Learn How to Clean a Dog’s Ears

Tips on examining, cleaning and medicating a dog’s ears.
By Daniela Lopez, August 2020
how to clean puppy dog ears

Routine ear cleaning for your dog can keep your dog happy and healthy.

Every dog needs regular bathing and having clean ears is an important part of this grooming routine. Some dogs have naturally healthy, self-cleaning ears that require no routine maintenance but others may be prone to excess build up of dirt, wax, and debris. Ear irritation and infections caused by this build up are fairly common in dogs so providing your pup with regular at-home ear cleaning may help to keep their ears in tip-top shape. 

While routine ear cleanings can contribute to your dog’s overall health, over cleaning can cause more harm than good. It’s best to perform ear cleaning only as-needed so familiarize yourself with what your dog’s healthy, clean ears look like. Perform regular at-home physical examinations of your dog’s health so they get comfortable with the process, this way your dog is relaxed while you clean their ears. Ask your veterinarian if at-home ear cleaning would be helpful for your dog.

Signs of possible ear infection include: Redness, swollen ears, wounds, scabs, rash, crust, moisture, or other discharge in the ear canal along with any strong odor. Other signs include head shaking, ear scratching, or rubbing ears on other surfaces. If your dog typically enjoys having her ears rubbed and suddenly pulls away or shows signs of pain, reach out to your veterinarian for advice.

Dog Ear-Cleaning Tools

You don’t need a lot of tools to clean your dog’s ears at home. Ear cleaning can be messy so cover up and work on a surface that is easy to clean.

  • Ear wash solution
  • Cotton balls
  • Tweezers or hemostat to pluck hair
  • Q-tips may be used if used properly

How to Clean a Dog’s Ears 

Now that you have the ear cleaning supplies, how exactly do you clean your dog’s ears? Most dogs do not like having their ears cleaned, which is why it is important to practice with your dog. Some dogs may happily sit in your lap but other dogs may require some form of restraint which is outlined below. For photos and additional details about the instructions below see this post from WSU.

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1. Place your dog on a table. Stand on the side of the table opposite to the ear you are cleaning.

2. Massage your dog. If your dog enjoys it, gently massage your dog’s ears to get them relaxed.

3. Drape your right arm over the dog’s shoulders. Wrap your left arm around the head and neck and use the fingertips of the left hand to push the ear flap back and up to expose the inner surface of the ear. If the dog tries to stand, lean your upper body over his/her shoulders to prevent them from rising.

If at this point, your dog is too wiggly, you could try laying them on their side. Reach over her neck with your left arm and firmly grasp the elbow of the leg closest to the table. Always hold the leg close to the elbow, not close to the toes.

Keep your left elbow on her neck to prevent them from picking up her head. Use the fingers of your right hand to pull back the ear flap to expose the inner side of the ear. If the ear flaps are long, you can tuck the ear flap under your left elbow.

instructions on cleaning a dog's ear

4. Squeeze the ear wash solution into the ear canal. A few drops of ear wash should be applied to the inside of the ear flap and then the tip of the ear wash bottle should be inserted a few millimeters into the ear canal, to place some of the wash solution down the ear canal. Be careful not to force the tip of the bottle into the ear canal as forceful pushing into the ear canal could rupture the eardrum.

5. Let your dog shake her head. The dog will usually shake its head as soon as the wash is inserted into the ear, shaking out much of the solution.

6. Gently massage the dog’s ears. Massage the base of the ear to distribute the wash solution throughout the ear canal. Dogs usually like this part. 

7. Swab with cotton balls. Use cotton balls to remove discharge from the inner side of the ear flap.

8. Swab with Q-tips (optional). You can also use q-tips to clean the inner side of the ear flap but do not stick q-tips into the ear any further than you can see. Deep placement of a q-tip can rupture the eardrum or can pack wax and other debris further into the ear canal, which can lead to further problems or prevent medications from penetrating deeper parts of the ear canal.

Note: If the "non-furred", inner side of the ear flap contains lots of fur at the opening to the ear canal, a few hairs at a time can be plucked. Lots of hair at the opening to the ear canal reduces air flow into the ear. Good air flow is important to maintaining a healthy ear.

Dog Ear-Cleaning Solutions

Most veterinarians carry ear cleaning solutions so consult your veterinarian for a safe vet-approved ear wash. If they don’t carry them in stock, your veterinarian will be able to provide you with safe and healthy recommendations for your dog. Due to the possibility of ear infections, it’s best not to come up with a DIY ear washing solution without consulting your vet first. Our dog’s ears are incredibly sensitive and require mild solutions, so don’t consider using vinegar, hydrogen peroxide or alcohol on your dog’s ears, which could cause painful irritation.

Alternative therapy for ear cleaning can help dogs but it's best to consult with your veterinarian for safe solutions.

If you need to apply prescription ear medication provided by your vet, you’ll find that ear medications are most effective when placed in a clean ear rather than applied on top of ear wax or other debris. Follow your veterinarian’s instructions for application and to determine if ear cleaning is needed before any ear medications are given.

Preventing Ear Infections

Routine cleaning of your dog's ear can be a powerful tool in preventing ear infections for those dogs most susceptible to it. An interesting note is that dogs have many more ear problems than cats. In fact, dogs with heavy floppy ears tend to have the most problems with ear infections. Certain dog breeds with lots of hair in and around the ear canal may also be more prone to developing ear infections. In addition to genetic factors, lifestyle also plays a role. Dogs that spend lots of time in the water also are prone to developing ear infections among other conditions like Swimmer’s Tail. Veterinarians also find that dogs with skin allergies may experience ear problems as part of the allergy.

When You Can’t Do At-Home Ear Cleaning

Your veterinarian may recommend a thorough ear exam under sedation or anesthesia if they find problems with your dog's ears beyond mild build up. Some reasons for this recommendation may be because the dog will not allow a thorough cleaning of heavy build up while awake, it is suspected that a foreign body such as plant material (think foxtails) is inside the ear canal, or because the veterinarian needs to collect samples from the ear for cytology or culture.

If you suspect your dog has an ear infection or if you feel uncomfortable cleaning your dog’s ears, seek out veterinarian assistance immediately. This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian.

Adapted from "Examining and Medicating the Ears of a Dog" originally published by The Pet Health Topics Website, a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine, Washington State University. Reprinted with permission.