Is ear cleaning good or bad for your dog? And if it’s good, what’s the right way to do it?
The truth is, cleaning a dog’s ears wrong damages the ear. But clean them right, and it promotes good aural health.
This article gives you sound advice on what to use, when to use it and how to clean your dog’s ears to cut down on vet visits.
Do I Need to Clean My Dog’s Ears?
One of my favorite sayings is: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So let’s start at the beginning by working out if your dog actually needs their ears cleaned or not.
Give the Ear the Sniff Test
Lift your dog’s ear flap and give the ear a good sniff. How does it smell?
If the answer is “My dog’s ears stink,” then you’ll need to clean those smelly dog ears.
Other signs that the dog’s ears need attention:
- A bad smell
- Discharge of some sort
- Excessive itchiness
- One ear looks different than the other
- A history of ear infections
However, a healthy ear may not need cleaning.
Indeed, there are dogs who go their whole life without needing their ears cleaned. These pups are best left alone, since nature has blessed them with good ears. Add in an ear cleaner, especially a “bad” one (more on that below), and you can destroy that delicate balance and invite problems.
What Does a Healthy Ear Look Like?
A normal ear should have nice, pink skin that isn’t inflamed or angry looking. The skin should be supple and soft with a healthy glow to it.
Conversely, an ear that glows an angry red or has ulcers, feels or looks greasy, or has a discharge or flaky skin is not normal.
The entrance to the ear canal should be a distinct dark hole. A narrow ear canal can indicate long-term, low-grade inflammation.
Now compare one ear with the other. Do they both look the same? If they do, then chances are those ears don’t need cleaning.
What Does a Discharge From the Ears Mean?
What is the brown stuff in my dog’s ears?
Dogs do produce ear wax but not in any great volume. While a small amount of brown wax can be normal, if there are lumps of it or it’s plugging the ear canal, then this is not normal.
In particular, lumps of brown wax indicates a yeast infection or that ear mites have moved in. These ears are liable to be itchy, and the dog keeps you awake at night with the thump-thump of a back leg.
A cream, yellow or green discharge indicates infection. If this is the case, don’t delay — see the vet now. This isn’t going to settle down without treatment, and a delay will allow the infection to become better established.
Should I Clean Smelly Dog Ears?
Sometimes no, but mostly yes. Do not clean the ears if:
- The dog has a head tilt: This can indicate a middle or inner ear problem. If the ear drum is ruptured and you put cleaner it, this can be toxic to the inner chambers of the ear.
- The dog is in pain: They may need pain relief from the vet before the ear can be touched.
- There’s a cream, yellow or green discharge: This needs treatment, and the vet may need to swab the discharge for culture and sensitivity.
- The skin is ulcerated or inflamed: An ear cleaner in contact with ulcerated skin may be very painful.
Bleeding or Swelling: See a Vet
But otherwise, if your dog has a lot of brown wax or the ear is generally stinky, go ahead and give it a clean with a good ear cleaning solution.
How Often Should I Clean Smelly Dog Ears?
The answer is a little long-winded, but bear with me — all dogs are different.
If your dog’s ears need cleaning to prevent recurrent ear infections, you vet is best placed to guide you about how often.
You’re aiming for the sweet spot, where you remove debris that could play host to bacteria and bugs but without over-cleaning and damaging the skin’s natural balance.
For the average dog, this means cleaning their ears once a week or once a fortnight. But here’s the important thing: Only ever use a dog ear cleaning solution that’s sympathetic to the natural acidity of the ear and don’t damage the skin.
If a dog gets regular ear infections, I advise cleaning the ears once a week (or every 2 weeks). If the cotton wool comes back clean, then you don’t need to do anything until the next cleaning.
But if the cotton wool is really mucky, clean the ears again the next day. Repeat. (So if the cotton wool is clean, relax. If the cotton wool is still mucky, clean for a 3rd day.)
If on the 3rd day the cotton wool is still mucky, then see the vet!
This helps you spot an ear infection early and seek help before it becomes established. But try to avoid unnecessary visits because the ear just happens to be a bit waxy that day.
What Is the Best Dog Ear Cleaner?
What you use to clean the ear matters — like, really matters. Use the wrong thing, and you can turn a healthy ear into an infected one.
To understand this, think of the last time you had a good soak in the bath. What happened to your fingertips?
They became prune-like, didn’t they? This is called “maceration” and is due to the skin absorbing water and swelling up. The same thing happens if you put water-based cleaners into a dog’s ear. And that weakened skin is then more vulnerable to infection.
Also, if you put neat vinegar or hydrogen peroxide in an ear, these are too harsh. Like paint stripper on a piece of old furniture, they strip away the protective oils that keep the skin hydrated and supple.
Hydrogen peroxide and vinegar cause excessive drying of the ear and again weaken the skin and open it to infection. These can be used when well diluted … but then you have the problem of introducing too much water into the ear, so they’re best avoided.
The best dog ear cleaner has properties such as:
- It evaporates quickly to avoid “wetting” the ear canal.
- It’s sympathetic to the skin’s natural pH.
- It gently dissolves wax and debris without stripping away oil.
- It doesn’t sting or irritate the ear canal.
Oh, and a quick word about dog ear cleaning wipes: These only clean the outer parts of the ear and are therefore not very effective.
The ear canal is a surprisingly long tube, and wiping the top is like only washing the rim of your hot chocolate mug — there’s a lot of sticky stuff left at the bottom.
Watch this video on how to clean a dog’s ears from a professional:
How to Unclog a Dog’s Ear
You have the best dog ear cleaning solution — now what? Here’s how to clean a dog’s ear:
- Have someone gently hold the dog so you have both hands free. Alternatively, sit the dog in the corner of the room so they can’t run away.
- Lift the ear flap. Hover the nozzle of the ear cleaner over the dark hole (the entrance to the ear canal).
- Squeeze the bottle, allowing the ear canal to slowly fill to overflowing with cleaning solution.
- Place a plug of cotton wool into the ear.
- Massage the ear below the plug. You’ll hear a squishy noise if you’re in the right place.
- Remove the plug and wipe away any excess cleaner with more cotton wool.
- Let the dog shake their head.
- Repeat on the other side.
Can I Clean My Dog’s Ears With Q-Tips?
Medics have a saying about human ears: “You shouldn’t put anything smaller than an elbow into the ear canal.” The same goes for dogs.
This is because there’s a real risk of the dog moving at the wrong moment and you damaging their ear drum on a Q-tip. Also, rather than scooping the wax out, Q-tips may well push wax deeper into the ear and cause an impaction.
Just don’t go there.
Some Final Thoughts About Plucking Hairy Ear Canals
Is ear plucking a good idea? This is much debated among vets.
The Argument for Ear Plucking
A hairy ear canal traps air, making the ear canal moist and humid, which is the perfect breeding ground for infection.
The Argument Against Ear Plucking
Plucking hair is traumatic and painful. It also means ripping hair out of the follicle, which causes inflammation. Again, weakening the skin can lead to infection.
See the problem? There’s no ideal solution, and controversy rages about whether routine plucking is a good idea.
My middle-of-the-road answer is: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Sound familiar?
If your dog has hairy ears but never gets an ear infection, then leave the ears be.
But if the dog gets a repeated monthly infection, then the argument tips in favor of plucking. By removing the hair and improving the air circulation, it may make the ear canal less favorable for bacterial growth.
This expert guide to how to clean dog ears was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Feb. 7, 2019.