Rabbit ear mites are a common parasitic problem responsible for the condition known as ear canker. Considered one of the most common mites of rabbits, it also causes infection in cavies, horses, goats, sheep, and cattle. Left untreated, canker can lead to secondary bacterial infections of the skin or invade the middle and inner ear leading to neurological disorders and fatal meningitis.
Rabbit ear canker is extremely contagious and generally spread by direct contact from an infected to non-infected animal. Mites simply crawl from one to another. The mites can also be transmitted through contact with the environment when an animal scratches or shakes, causing flakes of the mite-infested canker containing live mites and eggs to fall.
An initial infestation may be overlooked if it begins deeper in the ear canal. Owners may notice ear scratching and head shaking at this early stage. Other signs include redness, heat, and swelling of the ear canal. As the mites multiply, the infestation expands to the outer ear flap and, at this point, is clearly visible.
It is important to treat the infected animal and the environment at the same time to prevent re-contamination. While treating the animal, it is recommended to also remove the infected animal from its living environment to give the mites and eggs a chance to die off.
Because rabbit ear mites can live for up to three weeks off a host animal, it is important to decontaminate hutches, cages, burrows, feeding sources, and other items in the infested animal’s environment.
The Rutgers Cooperative Extension fact sheet “Common Mites of Your Rabbit and Small Animals Part III – Ear Mites and Canker” provides a detailed overview of ear mites, their life cycle, how they are transmitted, signs and symptoms, and treatment.
By Jeannette Rea Keywood, State 4-H Agent, Department of 4-H Youth Development, Rutgers Cooperative Extension