All About Mites on Dogs

Let’s look at what mites on dogs look like and how to get rid of them.

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Mites come in all shapes and sizes and all are capable of causing difficulties for your dog, but practically speaking there are three types of mites that are by far the most common. Two are the skin mites Sarcoptesand Demodex and the third is the ear mite Otodectes.

What do dog mites look like?

An infection of Sarcoptes mites is responsible for what’s known as sarcoptic mange. Of the three types of mite infections, this is the most difficult to definitively diagnose, despite the dramatic symptoms. What do Sarcoptes mites look like on a dog? Dogs with sarcoptic mange are typically extremely itchy and exhibit scaly skin and severe hair loss.

Like Sarcoptes, Demodex mites cause scaly skin and hair loss on a dog and is also quite itchy, although usually less itchy than Sarcoptes.

Ear mites, Otodectes, reside almost exclusively in the dog’s ear canal. They cause itchiness in the dog’s ear and a foul odor.

How is a mite infection diagnosed?

Even when a dog is severely infected with Sarcoptes, veterinarians may perform multiple skin scrapes – using a blade to scrape a sample of skin to examine under a microscope for the presence of mites – without ever getting a positive result. This is because sarcoptic mites tend to burrow deeply into the skin.

A simple test veterinarians often utilize (and that you can try at home) is to vigorously rub the flap of your dog’s ear. If he reacts by enthusiastically scratching with his hind leg – a behavior known as the pinnal-pedal reflex – it’s almost certainly an infection with Sarcoptes.

Sarcoptes is very contagious to both dogs and other mammals. These mites may even bite you. The good news is they won’t set up residence on your body, they’ll just visit for a quick bite to eat.

The second type of skin mite you’ll see on a dog, Demodex, is relatively easy to diagnose with a skin scrape and is not contagious. Demodectic mange (the term for hair loss and irritated skin caused by an infection with Demodex) is most common in dogs under the age of two.

Many people are horrified to learn that while Demodex is not contagious, they may already have the mites living on their pets’ or their own skin! The immune systems of most dogs (and humans) prevent mite populations from ballooning to the point that they cause unwelcome symptoms. This is why the mite is most commonly found on dogs who are chronically unwell or on young dogs with underdeveloped immune systems.

Ear mites, Otodectes, can cause extreme itchiness, but in this case, the itch is in the dog’s ear. The most common signs are persistent head shaking and ear scratching. Most dogs also develop a foul odor in the ear. Like Sarcoptes, ear mites are very contagious and all pets in the household should be treated.

How to get rid of mites on dogs

It is easy to find home remedies for dog mites online; most commonly cited remedies involve apple cider vinegar, olive oil, and aloe vera. I understand the desire to keep treatments natural, but feel I would be doing a disservice to recommend any of them. I have never seen a dog successfully treated for mites with a home remedy and I have treated a plethora of home remedy failures. It’s also important to note that the signs of mites are similar to other skin diseases such as bacterial infections, so it would be wise to schedule a visit to your veterinarian, so she can diagnose and appropriately treat your dog’s itchy, irritated skin.

The easiest and least costly treatment to eliminate mites from your dog’s skin or ears would be a therapeutic trial using a flea and tick preventative that is also effective against all three forms of mange. These products require a veterinary prescription, but most veterinarians will okay a request for a standard anti-parasitic treatment if your dog has an ongoing relationship with their clinic. As a bonus, these products will work well for the less-common mites as well. Effectiveness against mange is not on the label, but these products are routinely used by veterinarians for that purpose. This is very good news, since before the advent of these monthly treatments, dogs with skin mange were often subjected to repeated toxic and foul-smelling dips.

You may want to try to save some money and ask your veterinarian for the mite treatment without an appointment; this path will successfully treat a mite infestation in your dog, but if your home diagnosis is incorrect, you’re still going to have an itchy dog on your hands. The second option is to go straight to your veterinarian and get a definitive diagnosis. A key factor in deciding which path to take is your dog’s level of discomfort. If he’s relatively comfortable, there’s really no reason not to try a monthly parasite preventative first (i.e., Bravecto or NexGard) as they are safe and have the added benefit of protecting your dog against fleas and ticks.

If you do decide to try a monthly preventative, consider treating all the dogs in your home since without a definitive diagnosis, you won’t know whether or not you’re dealing with a contagious infestation.

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