Whether floppy, fluffy or pointy, dogs’ ears are often their most striking feature as well as extremely important, delicate organs. A regular home ear-cleaning routine can be beneficial to your dog, especially if he gets ear infections, as it prevents bacteria and yeast accumulation.
“Cleaning can be a good way to make sure that you are checking your dog’s ears for infections, pain or inflammation,” says Dr. Michelle Woodward, assistant professor of veterinary dermatology at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine.
Breeds that have ear anatomy that causes a buildup of sebum or wax, like Basset Hounds, Cocker Spaniels, Pugs, Bulldogs and Poodles, or dogs that have other problems such as allergies may require more regular cleanings than others, says Dr. Sarah Wooten, a Colorado-based veterinarian.
“When I see a dog that comes in with frequent ear infections – and when I say ‘frequent,’ I mean every three months or even every six months,” says Wooten, “that dog has something in their ears that predisposes them to grow yeast or bacteria.” In this case, she says, regular ear cleaning is advised.
Ready to clean some furry ears? We’ve got some tips and advice from our experts on when to clean them, what to use and how to get your pup to sit still while you do it.
Clean Weekly to Monthly, Depending on Ear Health
Some dogs may not require ear cleanings nearly as frequently as others, so check with your veterinarian to determine your dog’s needs and to make sure they aren’t suffering from a painful infection or eardrum damage before you begin.
If your dog is prone to ear infections, cleaning his ears regularly is vital for prevention. How often depends on the dog’s ear health.
“After we successfully clear an ear infection, I often have my clients clean their dog’s ears once every week or so,” Woodward says. “This also helps them to keep an eye on the ears so that we catch problems before they become too severe. For dogs that don’t get ear infections, you may only need to clean once a month.”
If you’re using an ear cleaning solution prescribed by your vet, you may need to apply it more than one a week, Wooten says.
“If the ear canal is mostly normal, the owners can get away with only putting a few drops in every couple of days,” she says. “But if the ear canal is very narrow, or there’s been a lot of scarring or changing in there, then they have to clean more regularly.”
That said, it is possible to clean a dog’s ears too frequently, especially if they have relatively healthy ears. If pet parents are simply cleaning for prevention’s sake and not following a vet’s prescription, no more than once a week is the rule.
Use a Medicated Ear Cleaner
If your pup has chronic ear infections, a medicated ear cleaning solution may be in order. According to Wooten, these cleaners typically act to dry out and acidify the ear canal, which keeps infection at bay. Though these are available over the counter, your veterinarian is the best source to ensure the safety of your pet.
To apply, fill the ear canal with solution, then massage the base of the ear right next to the head, Wooten says. Allow your dog to shake his head a bit and wipe the outside of the ear with a cotton ball.
If your dog resists having cleaner poured directly in his ear, using a cotton ball soaked with cleaner is the next best option, Woodward says. Place the cotton ball inside your dog’s ear, then massage the ear canal and remove the cotton ball. Repeat until the cotton ball comes out clean. If using this method, be very careful not to push the cotton ball in, which can force debris deep into the ear, Woodward says. And never use a cotton swab in your dog’s ears.
Or Try a Homemade Solution
If you haven’t been prescribed a cleaning solution but would like to do some preventative ear cleaning, you can use a homemade cleanser. Woodward recommends a 50/50 mixture of vinegar and water as the safest option for healthy animals.
“I strongly recommend that owners consult with their veterinarian before choosing a cleaning product,” she adds. “Things like alcohol and hydrogen peroxide can be very irritating to dog ears and may cause more harm than good.”
If your vet does declare a home remedy safe, Wooten says says a 50/50 solution of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar can also work and will make it more difficult for yeast and bacteria to grow in your dog’s ear. She recommends only using a few drops of this solution at a time.
Use Positive Reinforcement Throughout the Process
Make the ear-cleaning process as painless as possible for your dog by committing to practice and positive reinforcement, Woodward says.
First of all, make sure your dog isn’t in pain, since you want the experience to be as pleasant as possible, then make the experience a positive one with praise and plenty of dog treats, Wooten says. Have a treat that is reserved just for ear cleaning so that he learns to associate the process with something special and delicious.
Distract Your Dog While Cleaning
If your dog is resistant to ear cleaning and positive reinforcement is not enough, don’t hesitate to distract, distract, distract. Is your furry friend motivated by food? Wooten has a foolproof solution: spray cheese.
“You spray a line of cheese and then you let them lick it,” she says, “They’ll be misdirected by that, and they’re not going to notice that you’re cleaning their ears.”
If your dog can’t stomach cheese from a can, you can also fill dog puzzles with a special treat or simply distract him with dog toys he loves. Feel free to get creative.
“I had a Boxer at the clinic and he was 15 months – just the most energetic thing on the planet,” Wooten says. “But I squished some treats against the wall so he had to work to get them off, and he totally ignored me while I took samples from his ears.”
Learn to Spot Signs of Infection
One of the benefits of routine dog ear care is that you’ll be more attuned to his health and better equipped to notice when something’s not right. Your pup’s behavior during an ear cleaning can offer clues to his wellbeing.
“If you have a generally good dog and they are suddenly causing trouble for ear cleanings, this may be a sign that they have an infection and are in pain,” Woodward says.
She notes that discharge, odor and head shaking can also indicate infection, while Wooten adds that scratching, rubbing their ears along the carpet or furniture and excessive debris from the ears should all be red flags. If your dog demonstrates discomfort or pain, it’s best to stop your cleaning routine and take him to the vet to ensure you don’t do any damage.
Maura McAndrew is a freelance writer based in Oklahoma. She also writes for Paste Magazine and HelloGiggles.