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Pet Care at Home: Ear Cleaning

Alex loves animals and is an experienced licensed veterinary technician with a BS in Biology and an AS in Veterinary Technology.

Time to clean those ears!

Time to clean those ears!

The Basics

I love cleaning ears. In fact it is one of my favorite services, especially when the ear has a lot going on. If you've ever had a dog with a really bad ear infection, you know what I mean by that. I got in to this industry to help pets in need. Cleaning ears allows me to visibly see the progress I make and I find it very rewarding. Some techs really like trimming long nails, not me I'd much rather clean some dirty ears.

I've found in clinical practice that a lot of pet owners either were intimated by cleaning their dog's ears at home or they were just doing it wrong. I've mentioned it before but it is always worth stating again. Client education is something I strongly advocate.

With a little understanding of basic anatomy, the proper equipment, and some technical skills you can clean your dogs ears at home. In fact cleaning your dogs ears yourself will allow you to become familiar with that is normal for your dog. This can be useful in finding abnormalities, like ear infections or masses, faster.

If that isn't enough if a motivator if you have a dog that needs frequent ear cleanings you can save money by doing them at home verses taking them to the groomer or the vet office.

What Will You Need?

Believe it or not, not all ear cleaners are created equal. Honestly, there are some that do not do anything, and some that can cause damage to the sensitive tissues in the ear when used incorrectly.

Also, the individual needs of the pet will drastically change the kind of ear cleaner you'll need. An English Bulldog will likely need to use a medicated ear cleaner for a maintenance cleaner at home while a German Shepard can likely use an over the counter ear cleaner.

Don't understand why? English Bulldogs are known for skin problems, and skin extends to the ears. To be honest English Bulldogs have a lot of maintenance in general.

No matter what ear cleaner you go with make sure it has a drying agent, you do not want the ear canal to be sitting with stagnant cleaner in it. That is just asking for an infection to grow. Not to mention it is most likely uncomfortable for the pet. I know I hate it when I get water in my ears when I swim.

Once you have your cleaner you are going to need a few supplies. I like cotton balls, they're squishy, hold a lot of liquid, and most people have them at home. Some of my coworkers preferred gauze squares, personally I only use them if I have a lot of discharge to get off the pinna. That's it. That's all you should be putting in your dog's ears.

As tempting as it may be to use q-tips do not. I've seen dogs come in for needing to have q-tips that broke off in their ear removed. If you want to use them to clean the nooks and crannies of the pinna that's one thing, but do not put them down the ear canal.

And please, do not pour apple cider vinegar in your dog's ears. A few years ago apple cider vinegar was all the rage and it was circulating online that apple cider vinegar would cure canine ear infections. I've seen far too many pups come in with ears worse then before their owner's had tried to help them. Through no fault of their own of course, they thought they were helping their pet.

The Technique

Nearly every bottle of ear cleaner is going to tell you these instructions: pour cleaner directly into the ear canal, massage the base of the ear and allow the dog to shake its head. Yeah, maybe in a perfect world. I've only met a handful of dogs that would sit still and let me just pour cleaner in their ears. And I can honestly tell you if I was a dog I doubt I'd sit still for it either.

Thankfully, there is a better way. Take two cotton balls, depending on the size of your dog's ear you may need to rip them in half. Saturate the two cotton balls with ear cleaner. Take one of the saturated cotton balls and place it in the ear canal. Don't shove it it, don't push it deep, just gently place it in the opening.

Push the pinna down so it covers the ear canal and massage the base of the ear. Dogs and cats have an L shaped ear canal. What you are doing when you massage the base of the ear is squeezing all the ear cleaner from the cotton ball and allowing it to travel down the ear canal.

Next is the fun part. Let the pinna back up, remove the cotton ball, if you use a twisting motion you can remove more debris, and allow the dog to shake its head. Head shaking is a natural reaction to something in their ear. This action will bring up debris from lower in the ear canal.

You can then use a dried cotton ball, or more if the ear is particularly gross, to remove any remaining debris in the upper part of the canal.

That's it. That's how you clean dog and cat ears. Full disclosure, most cats will hate this procedure very much. It is also not often needed to clean cat ears regularly, so unless your veterinarian directs you to, I would not clean cat ears for fun.

My Recommendation For Ear Cleaner


I always recommend to my clients to clean the ears in a bathroom, the bathtub is a great place, or outside. When the dogs shake their head a lot of debris can go flying. It's always amusing in the hospital when a chuck of ear wax goes flying and gets stuck on a wall. I don't think it will be as amusing if you are needing to clean yeasty ear wax off your couch.

If you look in your dog's ear canal and it does not look normal schedule an appointment with your vet. Increased debris could be a sign of an infection and cleaner alone may not be strong enough to cure it. All kinds of masses can grow in and around the ear, some are only of cosmetic concern and some are more worrisome. Always see your vet if you notice a new growth.

Strong odors from the ear means there is an active infection and you should schedule an appointment with your vet. If you need to clean the ears to give your dog some relief, remember ear infections are painful, it is ok.

Just try not to clean them within a day or so of the appointment so the vet is able to get a good look at the infection, and the samples collected will acutely show what's growing in the ears. This will allow the vet to select a medication that will kill that kind of bacteria or yeast.

Don't make it a negative experience. Just like with nail trims many dogs are afraid of having their ears touched. If you offer treats, speaking in a low soothing voice, and act calmly the process will be smoother for everyone.

Ask your veterinarian how often you should clean your dogs ears. I clean my girl's ears once monthly and after each trip to the beach. Some dogs may need ear cleaning more frequently than that. However, you do not want to dry out and stress the sensitive tissues in the ear.

Do not let the ear cleaner run into the eyes. One some dogs this can be very difficult, I'm looking at you small smushed face dogs. If it gets in the ear it can irritate the eye and can even lead to conjunctivitis.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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