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Here's how to properly clean and care for your dog’s ears

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Dog ears

Throughout my career as a veterinarian, one of the most common reasons dog owners give for seeking veterinary care is ear problems.

This is true even when they don’t realize that the problem is inside their dog’s ears.

Here are some tips for noticing the signs of ear infections, how to treat them and how to prevent them.

How to examine your dog’s ears

Take a good look at both ears. Gently lift each ear flap and point them to the ceiling. Both ears should look and smell clean, be free from excessive discharge, and not bright red.

Types of ear infections

A dog’s ear canal can be divided into three general sections: the outer canal, the middle and the inner ear canal.

There are two types of ear infections.

Outer ear infection (otitis externa): A waxy, yellow, reddish-brown, or dark black-brown ear discharge can be a sign of a problem or infection. There can be many different causes for discharge or inflammation.

A prompt examination and accurate diagnosis from your vet will help decide how to treat the underlying cause of the problem, so it doesn’t get worse.

Inner ear infection (otitis interna) or middle ear infection: An untreated external ear infection can easily lead to a very painful middle or inner ear infection, both of which can have the same symptoms, in addition to your dog’s reluctance to open their mouth or problems with balance. Some dogs may walk in circles or become nauseated.

How to treat your dog’s ear problems

Treating and cleaning ears are not the same thing. An owner can clean a normal healthy ear, but only a veterinarian should attempt to diagnose or treat any ear that is unhealthy.

Treating an external ear infection may require antibiotic, antifungal or anti-inflammatory medications, or a combination of topical and oral medications. Chronic issues sometimes require surgery.

Treatment for middle or inner ear infections is more serious and extensive — your dog’s ear drum and sense of hearing may be in jeopardy. Treatment may require antibiotics, flushing the ear or surgery.

A diagnosis can come easier by noticing how many ears are affected. If both of your dog’s ears are affected, and it is a chronic and difficult malady to treat, your dog may be experiencing a systemic cause, such as allergies or food sensitivities, especially if there are other itchy conditions elsewhere on the body, such as toes or paws or undersides.

How to clean your dog’s ears

An owner can clean their dog’s healthy ears when instructed properly and with the right tools. A dog’s ear canal goes down and then in. My advice is to clean whatever you can visibly see: the inside of the ear leather (the pinna) and the downward visible part of the ear canal. You shouldn’t go digging too far inwardly to excavate, as you may push material further down the canal or possibly damage the sensitive ear drum.

To clean a dog’s ear, I recommend a cotton ball saturated with a vet-recommended ear cleaner. Wipe out the inside of the ear, never going too deep. Gently squeeze the ball and gently massage the base of the ears. Most dogs love this if their ears are not overly inflamed or painful. Since most vet-approved medications have some form of anti-inflammatory medication, subsequent cleaning of the ears tends to become easier, and your dog will generally tolerate them, or may even enjoy the process. Allow the dog to shake their head which may bring material closer to the surface where you can see it and wipe it clean. Always read the label instructions and follow them exactly as directed.

Do not use cotton swabs on your dog’s ears. I have seen the cotton dislodge and get stuck deep in the ear canal, requiring a trip to the emergency room to have it removed.

Though the internet can offer homemade concoctions to clean dog ears, it is always recommended to check with your vet first. Some homemade remedies may clean an ear adequately but cause long-term concerns by drying out or altering the ear’s natural pH or flora. On an irritated or damaged ear, it could cause more pain and possibly severe damage.

Preventing ear problems

The best prevention is to routinely check your dog’s ears.

Dry your dog’s ears every time they get wet. You can also place a cotton ball inside your dog’s ears at the start of the bath; just remember to take it out afterward.

What causes ear problems in dogs

Your veterinarian can help you identify the root of your dog’s ear problem. Possible causes include:

  • Bacteria or fungus
  • Parasites, such as ear mites
  • Foreign material
  • Cysts or masses
  • Hair build-up
  • Excessive moisture
  • Irritation due to excessive cleaning
  • Environmental allergies
  • Food allergies/sensitivities

Certain breeds, such as poodles, schnauzers and cocker spaniels, tend to have more hair in the ear canal or produce more ear wax.

Ear problems can have a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Pain when their ears are touched
  • Pawing or scratching at the ears
  • Shaking or tilting the head
  • Redness or inflammation on any part of the ear
  • Foul, funky smell in the ear
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