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How to Clean Your Dog's Ears

Basic Dog Grooming: Ears

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dog ear Photo © Sharon Montrose/Getty Images

Ear cleaning is an essential part of your dog's basic grooming routine. All dogs should have their ears cleaned from time to time, but some dogs need more frequent and thorough cleaning than others. Here's what you need to know about cleaning your dog's ears.

Anatomy of a Dog's Ear

A dog's ear is a fairly complex structure. The outside flap of the ear (called the pinna) will flop in some dogs, while in others it stands up straight. Just inside the ear is the external canal, which travels down the side of the head (vertical canal), then takes a turn inward (horizontal canal). The canal is skin-covered and contains cartilage that creates ridges and creases on the surface. The external canal also contains glands that secrete wax and other substances into the ear. The eardrum, or tympanic membrane, is at the end of the external canal. Beyond the eardrum is the middle ear followed by the inner ear. These areas contain the structures associated with hearing and balance.

Why Clean a Dog's Ears?

When it comes to ear cleaning, we are focused upon the external ear canal. Ear wax and debris can easily build up in the ridges of the external canal. If irritation (otitis) takes place (either from buildup or from allergies), the canal can become infected. Lack of adequate air flow to the canal can expedite an ear infection. This is part of the reason dogs with long, floppy ears are prone to ear infections. However, some dogs also have an excessive amount of glands in their ear canals and produce too many secretions. A couple of common dog breeds with genetic predispositions to ear infections include Cocker Spaniels and Basset Hounds. Typically, dogs with ear infections will have an excessive amount of bacteria or yeast in the ears. External ear infections cause itching and pain. They can also lead to middle/inner ear infections that affect hearing and balance. In addition, because dogs with itchy or sore ears tend to shake their heads violently, they can rupture blood vessels in the ear flap and end up with a pocket of blood in the flap called a hematoma. Signs of an ear infection include odor from the ears, frequent shaking of the head, redness of skin inside ears, excessive scratching at ears, and excessive ear discharge/debris.

Regular cleaning can help prevent infections. Using an appropriate ear cleaner, you can release wax and debris from the canal and help dry the ear. Dogs can build up wax and debris at a faster rate than people. Some dogs have very little ear buildup and simply need their ears wiped out occasionally. Other dogs need thorough ear cleanings every week or two. Inspect your dog's ears regularly and talk to your vet about your dog's needs. Over-cleaning can cause irritation, but under-cleaning can make way for excessive buildup.

Dog Ear Cleaning Supplies

Before you begin to clean your dog's ears, you will need a few supplies:

  • Ear cleansing solution: Look for a quality ear cleaner recommended by veterinarians. A top choice of professionals is "Epi-Otic" by Virbac (compare prices). You can also make a homemade ear cleanser (for dogs without major ear issues) by mixing one part table vinegar to two parts water. Avoid ear cleansers that contain alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, as these can cause irritation.
  • Cotton balls, cotton pads or gauze squares
  • Cotton-tipped applicators
  • Tweezers or hemostats (for dogs with too much hair in the ear canals)
  • A towel or two

Getting Started With Ear Cleaning

The best place to clean your dog's ears is in the tub or outside. This is a great thing to do just before a bath. Remember: when he shakes his head, that ear debris and cleaner has to go somewhere, and that includes your walls and you (so beware). You way wish to wrap a towel around him or place one under him to keep him clean and dry. You may also want a towel to keep you dry!

Before cleaning the ears, inspect them. You can get an idea of how dirty they are and you can check for excess hair. If your dog has a lot of hair coming from the ear canal, that hair may need to be plucked. You can do this with your fingers, tweezers, or hemostats. A special ear powder made for dogs may be helpful in gripping the hair. Talk to your groomer or vet's office about this process.

How to Clean Your Dog's Ears

Begin by holding the ear flap up and squirting a few drops of cleanser on the inside of the flap near the ear opening. If using homemade solution, get a squeeze bottle or bulb syringe with a tip that is about an inch long (a bit longer is okay for a large dog). Next, gently place the tip of the bottle into the ear and give a gentle squeeze. Do not use an excessive amount of pressure when squeezing the cleanser into the ear.

Before he can shake his head, begin massaging the base of your dog's ear (this is the bottom part near the jaw where cartilage can be felt). You should be able to hear a "smacking sound." By massaging, you are helping the cleanser to fill the ridges in the canal and loosen ear debris. After massaging for a few seconds (more for very dirty ears), you can let go and allow your dog to shake. You might want to turn away or hold up a towel for this part.

Once your dog has a good shake, use the cotton or gauze and your finger to wipe out the ear canal. You can put your finger in the ear canal as far as it will go without forcing it. You may wish to use cotton-tipped applicators to clean stubborn debris out of the ridges. IMPORTANT: never put the cotton-tipped applicators into the ear any further than you can see! Damage to the eardrum can occur.

If the ear still seems dirty, you may repeat the process. Then, move on to the other ear. Finish by wiping away any visible debris and drying your dog's head off. Then, reward him with a treat!

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