You may be one of the lucky ones who skips cleaning their dog’s ears and never has to deal with a canine ear infection, but most pet owners aren’t so lucky.
That's because the pH in your dog’s body can change, transforming a dog with normally healthy ears into one that suffers from ear infections. Even worse, dogs and puppies can end up with ear mites out of nowhere --- but at least if you have ear mite cleanser and know how to properly clean dog ears at home, you won't wind up with an itchy dog and a large vet bill.
You can help combat the risk of canine ear infections by cleaning your dog’s ears regularly, as well as after every walk in the rain, swim in the pool, and bath. By making ear cleaning part of your regular dog hygiene regimen, your dog will grow accustomed to the process, ensuring their cooperation for other procedures, like applying medicated ear drops.
Read on for a step-by-step breakdown of how to clean your dog’s ears at home and make it a regular part of your puppy care process.
Step 1: Pick Tools Made for Cleaning Dog Ears
You’ll need at least four cotton balls, a few tasty dog treats, and a veterinarian-approved ear cleaner. You may want to purchase a canine ear cleanser directly from your vet to ensure that it has a “drying agent” listed in the ingredients; this means any excess fluid will evaporate after you’ve finished cleaning out your dog’s ears. Remember, extra moisture in the ear canal is often what causes an ear infection in the first place.
Step 2: Get Your Dog Comfortable with the “Ear Cleaning Position”
Start by getting your dog comfortable with you looking in their ears while gently holding their chin for stability. You want your dog to be comfortable during ear cleanings, so be sure that they’re not cowering, backing away, or trying to remove their head from your hand. Start slowly --- perhaps touch the top of their head and say “Yes” or “Good dog!” to ensure that they’re calm.
Next, release your dog’s head, and then give them 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, either on the counter or someplace else where they won't cause a distraction.
Gradually increase the length of time holding your dog’s head and add steps to the process. If you can touch the top of their head and hold under their chin with your other hand, take the top hand and gently lift up one pendulous ear an inch at a time. When your dog is relaxed, say “Yes,” release your hands from the dog’s head, and offer a treat. Continue the ear lifting exercises in baby-steps, and eventually, you will be ready to flip the ear up and open so that you can see inside the ear canal. The process is even easier If your dog has perky ears, since you won’t need to lift the ear to peek inside.
Be sure to only reward your dog for calm behavior – do not treat your dog for any herky-jerky repetition or constant moving of the head or body. 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 dog ear cleaning. While your dog rests their chin on the open palm of your left hand, you can use your right hand to gently lift and then clean the dog’s left ear with a cotton ball. Learn how to teach the “chin” command to your dog by clicking here.
Helpful hint: NEVER use Q-tips or similar brands of cotton swabs on sticks inside your dog's ears. It is fine to use them to remove debris on the outside of the ear or around the eyes and face, but never place them inside the ear or ear canal.
Step 3: Make Cotton Balls a Part of Dog Ear Cleaning Training
After you can gently hold your dog’s chin with one hand and fully look into their ear with the other without any hesitation (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 them a treat! Repeat this drill until you can get the cotton ball into their ear and swab in gentle circles. Due to the canine ear canal’s shape, you will not be able to put the cotton ball (held between your fingers) too deeply into their ear.
Helpful hint: If you are cleaning ears as part of puppy grooming for the first time, you may want to allow your pup to sniff and see the cotton ball at close range as it sits in your hand. This allows them to understand that cotton balls are for cleaning, and not for eating or for play time.
Step 4: Finally, Clean Your Dog's Ears
In the final step of “Ear Cleaning for Dogs,” you'll want to soak a cotton ball approximately half full of dog ear cleaning solution. Get into ear cleaning position and gently put the cotton ball into your dog’s ear. Maintain position of the cotton ball and work into the skin of the interior ear in small, gentle circles. This will transfer the cleaner into your dog’s ears, allowing it to moisten the skin and work away ear wax and debris. Finally, as you remove the cotton ball, you'll want to clean the folds of the ears if they appear dirty or waxy. Repeat this dog ear wax removal exercise in the other ear, ensuring to maintain a relaxed and calm state.
Why can’t you just squirt the ear cleaner from the bottle directly into your dog’s ear? Just like with humans, most dogs dislike the sudden jetting of liquid into their ears. Additionally, placing the cleanser bottle tip directly into the ear creates a germ risk that could transfer from ear-to-ear or dog-to-dog. Thus, cotton balls are far more sanitary and provide a more controlled delivery --- meaning you can control how much fluid is on the cotton ball.
Let the canine ear cleaner settle into your dog’s ears for 30 seconds. It's completely normal for your dog to shake their ears during this time, so if it happens, that’s okay. After 30 seconds, tenderly massage under your dog’s ears where the base of the ears meets the head. This motion will ensure that the ear cleaner moves around the ear canal sufficiently.
How do you know if you’ve used enough ear cleaner? “You want to be able to hear the ‘squish’ of the ear cleaner in the dog’s ears,” explains Devin Talbert, a dog trainer at Care First Animal Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Next, 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 left behind. After 10 to 15 seconds, move the cotton ball in small circles to pick up any remaining residue, then remove the cotton ball. If the cotton ball is still wet, run a second dry cotton ball through that ear. If the cotton ball is still more than a little dirty, repeat the entire cleaning cycle on that ear.
As a final word of advice, we encourage all dog owners to stay in the habit of cleaning their dog’s ears once a week to every three weeks. One smart way to remember to clean your dog's ears is to make it part of your regular dog grooming and hygiene program.
Cleaning your dog's ears whenever you trim their nails or after each bath will ensure that you remember to incorporate this important dog and puppy care step consistently. For more information on canine care, see part 1 and part 2 of our nail trimming blog and, to help keep the cost of veterinary visits down, check out our customizable pet insurance plans (underwritten by Independence American Insurance Company)!