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How to Clean Dog Ears

Pet Health and Safety  •   Jasey Day  •   Nov 30, 2018

You may have been lucky enough to skip cleaning your dog’s ears and not experience a canine ear infection. Did you know the pH in your dog’s body can change? And that suddenly your dog with normally healthy ears for years can start experiencing ear infections? Yikes! You can help combat the risk of ear infections by cleaning your dog’s ears regularly and after your dog gets water in his ears from bath time, getting caught in the rain, or swimming. In addition, having a dog used to ear cleaning will also ensure that you have a dog who is more cooperative – less wiggly – if you do need to apply medication in the ears someday. Read on to learn how to clean the ears step-by-step!


What You Need

You’ll need at least four cotton balls, dog treats, a dog, and ear cleaner. You may want to purchase the ear cleaner from your veterinarian to ensure that it has a “drying agent” in the ingredients – this means any excess fluid will evaporate. Remember, sometimes extra moisture in an ear is what causes an ear infection.


Acclimate Your Dog to “Ear Cleaning Position”

Start by getting your dog comfortable with having you look into his ear while gently holding his chin for stability.  You want your dog to be comfortable during ear cleanings, so your dog should not cower, back away, or try to move his head out of your hand. Start slowly - perhaps touch the top of his head and say “yes” or “good dog” when your dog is calm, release your dog’s head, and then give your dog a treat. Do not hold the treat in a hand that is touching the dog or your dog will squirm to try to get the treat; you may need to have the treats nearby on the counter.

Gradually increase difficulty. If you can touch the top of his head and hold under his chin with your other hand, take the top hand and gently lift up a floppy ear a centimeter. When the dog is relaxed, say “yes,” release your hands from the dog’s head, and give a treat. Then next time hold up the floppy ear an inch. Continue these baby-steps, then flip up the ear so that you can see inside the ear. If your dog has perky ears, you won’t need to lift up the ear to peek inside. You only give your dog a treat after tranquil behavior – do not treat your dog for a herky-jerky repetition. If your dog is resistant and shies away, make the next repetition easier so that your dog can succeed.   

You can also use a “chin” command to aid in ear cleaning. While your dog rests his chin on the open palm of your (left) hand, you can use the other (right) hand to gently lift and then clean the (dog’s left) ear with the cotton ball. Learn how to teach the “chin” command here.


Add the Cotton Balls to the Training

After you can gently hold your dog’s chin with one hand and fully look into his ear with your other hand without any hesitation from the dog (let’s call this “ear cleaning position”), you’re ready for cotton ball training! Hold a cotton ball between your index finger and thumb in the hand that will move the ear. Get into ear cleaning position and gently touch the inside of your dog’s ear with the dry cotton ball. Say “yes” and release your hands from the dog. Give him a treat! Repeat this drill until you can get the cotton ball into his ear and do very gentle circles. Due to the ear canal’s shape, you will not be able to put the cotton ball (held between your fingers) too deeply into his ear.


Clean the Ears

Next, soak a cotton ball approximately “half full” of the ear cleaner. Get into ear cleaning position and gently put the cotton ball into the dog’s ear. Maintain holding the cotton ball and do very small gentle circles to transfer the cleaner into your dog’s ears. Also, on the cotton ball’s way out, clean the folds of the ear if they appear dirty. Next, do the wet cotton ball in the other ear, too.

Why can’t you just squirt the ear cleaner from the bottle directly into your dog’s ear? Most dogs dislike the sudden jetting of liquid and using the bottle creates more of a risk that germs will transfer ear-to-ear or from dog-to-dog. Thus, a cotton ball is more sanitary and provides a more controlled delivery, meaning you can see how much fluid is on the cotton ball but you would not be able to see not how much would be squeezed out if the bottle tip is in your dog’s ear.

Let the ear cleaner settle into your dog’s ears for 30 seconds. It is normal for your dog to shake his ears during this time and that’s okay. After the 30 seconds, tenderly massage under your dog’s ears where the bases of the ears meet the head so that you move the ear cleaner around in the ear canal. How do you know if you used enough ear cleaner? “You want to be able to hear the ‘squish’ of the ear cleaner in the dog’s ears,” explained Devin Talbert, a dog trainer at Care First Animal Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Then, put a dry cotton ball into each ear (one ear at a time and using ear cleaning position) to remove debris, “ear gunk,” and any excess ear cleaner. Smoothly move the cotton ball in tiny circles. Remove the cotton ball. If the cotton ball is very wet, do a second dry cotton ball in that ear. If the cotton ball is very dirty, consider repeating the entire cleaning cycle on that ear.


Next, just keep in the habit of cleaning your dog’s ears regularly, such as every 1-3 weeks. Perhaps do this grooming skill whenever you trim the nails. For more information, see part 1 and part 2 of a nail trimming blog.

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