How Curiosity (Almost) Killed The Cat Doctor

From a letter to the editor by Dr. Robert A. Lopez, in the September 1, 1993, issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. In the letter, Lopez, a veterinarian in Westport, New York, described the results of a number of experiments he had conducted to determine whether Otodectes cynotis, an ear mite usually found in cats and dogs, could also infest human beings.

After a search of the literature did not reveal any report of Otodectes cynotis infestation in human beings, I decided to become a human guinea pig. I obtained ear mites from a cat and confirmed by microscopic examination that they were Otodectes cynotis. Then I moistened a sterile cotton-tipped swab with warm tap water and transferred approximately one gram of ear mites from the cat’s ear to my left ear. Immediately, I heard scratching sounds, then moving sounds, as the mites began to explore my ear canal. Itching sensations then started, and all three sensations merged into a weird cacophony of sound and pain that intensified from that moment on. At first, I thought this wouldn’t and couldn’t last very long. However, as the day and evening wore on, I began to worry. The itching, or pruritus, was increasing. The sounds in my ear were becoming louder as the mites traveled toward my eardrum. I felt helpless. Is this the way a mite-infested animal feels?

For the next five hours, the mites were very active, and then their activity leveled off. There was still something definitely crawling about deep in my left ear, but the discomfort was bearable.

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When I went to bed at about 11:00 P.M., the mite activity increased incrementally so that by midnight the mites were very busy, biting, scratching, and moving about. By 1:00 A.M., the sounds were loud. An hour later, the pruritus was very intense. After two hours, the highest level of itching and scratching was attained. Sleep was impossible. Then, suddenly, the mites seemed to lessen their feeding activities, and I could sleep. Mite activity resumed at 7:00 A.M., with light noises and slight pruritus. This pattern was repeated: light mite activity during the day, with a slight increase from approximately 6:00 to 9:00 P.M., and then heavy mite activity from midnight to 3:00 A.M. This pattern of nighttime feeding made sleep, no matter how urgent, completely out of the question.

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By the second week, the intensity of the mite activity began to lessen. By the third week, the ear canal was filling up with debris, and I couldn’t hear out of my left ear. By the fourth week, mite activity was reduced by 75 percent, and I could feel mites crawling across my face at night. They never tried to enter my right ear, nor did they bite or cause itching anywhere else on my body. At the end of one month, I could no longer feel or hear any mite activity. However, my ear was completely filled with debris. For the first time, I cleansed my ear with swabs and warm-water flushings. Within one week, my left ear was clear of debris. By the sixth week, hearing was normal.

By the eighth week, I decided to try again, to see whether the first experiment had been flawed or misleading. Accordingly, I obtained ear mites from another cat. I transferred a sample to my left ear, as I had done before. Once again, my ear began to react to the mite invasion. Loud scratching noises, pruritus, and pain all began within a few seconds. The same pattern evolved, with an early evening feeding pattern and a heavy late-night eating session. The first week was again filled with intense pruritus. By day fourteen, mite activity had ceased. The left ear was filled with much less debris, and my hearing was only slightly impaired. Warm-water irrigations cleared up the infestation in seventy-two hours.

This definite reduction in symptoms left me with many questions. Had I somehow built up an immunity? Were human ears resistant to Otodectes? I realized that a third and final trial had to be done.

At week eleven, I repeated the experiment as before, using my left ear. Again, the intensity was much less severe. Very little debris accumulated, and hearing was only partially affected. By the end of day eight or nine, the mites had ceased biting, although I felt some walking across my face during the night. Once again, nothing but warm water was used to rinse the left ear. It healed again quickly, except for occasional slight bouts with pruritus.


As a result of my experiment, I now advise clients that the best time to use ear medications for mites is late in the evenings, when feeding activity is most intense.

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