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Mites on dogs: Vet's guide to symptoms and treatment

scratching can be a symptom of mites on dogs
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Mites on dogs are one of many canine skin conditions that cause frustration for dogs and their owners. Mites can cause two separate skin diseases in dogs: demodicosis and scabies. 

Regardless of which species of mite is causing your dog’s skin problems, eliminating mites will require an accurate diagnosis and veterinarian-prescribed treatment. Don’t try to treat these mites at home; home remedies are not only ineffective, they can also harm your dog.  

Types of mites on dogs 

 There are two common mites that affect dogs: Demodex canis (often referred to as “demodex”) and Sarcoptes scabiei (often referred to as “sarcoptes”). Demodex mites cause a skin condition referred to as demodicosis or demodectic mange, while sarcoptes mites cause a condition known as scabies or sarcoptic mange. 

Demodex

Most young puppies are infected with a few demodex mites by their mother when they are very young. As a puppy grows and matures, their immune system keeps these mites in check and prevents an active, overwhelming infection. In some cases, however, the dog’s immune system fails to suppress the mites, allowing the mites to proliferate within the hair follicles and cause demodicosis. 

Demodicosis is most common in young puppies (whose immune systems are not fully developed) and in dogs that are immunosuppressed due stress, immunosuppressive drugs, or an underlying illness. Demodex is not a contagious skin condition; your dog cannot become infected with demodex mites through contact with an infected dog.

Scabies

In contrast to demodicosis, scabies is a contagious skin disease. This infection spreads from an infected dog to an uninfected dog. In rare cases, even cats can be infected with scabies. Scabies typically spreads when two animals are in direct contact with each other, but the mites can also survive on bedding and other surfaces for several days and be passed in that way.

scratching is a symptom of mites in dogs

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Can you see dog mites with the human eye? 

There are some animal mites that can be seen with the naked eye, such as Cheyletiellia, also known as “walking dandruff.” This mite is most common in cats and rabbits, but it can occasionally infect dogs. 

Demodex and sarcoptes, the two most common mites in dogs, are too small to see without the use of a microscope. If your dog has demodicosis or scabies, you will only see evidence of the damage caused by the mites; you cannot see the mites themselves.

Symptoms 

Demodicosis and scabies both affect the skin of infected dogs. Although their primary effects differ slightly, there can be significant overlap between these two conditions. Therefore, it’s important to work with a veterinarian to obtain an accurate diagnosis.

The most common sign of canine demodex is hair loss. Demodex mites live within the hair follicle, resulting in inflammation that causes the hair to fall out. This hair loss may affect a single part of the body (localized demodex) or may be widespread (generalized demodex). 

mites on dogs

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Some affected dogs also develop itching and redness of the skin. Itching and inflammation may indicate the presence of a secondary bacterial infection.

The most common sign of scabies is severe itching. The saliva and fecal matter of scabies mites trigger a severe itch response in most dogs; affected dogs may be so itchy that they seem unable to get comfortable. While scabies mites do not affect the hair follicles, affected dogs may scratch themselves so vigorously that they scratch their hair out. The skin is often red and inflamed, and dogs may be especially itchy around their ears.

Can I catch mites from my dog? 

The zoonotic (animal to human) transmission potential of mites depends on which mite your dog is infected with. 

Demodicosis is not contagious to humans. You can love all over your affected dog and you will not develop demodicosis. We humans have our own species of demodex mite, but we cannot become infected with canine demodex mites.

Scabies, in contrast, is a zoonotic parasite. This means that you can become infected with scabies through contact with an infected dog. Fortunately, the scabies mites that live on dogs do not survive on humans for very long. (We have our own human-specific scabies mite that causes human scabies infections.) Dog scabies can trigger intense itching in people, but this is often short-lived and will resolve within a number of days. Canine scabies does not typically cause long-lasting infections in humans like it does in dogs. 

When to see a vet 

If you suspect that your dog may have mites (or any other skin condition), it’s best to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Mites can be impossible to distinguish from other skin diseases without the help of a veterinarian. 

Your veterinarian will begin by asking you a number of questions, in order to gain an understanding of your dog’s history. Next, they will perform a thorough physical examination, including a detailed evaluation of your dog’s skin. Based on your dog’s history and clinical appearance, the veterinarian will recommend appropriate diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your dog’s skin issues. 

Demodicosis is usually easy to diagnose using a test called a skin scrape. In this test, your veterinarian obtains samples from the deep layers of the skin and examines them under the microscope. Seeing demodex mites on the skin scrape confirms a diagnosis of demodicosis.

A superficial (shallow) skin scrape may be beneficial in diagnosing scabies, but sarcoptes mites are not always easy to find. In some cases, repeated skin scrapes may fail to find mites in dogs infected with scabies. Therefore, scabies is often diagnosed based on clinical appearance and response to appropriate treatment. 

dog visiting vet

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to get rid of mites on dogs 

While you may hear about various home remedies for skin mites, you should avoid using any treatment without veterinary guidance. At their best, many home remedies are ineffective. At their worst, home remedies can make your dog’s skin condition far worse.

Your veterinarian will prescribe an appropriate treatment to rid your dog of skin mites. Treatment will depend on whether your dog is diagnosed with demodex or scabies, but may include oral medications, spot-on topical products, or medicated shampoos. If your dog has developed a secondary skin infection as a result of mites, your veterinarian may also prescribe an antibiotic to give with your dog’s skin mite treatment. 

How long does it take to get rid of mites on dogs? 

Eliminating skin mites can take time. If your dog is diagnosed with scabies, you can expect to see a response to treatment within a few weeks, and the mites will likely be cleared within six to eight weeks. Demodex often requires a more prolonged course of treatment. Dogs are typically rechecked once monthly during treatment (to assess response to therapy) and treatment may be continued for six months or more.  

Conclusion

Mites on dogs can easily be confused for a number of other skin conditions. If you suspect that your dog may have skin mites, have your dog evaluated by a veterinarian. The veterinarian can help determine which mites (if any) are affecting your dog and prescribe appropriate treatment.   

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at www.linkedin.com/in/catherinebarnette.