Listen Up: How to Care for Your Dog’s Ears

Cleaning your dog's ears can be tricky — and sometimes counterproductive.

Try not to over-clean your dog’s ears. By: laurakrasowska

Are you confused about plucking ear hair and whether or not to clean your dog’s ears?

You’re not alone.

In fact, I find many people are bemused about how to care for their dog’s ears, especially with the rise in popularity of poodle crosses and their notoriously woolly ears. Part of the problem is there’s no hard-and-fast rule. What suits one dog isn’t great for another — hence the confusion.

Ear Hair Plucking

When I first qualified as a vet years ago, ear plucking was all the rage. We even showed clients how to pluck their puppy’s ears so they’d grow up into a tolerant I-love-having-my-ears-plucked dog.

The logic was that an ear choked with hair has poor air circulation. A warm, damp ear canal is then a breeding ground for infection. Therefore, plucking the ears makes them aerated and less prone to infection.

But this argument is outdated.

The counterargument is plucking the ear hairs traumatizes the skin lining the canal, weakens its immunity and invites infection. There’s also the idea that hair provides a natural barrier that makes it more difficult for foreign bodies to jump down into the ear canal.

So what to do for the best? A compromise is necessary:

  • The healthy, hairy ear canal: Leave these babies alone. Don’t pluck. There’s no need. You don’t have a problem.
  • The infection-prone hairy ear: Pluck away! The dog already has a problem, so increasing the amount of air could help dry up infection.

 Ear Cleaning

 Another controversial decision. The arguments for and against go like this:

  • Pro: Cleaning away wax and debris means less food for bacteria, yeast and ear mites to dine on.
  • Con: Constantly wetting the ear canal can soften the skin and — you guessed it — give infection a helping hand.

The rule of thumb is:

  1. Always use a good ear cleaner (more on this later).
  2. Don’t over-clean — once a fortnight is fine for a healthy ear.
Constantly wet ears can help infection take hold. By: Vladimir Megan

When to Not Clean Your Dog’s Ear

If the eardrum is ruptured, liquid can enter the middle ear and cause a head tilt. Worse than this, some ear drops are toxic to the inner ear and your dog could be left permanently deaf or with balance issues.

Avoid cleaning ears if:

  • The dog has a head tilt: A sign of an ruptured ear drum (see a vet).
  • A smelly discharge from the ear: A sign of infection. The dog should see the vet, who may need to swab the ear to culture the bugs; prior cleaning could interfere with the results.
  • The ear is painful: The dog will resent cleaning, which makes it harder to do so in future. See a vet to treat the pain.

Ear Cleaning: How Often?  

You can have too much of a good thing.

Over-cleaning a healthy ear strips away the oils and wax that protect it. For a normal ear cleaning, once every 2–4 weeks is sufficient.

The Ideal Ear Cleaner

Never use water to clean an ear – just like with swimming, it softens the skin and makes it vulnerable to infection.

Instead, look for an ear cleaner specifically designed for dogs. Read the bottle and see how many of the following boxes it ticks:

  • Neutral pH: Should be sympathetic to canine skin.
  • Ceruminolytic: It breaks down wax (or “cerumen”).
  • Evaporates: It evaporates readily so the canal isn’t left full of fluid (look for sodium docusate).
  • Soothing: Has properties that calm inflamed skin.
  • Antibacterial: Includes substances such as EDTA that disrupt bacterial membranes.

My favorite is Virbac’s Epi-Otic; although pricey, it’s effective and can help cut down on the frequency of infections.

Here’s Epi-Otic in action:

How to Clean

Use the best cleaner in the world, but if you’re stingy with the amount, it’s not going to work.

The ear canal is long and bendy and can hold a lot of liquid. You need to be generous — lavish even — with the amount of ear cleaner you put in.

Squeeze the cleaner in until it overflows or you see a pool of it sitting in the ear canal. Now massage the ear canal. You’ll know when you’re in the right place — you’ll hear a squidgy sound. Some dogs love this and push their head against your hand as though you’ve hit the spot of an itch.

Use cotton wool to wipe away the excess dribbling out of the ear. Stand back and let the dog shake her head. This brings muck and debris up to the surface for you to wipe away.

And ta-da! Clean ears.

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed March 17, 2017.

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