Of Mites and Men
You know ear mites? Those pesky critters that infest your dog or cat’s ears causing them to scratch all night long? Well, if you have the stomach for it, check out this video of mites living in a man’s ear:
Now those are not the kind of mites that infect cats and dogs. That would be Otodectes cynotis. These were house-dust mites, Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus. Why or how dust mites decided to move into the man’s ear is a bit of a mystery, and the write up provides few clues. However, it’s probably safe to assume that the man didn’t put them there on purpose.
Which brings me to a story I heard in the mid-90’s from a veterinarian in New York while he was treating my cat for ear mites. He said there was another vet (he didn’t name him) in a nearby town who had infected himself with Otodectes cynotis intentionally.
The man apparently wanted to find out if cat ear mites could live in a human ear and he wanted to experience first-hand what such an infection felt like. According to the vet who told me the story, the mites damn nearly drove the guy mad. They itched and kept him up at night with their incessant crawling and scratching as they set up housekeeping inside his ear canal.
I had no way to confirm that story at the time but my urban legend alarm went off. I mean really, who would do this? So I put it aside and didn’t think of it much again until a few weeks ago when I was working on a related story. Now, with the internet at my fingertips, I looked it up.
Sure enough, it happened. Dr. Robert Lopez of Westport, NY infected himself with ear mites, not once, not twice, but three times, all in the interest of science. In 1993 he wrote up the results for the Journal of the American Veterinary Association.
Unfortunately, I can’t get my hands on that paper. The AVMA has not returned my emails or responded to my Twitter pleas, so what I know is based on what other people have written about it. [** See Update below]
According to Francesca Gould in her book, Why Fish Fart and Other Useless Or Gross Information About the World, Lopez was inspired to become his own guinea pig after treating a cat for ear mites and learning that as the cat recovered, the owner’s 3-year old daughter also recovered from an itchy skin condition. He searched the literature but, at that time (1968) found no reports of humans being infected with Otodectes cynotis. So he took the natural next step and gave himself ear mites.
The source of his infection was a cat. He took a sterile swab and scooped about a gram of ear mites from the cat’s ear and put it into his own. He didn’t have to wait long for results:
“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 and 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 pruritus was increasing. The sounds in my ear (fortunately, I had chosen only one ear) were becoming louder as the mites travelled deeper toward my eardrum.” (The Guardian, Oct 2, 2007)
Interestingly, the infection resolved by itself within a month. That, according to Dr. Scott Weese, at the University of Guelph Worms & Germs Blog , who did a great write up on the story a couple years ago. He provides more details:
Dr. Lopez wanted to confirm his findings so, a few weeks later, he infected himself again with mites from another cat. The same type of disease developed, although it was less severe and only lasted two weeks. Guess what he did next – he tried again, wanting to see if the reduction in severity might indicate development of immunity. So, he infected himself a third time, with the outcome being milder disease. This suggested to him (logically so) that immunity to the mites might develop, something that fits with the fact that ear mite infestations are more common in young animals.
Happily, Dr. Lopez’s work didn’t go unnoticed. He was awarded an igNobel Prize in 1994 for his efforts (and itching).
ENTOMOLOGY: Robert A. Lopez of Westport, NY, valiant veterinarian and friend of all creatures great and small, for his series of experiments in obtaining ear mites from cats, inserting them into his own ear, and carefully observing and analyzing the results. [Published as "Of Mites and Man," The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, vol. 203, no. 5, Sept. 1, 1993, pp. 606-7.]
At the IgNobel ceremony, he recited a poem he had written about ear mites and then handed out a selection of dead insects to the audience. About his ear mite project, he later told a group at the post-Ig gathering, “Somebody’s got to be crazy enough to do it.”
The following year Lopez was keynote speaker at the igNobel awards. In his speech, entitled, “Dare to be Bold” he encouraged his audience:
”Don’t worry about germs and bugs..If your time ain’t come, not even a doctor can kill you.”
Lopez’s time came on March 12, 2007, at age 85. His lifetime of accomplishments were recounted in his obituary. They included his lengthy veterinary career, his 14 children, his military service, and the 65+ marathons he ran. There was no mention of his igNobel Prize.
*** UPDATE ***
Several helpful people from AVMA jumped in (Thank you Julie and Diane!) and found me a reprint of Lopez’s original piece. It was actually a “non-refereed letter to the editor.” The letter contains even more creepiness than the excerpts I found online.
First, one correction: He did not scoop a gram of ear mites. He scooped a gram of “ear mite exudate.” (either way ewww) In the second test he used a “1-to-2 g sample” from a different cat.
Now for some tasty quotes:
Immediately [upon inserting the mites] 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 an pain that intensified from that moment, 4pm, on and on..”
“By the fourth week, mite activity was 70% reduced and I could feel mites crawling across my face at night.”
This definite reduction in symptoms left many questions. Was there immunity? Were human ears refractory to Otodectes? A third and final trial had to be done.
Lopez did learn one thing that maybe only first-hand experience would reveal. That was that the mites had a regular feeding and activity schedule. He found they had two main feeding periods, one in the early evening between 6 and 9pm and a long one in the middle of the night, between midnight and 3am. Daytime activity was brief and infrequent. Based on this finding, he began advising pet owners to administer ear medication for mites late in the evening.
He closes by saying that he did find, in the literature, one other case of a human being infected by ear mites. “I wonder”, he ponders in closing, “whether the person involved enjoyed her experience as much as I did.”
 Suetake, M., Yuasa, R., Saijo, S. Canine ear mites Otodectes
cynotis found on both tympanic membranes of an
adult woman causing tinnitus. Tohoku Rosat Hospital;
Practicing Otology of Kyoto 1991; 84: 38–42.
Liao, E., & Chang, K. (2012). Mites in the External Auditory Canal New England Journal of Medicine, 367 (14) DOI: 10.1056/NEJMicm1010983
Lopez, R. A. (1993) Of Mites and Man. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 203 (5), pp. 606–607.