How to Clean Your Dog’s Ears at Home
Ear cleaning isn't just a pet-care skill for vets or groomers. Learn how to clean dog ears in the comfort of your home with these simple tips from the pros.
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Learning how to clean dog ears is just as important as understanding how to clean a dog’s teeth and how to bathe a dog. Yes, it can seem scary and daunting, and it might even make you feel squeamish and uneasy, but you absolutely have to do it. Not only will it keep your pup’s ears healthy and comfortable, but it will also help them avoid a painful dog ear infection. Lucky for you, we have step-by-step directions to get the job done quickly and easily.
Once you debunk the ear-cleaning scaries, you’ll have the confidence to tackle more dog-care tasks—like buying proper dog grooming supplies and learning how to groom a dog at home.
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How often should you clean your dog’s ears?
There’s no cut-and-dry answer because, like humans, all dogs are individuals. Some dogs are more prone to wax buildup and need more frequent cleaning, while other dogs only occasionally need their ears cleaned. Luckily, there are some general guidelines to help you determine when and how to clean dog ears.
Dogs with floppy ears, such as beagles and cocker spaniels, don’t have as much air moving in and out of their ears. This traps moisture, which can create an environment for bacteria and/or yeast to grow. “I always recommend that pet owners who have dogs with floppy ears clean them regularly, as waxy buildup can predispose them to ear infections,” says Katie Pagán, DVM, a veterinarian with Heart + Paw. That might mean once a week, but confirm with your veterinarian first. (On the other hand, dogs with cute pointy ears need fewer cleanings because air flows more freely.)
If your dog swims regularly, they might need their ears cleaned more often. And if your dog has a history of recurrent ear infections or allergies, they’ll also need more frequent ear cleanings. “It’s important to clean your dog’s ears once a week to every two weeks to minimize infections from flaring up,” says Nicole Savageau, DVM, a veterinarian with The Vets. Regardless of ear type, it’s wise to check in with your veterinarian to determine how often and how to clean your dog’s ears.
How can you tell if your dog’s ears need to be cleaned?
One of the things your dog wants you to know (in addition to: more treats, please) is when their ears aren’t in good shape. They may shake their head, scratch their ears or you might notice a foul smell, Dr. Pagán says. If they’re really clogged, your dog might not respond to your voice as well. Look for signs your dog is in pain and take a peek inside their ears (while you’re petting and relaxing them).
“By folding your dog’s ear back to look inside of them, you can assess if there is redness of the ear skin or if there is brown or yellow wax built up inside the ear and lodged in the folds of the ear cartilage,” says Lindsay Butzer, DVM, a veterinarian and PetMeds partner. It’s normal for your pet to have some light yellow or even a light brown ear wax, but dark brown, black and yellow wax or green ear discharge is not normal and indicates an infection.
What happens if you don’t clean your dog’s ears regularly?
A buildup of dirt, wax or even debris from playing outside not only makes your dog’s ears feel very uncomfortable and itchy, but it could also lead to myriad problems. This buildup is food for disease-causing bacteria, yeast infections or even parasites, such as ear mites. And while it’s fairly easy to see wax and debris, ear mites in dogs are barely detectable by the human eye and can be extremely painful for pups. They are super tiny white specs that might be seen milling about the debris in your dog’s ears.
“Mites create a classic coffee ground ear debris appearance and are super itchy, leaving the dogs ears red and possibly bleeding,” says Dr. Butzer. The definitive way to diagnose ear mites is to have your veterinarian take a sample and confirm under a microscope.
Other dog illness symptoms your dog may experience include temporary hearing loss from inflammation or excessive ear wax. Thankfully, hearing loss is usually restored with veterinary medical treatment and regular ear cleaning.
How to clean dog ears
- Licking mat: If your pup suffers from dog anxiety or isn’t particularly fond of its ears being touched, try a licking mat with suction cups. Smear dog-friendly peanut butter on the licking mat and freeze for a few hours for a tasty distraction.
- Cotton balls and cotton rounds: To clean the wax and debris, use the appropriate size cotton balls for your dog’s ear size. Cotton rounds are also handy to wipe out those last little bits of gunk and clean the ear flap.
- Towel: Keep a towel handy to wipe up excess cleaning solution drips.
- Dog ear cleanser: For general cleaning with wax buildup, Dr. Butzer recommends an ear cleanser with no antibacterial or antifungal properties. “It has aloe vera and gentle ingredients that are safe for your pet’s ears,” she says. For dogs who love to swim, Dr. Butzer suggests ear cleansers with antibacterial and antifungal properties to prevent severe ear infections from dirty or stagnant water.
- Dog ear wipes: Wipes are optional, but they’re handy to have on hand if you need to get a little wax or dirt out. Plus, they have a pleasant scent.
Learning how to clean dog ears safely is key to making this chore less stressful. For starters, never insert a Q-tip into a dog’s ear. “The internal parts of a dog’s ear are L-shaped, just like ours,” says Helen Schaefer, a groomer at Heart + Paw. “That means the eardrum has some natural protection from objects, but just like people’s ears, you should not stick Q-tips or other rigid things into the canal.”
You’ll also want to steer clear of using nose hair trimmers, scissors or tweezers to trim and pluck the extra ear hair. Ear plucking is a process that is best left to a veterinarian or pet-grooming professional, says Schaefer. Even if you don’t have a fidgety dog, the process could seriously hurt or damage your dog’s ears with just one shaky move. Finally, don’t use homemade cleaning solutions, which could irritate delicate skin and upset the natural flora of the ear.
1. Gather your supplies
Grab everything you need before you call your dog to the spot, which should be somewhere the dog already feels safe and secure. Because some dogs don’t like to sit on non-carpeted surfaces (they can be slippery), try a throw rug to give them an easy place to stay still. Place the licking mat within their reach on a vertical surface.
2. Grab an ear cleaning helper (if needed)
Their job is to gently hold or keep your dog in place while your dog eats up the goodies from the licking mat. Be sure your helper is someone your dog knows and likes.
3. Apply ear cleaning solution
There are two safe and effective ways to apply the solution. One is to squeeze the ear cleaning solution into the ear and gently fill the ear canal. The second method is to saturate a cotton ball with the solution and place it into the upper opening of the ear canal. This method is great for dogs who are extra fidgety or afraid of the solution being squirted in. “Saturating the cotton ball is a great way to make sure you’re breaking up as much gunk as possible, without adding stress to the situation,” says Schaefer.
4. Clean the ear
If you use the saturated cotton ball method, massage the ear with the cotton ball inside it for about 30 seconds, which helps release the solution from the cotton ball. Remove the cotton ball when done. If you squirt the solution into your dog’s ears, use your fingers to gently massage the base for about 30 seconds. Don’t be alarmed if you hear some squishing and sloshing—it’s the solution doing its job and breaking up the gunk.
At this point, your dog’s natural instinct to shake their head will probably kick in. It helps the drying process, so let them have a good shake. Use a cotton ball to gently clean the ear canal and ear flap. You may need to use a few cotton balls and cotton rounds to get all the wax and debris out.
5. Dry the ear
“The most important thing when cleaning your pet’s ears with ear solutions is thoroughly drying them out after each cleaning,” says Dr. Butzer. Take a clean cotton ball or cotton round and carefully wipe out the leftover solution and debris from the upper ear canal area and ear flap. Give your pup lots of affection, another treat and repeat on the other ear. After, consider a squeaky toy or these expert-approved calming dog treats.
What’s the best way to keep a dog still and calm during ear cleaning?
With a bit of training and patience, you can help your dog to be more comfortable with the process. Consider doing a few pretend ear cleaning sessions. Pet your dog’s head and gently grasp the ear. Lightly touch and pet it. If your dog has floppy ears, gently lift the flap while petting the dog with your other hand. Speak softly and reward your dog along the way. Repeat this exercise daily until they are comfortable with you touching their ears. In the next sessions, let them sniff and investigate the cotton balls and ear cleaning solution. Go through the motions of ear cleaning without actually dispensing the solution. Keep these sessions short and positive with plenty of high-reward treats. Once your dog feels calmer with this process, move on to the real thing.
Schaefer recommends grabbing a friend to help if you have a particularly fidgety dog. They can help keep your dog still and distracted. And don’t forget the frozen licking mat—it can be a lifesaver.
Can you use hydrogen peroxide to clean a dog’s ears?
Now that you know how to clean dog ears at home, you might be wondering about using natural ingredients known for their cleaning powers, such as vinegar, rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. While those products are ideal as homemade household cleaners, they are too harsh for a dog’s delicate ears.
“The ear canals are made up of skin that has a sensitive microflora living on it to keep it healthy,” says Schaefer. “Keeping the microflora balanced is the best way to prevent ear issues.” Commercial dog ear cleaners are created to clean the ear and dry any excess moisture from the ear canal. Additionally, because most dogs scratch their ears from time to time, there are probably tiny cuts in their ears. Using vinegar and rubbing alcohol would be very painful.
How can you tell if your dog has an ear infection?
“If your dog starts scratching its ears or shaking its head, or if the ears are red or smelly, it usually means they not only need to be cleaned, but should be checked by a veterinarian for evidence of infection,” says Dr. Savageau. Other signs that warrant a visit to the veterinarian are yellow, brown or bloody discharge, hearing loss, walking in circles and loss of balance and coordination.
If your pup has any of these symptoms, you should see your vet. Don’t attempt to clean the ears at this point, as it could make the situation worse or cause damage to the infected ear canal. The veterinarian will examine and thoroughly clean the ears (sometimes under sedation). Depending on the type of infection, certain antibiotics, parasiticides or fungicides may be prescribed. After a follow-up visit, your veterinarian should give you instructions on how to clean dog ears at home when the infection begins to heal.
- Katie Pagán, DVM, veterinarian with Heart + Paw
- Nicole Savageau, DVM, veterinarian at The Vets
- Lindsay Butzer, DVM, veterinarian and PetMeds partner
- Helen Schaefer, NCMG CCE, groomer at Heart + Paw Grooming Services
- Merck Sharp & Dohme Veterinary Manual: “Otitis Media and Interna in Dogs”
- Merck Sharp & Dohme Veterinary Manual: “Ear Structure and Function in Dogs”
- Merck Sharp & Dohme Veterinary Manual: “Mite Infestation (Mange, Acariasis, Scabies) in Dogs”