear will allow the solution to penetrate more deeply, although it is important not to release the ear completely at this time, so the horse does not shake the medication out too early. Once the liquid has had a chance to penetrate the ear, you will want to be careful when releasing the horse’s ear. Most horses will shake their heads forcefully at this time to eject the liquid from their ears, and you will want to move well back to avoid being splashed by the medication or struck by the horse’s head.