How To Clean Your Pet’s Ears
By Rachele Baker, DVM – As a veterinarian, I examine a lot of dog and cat ears. Most of the cat ears that I examine are fairly clean but I see a lot of dog ears that contain excessive wax and debris. The accumulation of excessive wax and debris can contribute to the development of ear infections in dogs and cats, so it is very important to clean your pet’s ears as needed.
The photo on the left below shows a normal, healthy, clean dog ear. Notice that the skin of the ear is soft, pale pink, and smooth. The photo on the right below shows excessive wax and debris in a dog ear. You will also notice that the skin of the ear flap appears slightly swollen and reddened.
In this article, I will primarily discuss dog ears since ear problems seem to be much more common in dogs in my practice. However, I will explain how to clean a cat’s ears in the section on How To Clean Your Pet’s Ears.
It is normal for dogs’ and cats’ ears to produce cerumen (ear wax). Cerumen lubricates the eardrum and skin lining the ear canals and traps debris and microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria. Cerumen is comprised of waxes and oils as well as other substances. Cerumen is removed from the ear canals as a normal physiologic process in healthy ears by the outward migration of skin cells lining the ear canals.
Many of the predisposing causes of ear infections in dogs (such as ear conformation) and primary causes of ear infections in dogs (such as allergic diseases) may result in failure of the normal self-cleaning system of the ears resulting in a buildup of excessive cerumen and debris in the ear canals. In addition, when the ears are inflamed, the ears produce excessive amounts of cerumen which overwhelms the capacity of the normal self-cleaning system of the ears.
Cerumen can coat bacteria and yeast in the ear canals and may contain bacterial toxins and substances that stimulate inflammation of the ear canals. Cleaning the ears removes excessive cerumen, debris, yeast, and bacteria from the ear canals.
Allergic diseases such as atopic dermatitis (allergies to environmental allergens) are a common cause of recurrent ear infections in dogs. Cleaning your dog’s ears removes allergens that are present on the skin lining the ear canals or that are trapped in the cerumen.
When you clean your pet’s ears as needed, you are helping to maintain a healthy environment within your pet’s ear canals which helps to prevent ear infections. Ear cleaning is also frequently part of the treatment plan for resolving existing ear infections. If your dog swims a lot, it is a good idea to clean his or her ears after swimming to help dry out the ear canals.
Dog ear canals extend far beyond what you can see from the outside. Dog ear canals are comprised of a vertical canal and a horizontal canal with the eardrum at the base of the horizontal canal (see illustration below). Dog ear canals are usually about two to four inches long. When you examine the anatomic model of dog ear canals in the illustration below, you can understand why simply cleaning the portion of the outer ear that you can see or reach with your finger does not adequately clean the ear canals. The vertical and horizontal ear canals fill with cerumen and debris, and it is very important to make sure that they are properly cleaned.
What is the best product to use to clean your pet’s ears? I have to tell you that I have heard of people using all manner of products to clean their pet’s ears. I recommend using a high quality ear cleaner meant for dogs and cats to clean your pet’s ears. Here are some of the ingredients that may be found in ear cleaners meant for dogs and cats:
Ceruminolytics soften and dissolve cerumen and dried debris in the ear canal.
Surfactants emulsify debris and keep it in solution.
Astringents help prevent maceration of the skin lining the ear canals by drying the surface of the ear canal.
Antimicrobials limit the proliferation of bacteria and yeast in the ear canals.
Two high quality ear cleaners that are frequently recommended by veterinary dermatologists as well as general practitioner veterinarians are Epi-Otic Advanced Ear Cleaner and Douxo Micellar Solution.
The ingredients in Epi-Otic Advanced Ear Cleaner include salicylic acid (antibacterial and antifungal), parachlorometaxylenol (broad-spectrum antibacterial), and monosaccharides (prevent bacteria adherence and colonization). Epi-Otic Advanced Ear Cleaner is available through select online/retail stores and at some veterinary hospitals. Click here for a link to purchase Epi-Otic Advanced Ear Cleaner on Amazon.
The ingredients in Douxo Micellar Solution include phytosphingosine which is anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal. Douxo Micellar Solution is available through select online/retail stores and at some veterinary hospitals. Click here for a link to purchase Douxo Micellar Solution on Amazon.
How To Clean Your Pet’s Ears
For cats, the way I recommend cleaning their ears is to moisten a cotton ball with ear cleaner, squeeze out the excess fluid, and then gently wipe out the outer ear and that portion of the ear canal that you can reach with your finger. Keep the cotton ball moist enough that some of the ear cleaner will gently drip into your cat’s ear canal while you are wiping the external ear canal. It is very easy to rupture a cat’s eardrum by squirting ear cleanser into the canal, therefore I do not recommend this in cats.
Cleaning dog’s ears is an entirely different procedure. Put the tip of the ear cleaner bottle into the opening to the vertical ear canal and gently squirt in enough ear cleaner to fill the canal. Then gently massage the base of the ear for 20 to 30 seconds to help loosen wax and debris in the horizontal and vertical ear canals. Use cotton balls to gently clean the inside ear flap and as much of the vertical canal as you can reach with your finger.
If the inside ear flap is not already moistened with ear cleaner, moisten the cotton ball with ear cleaner before wiping the ear flap so as not to cause irritation to the skin of the ear flap.
Let your dog shake his or her head to remove any excess fluid. Sometimes chunks of wax and debris will come flying out when your dog shakes his or her head, so you will want to clean your dog’s ears in a bathroom or someplace that is easily cleaned. When you are finished cleaning your dog’s ears, wipe the wet fur below the ears with a tissue or a soft towel.
Here are photos illustrating how to clean your dog’s ears step by step. These photos are of me cleaning my golden retriever Savanna’s ears.
If you want to use a Q-tip to clean the curved areas in the outer ear flap, that is fine as long as you moisten the Q-tip with ear cleaner first so it does not irritate the skin of the ear flap. However, I do not recommend that you put Q-tips into the vertical canal because the Q-tip is long and narrow and could go deep enough to damage the eardrum. Furthermore, pushing a Q-tip into the vertical canal can result in pushing cerumen and debris further into the canal.
The key to healthy ears in your dog or cat is to clean your pet’s ears as needed. Check your dog’s ears once a week for excessive cerumen, debris, redness, or swelling. I generally recommend to clean your dog’s ears every three to four weeks or as needed. When you check your dog’s or cat’s ears, if you see redness, swelling, an excessive amount of cerumen, or if your dog’s or cat’s ears have a very bad odor, your pet may have an ear infection and you should take your pet to your veterinarian for an examination right away.