4 Tips from the Experts for Cleaning a Dog’s Ears

Floppy, folded, upright, hooded, and more. There are many different kinds of dogs in the world, and many different kinds of dog ears. Caroline Wolff, a Certified Veterinary Technician (CVT) at Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care, has seen – and treated – most of them during her 30 years of practice.

While the anatomy of the ear is typically the same in all dogs, cleaning a dog’s ears can vary depending on the ear’s shape and position.

Upright or pointed ears – such as those on a German Shepherd – are exposed to more air, compared to dogs who have an abundance of hair and ears that are folded over. Good air flow is a critical component of healthy ears.

Some dogs also have a great deal of hair inside their ear canals.

“Some people say that’s a good thing,” Wolff says. “That [folded ears can] help to keep irritants out. But if foreign material is somehow introduced to the ear, it can be harbored there, which can ultimately make matters it worse.”

Many groomers pluck ears, she says – particularly on furrier dogs with floppier ears – to allow for better air circulation. Routine cleanings are also paramount to ensure your dog’s ear health. Wolff recommends pet owners speak to their family veterinarians at their next appointment for guidance.

“Ask them to show you the best way to clean your dog’s ears, and what cleaner they recommend,” she says.

When cleaning a dog’s ears at home, consider these four pointers.

1. Clean Thoroughly Using Cotton Balls (NOT Swabs)

Using a Q-tip to clean a dog’s ears is not advisable, Wolff says. Opt for a cotton ball, instead.

Wolff suggests the following steps for a safe, efficient cleaning:

  1. Use a cotton ball (Large cotton balls work better for bigger breeds.)
  2. Moisten the cotton ball with a veterinarian-approved cleanser.
  3. With the cotton ball wrapped around a finger, scoop into the ear and out again.

Many people also ask how far is too far when cleaning a dog’s ear. Fortunately, dogs have a bit more wiggle room where this is concerned than their owners do.

“The anatomy of a dog’s ear is shaped like an L,” Wolff explains. “For us, if we were to stick a Q-tip straight into our ears, we’d hit the ear drum. But there’s a right angle in a dog’s ear canal, so for you to hit the ear drum, you would really have to be digging in there pretty far.”

There are tons of nooks and crannies in a dog’s ears, so be sure to clean all surfaces, including the inner flap where buildup can reside.

In the event of an infection, you may need to pour solution into your dog’s ears. In that case, Wolff usually advises pet owners to:

  1. Have your dog lie on its side if possible.
  2. Pour solution into ear – or place a moistened cotton ball in the dog’s ear canal.
  3. Flip the ear flap, and gently massage the ear to allow the liquid to dissipate and soften any lingering debris.
  4. When the dog shakes his head, that debris typically rises to the surface, where it can easily be wiped clear.
  5. Have a towel handy. When your dog shakes his head, fluid may fly.

2. Clean as Often as Needed 

Regarding the frequency of cleanings, Wolff once again suggests seeking guidance from the family veterinarian.

Each animal is different, she explains. A number of factors contribute to the need for cleanings, including ear shape, how many hours the dog spends outdoors, and more.

Wolff, for example, owns a Lab/Shepherd mix named Yoda, whose upright ears are not subject to many issues. She cleans his ears at bath time, which can be as often as every month during the summer, or every 3-4 months in cooler seasons.

Owners of dogs who spend a great deal of time outside should be aware, dogs have four paws, and they are all on the ground continuously. “When they’re outside, their nails get full of dirt. If they have an itch, that dirty paw is going into the ear, and they’re depositing dirt in there. Something could start that way. Unless you’re really good and wipe off their feet every time they come inside, they could be prone to ear infections.”

Certain dog breeds are also prone to allergies, which can precipitate ear infections.

The trick is cleaning frequently enough that infections are prevented, but not excessively – which could potentially irritate your dog’s ears.

The American Kennel Club recommends examining the health of your dog’s ears on a regular basis. This can help you determine whether a cleaning is in your immediate future.

3. Know the Signs

There are a couple of telltale signs that your dog’s ears may be infected. Wolff stresses that if your dog continuously shakes its head and scratches at its ears, a call to the veterinarian should be in order. Peculiar odors and/or inflammation are also red flags.

“Definitely seek veterinary care,” says Wolff. “They’ll be able to determine what kind of medication to use.”

4. Consult with Your Veterinarian

At Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care, a special plastic cone fixed to an otoscope is used to get an unobstructed view of your dog’s ear drum during examinations – something that would likely be unachievable in a home setting.

Skilled veterinarians can also take a swab of the debris in your dog’s ears, and examine it using a microscope to determine what issues may be present, from an overabundance of yeast to the presence of bacteria. Armed with this information, they can guide you in the type of cleaner to use, and at what frequency.

If you have questions about cleaning your dog’s ears, be sure to ask your dog’s doctor for his or her advice. Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care can help. Call 215-345-6000.