How to clean your dog’s ears

If your dog is shaking his head, or has red, painful ears that smell or even have a visible discharge, there’s a good chance he has an ear infection. It’s important to have him seen by a veterinarian to get the type of infection diagnosed, and to get an appropriate ear cleaner. There’s a common misconception that all itchy ears are caused by ear mites, which actually are the minority of infections. So please, if your dog’s ears are itchy, get them checked out by a vet, and do NOT buy ear mite treatments at the local pet store- all that does is make it worse. That crap must burn, because the dogs I see that have been treated with over-the-counter ear mite treatments are miserable!

Here’s my article on how we diagnose ear infection using the lovely discharge that comes out.

And while we’re at it, here’s 3 things you might be tempted to put into your dogs ear, but should not! (Spoiler alert – no water, alcohol, or peroxide!)

So, you’ve been a model pet owner, gone to your vet, and have an ear cleaner that your vet prescribed. Or maybe you bought an ear cleaner and want to use it for maintenance (check with your vet if it’s OK for your pet first. Some OTC ear cleaners are great, some can do damage). How do you use it? I see so many people mess this up – seems there’s a lot of mis-information out there! Wetting a cotton ball and wiping is just not going to cut it. Cleaning the skin on the flap of the ear is nice, but not doing anything to combat the infection. That crap is way down deep.

One disclaimer – if the ear is too painful to touch, do not attempt to clean it. Your dog will never want you to touch his ears again. Many veterinarians will prescribe oral prednisone for a few days to calm down the inflammation and make it humane to handle the ear. And your dog will like you to clean dogs ears

Six steps to successful ear cleaning:

1 – Fold back the ear (if it’s floppy). Don’t pull it back over the dog’s head – that can actually cause the canal to close. Flap it back casually, and hold out the base of the ear like a cup. If they are ears that stand up, just hold the bottom, where the ear attaches to the head, out a tiny bit. It should not hurt.


2 – Fill it liberally. Why? The ear canal is shaped like an “L”. If you only put a little cleaner in, it won’t be enough to go down and turn the corner. It’s the bottom part of the “L” where all the bad guys hang out. Fill the ear with solution until it’s running down the side of the dog’s head. The number one thing to remember about ear cleaning is you can never use too much cleaner!

3 – Massage the base of the ear. You might get a sloshing noise. Your dog might groan and lean his head into it, because that itch is finally being scratched! When they get the back foot involved, you know it’s good! What you’re doing is loosening up all the junk that’s deep in the ear. That stuff in the bottom part of the “L” that thought no one could touch it is getting a rude awakening.

4 – Let your dog shake his head. Shake it good! Some are very enthusiastic shakers, and debris is flying everywhere. Others give a half-hearted flop, and that’s all we get. If the ears have a LOT of debris, consider doing the cleaning outside, or in an area without light colored furniture. I’ve had ear gunk splatter on the wall!

5 – Wipe out the debris. The fluid loosened it, and the head shake brought it to the surface. Now you get to remove it! I like gauze squares, but paper towels or cotton balls work too – personal preference. The most important part of this step? Go boldly! Your finger is not tiny enough to hurt anything. Get your pinky in there and scoop out the crud. Put your finger in as deep as it will go- you cannot get ear drum, I promise! Notice I did not say to use Q-tips! Those you can actually go too deep, so fingers in gauze, or paper towels only. If the ear is infected and it’s early in treatment, you might get a lot of of junk and have to do several passes. It’s SO rewarding to see all the brown junk you’re scooping out! Later a swipe or two might be all you need. Warning – if you are wiping out the ears and notice a little blood on your gauze square, you are not a horrible person! In some of these really infected ears, the canal is that raw, and we might get a little blood early in treatment just from wiping it gently. This doesn’t mean you should never clean again. . Your dog isn’t mad at you, I promise!

6 – Give a super delicious treat to make the ear cleaning fun!

Tips for success:

I completely understand that your may act like a cooperative patient at the vet clinic, and at home ear cleaning can feel like a rodeo. Couple things I have learned over the years that might help.

  • If your large dog runs away, put a leash on first. If leash means walk, clean the ears, then make the walk a reward!
  • If your small dog is wiggly, this may be a two person job. If one person is holding and the other cleaning, you will have to set her down so she can get the all-important head shake, then pick her back up.
  • Putting a small dog on a table can put send the signal “we mean business.” A surface like a washer or drier is a little slick, and some dogs won’t move much. If the dog is panicked by the slick surface, a rubber-backed bath mat can be an easy fix.
  • Once you get better at it, you’ll be able to move with your dog if needed. Dumping the cleaner in, rubbing, letting him shake, and wiping can occur with him moving his head around to an extent.

What about cats?

Yes, we can use the same ear cleaners in cats that we use in dogs! When I first graduated, I had a couple cats I saw with ear infections that I prescribed ear cleaner for. I learned that after the owner cleaned the ears once, no more would happen! Every time they would touch the bottle of cleaner, the cat would disappear. There are some cats who just seem to produce a lot of wax, and those can benefit from somewhat regular cleaning. And some cats have the personality for it! You’d clean the ears the exact same way you would a dog, treats and all.

Posted in General health.

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