December 7, 2020

Medical Issues Wellness & Prevention

Ear Cleaning for Cats and Dogs

by Aili V. Heintz, DVM

With the kids home more now, I often find myself wondering if they actually hear me when I’m asking them to do something or if it is just their kid’s selective listening. I often joke that maybe I need to clean out their ears!

Selective Hearing?

I am sure that many of you have thought the same thing at one time or another about your kids, significant other, or maybe even your pet! For us, cleaning our ears is something we may have learned to do as children. We at least know of different ways that we can help keep our ears clean.

But when it comes to our pets, ear cleaning is something that most people don’t think about until there is a problem. Cleaning your pet’s ears is an important part of keeping her healthy. Today, I will give you some tips so you feel more comfortable cleaning your pet’s ears at home.

Pet Ear Anatomy

Before I get into the exact “how-to” of pet ear cleaning, it is first important that I tell you a little about pet ear anatomy. When I discuss ear cleaning with clients, the most frequent concern that I hear is that they are afraid they are going to hurt their pets. People are also afraid that they will poke their pets’ eardrums out. To “poke their eardrums” would, in fact, be very hard to do based on the ear canal anatomy.

The ear canal of a dog and a cat is actually shaped like an “L”. The opening part of the ear that you can see is just a very small part of the upper ear canal. The eardrum sits at the bottom part of the “L”. Because of this unique “L” shape, you would have to work really hard and use a great deal of pressure to “poke the eardrum out.”

This doesn’t mean that you can’t still cause discomfort or pain while cleaning your pet’s ears. It is still extremely important that you are gentle so you don’t irritate the inside of the ear.

Step-By-Step Ear Cleaning Instructions

Now that you know a little bit more about the ear anatomy of dogs and cats, let’s get to the most important part: the actual cleaning of the ear. There are many different ways to clean your pet’s ears. While there isn’t necessarily one “right” way, the following method works best for most pets.

1) Use a good ear cleaning solution made for cats and dogs.

Good quality solutions can be found at your vet’s office or at your local pet store. Other products, including some homemade solutions, can cause increased irritation. If you irritate the ear while you are trying to clean it, you may be doing more harm than good. 

Ear cleaning solutions for pets are made to help break down waxy build-ups. They also have a drying agent in them to help remove the excess moisture that can lead to ear infections.

2) Gather your supplies so that everything is ready.

Just like kids, pets can run short on patience. This is especially true when you are doing things they’d rather not do, like ear cleaning and nail trimming. Gathering all your supplies before you start can make things run more smoothly.

You will need to include your pet, ear cleaning solution, cotton balls, Kleenex or paper towels, and Q-tips. Now it’s time to start cleaning!

3) Soak a cotton ball with the ear cleaning solution.

Lift up the flappy part of the ear (the ear pinna) and gently place the soaked cotton ball in the ear. **Do not pack the cotton ball into the ear canal as this will cause discomfort and may cause the cotton to become lodged into the canal.

After placing the cotton ball into the top of the ear canal, gently massage the ear at the base of the head. This allows for the ear cleaning solution to go down into the lower ear canal to get what you can see or reach.

4) Remove the wet cotton ball and gently wipe inside the ear with dry cotton balls.

The cleaner helps to loosen any wax or debris inside the ear. Use cotton balls to gently remove the debris. If there is a lot of “gunk” in the ear, you may need to wipe the area with several cotton balls. 

In general, you will know that the ear is clean when the cotton balls to appear clean even after wiping the ear. If, at any point during the cleaning process, your pet becomes irritated, upset, or painful, take a break. You can always come back again later to do more.

5) Gently wipe out any debris or “brown gunk” that may be stuck in the ear pinna area.

You can use a Kleenex, paper towel, or Q-tip to gently wipe out the area. **But please, never stick a Q-tip down inside the ear!

People have accidentally broken Q-tips off deep inside the ear. If that happens, your pet may require sedation so we can remove the broken piece.

6) And your pet now has clean ears thanks to your help!

When you clean your pet’s ears, please do not squirt the cleaning solution from the bottle directly into the ears. Do not try to flush out the ears by squeezing the solution into the ear canals. This is for a couple of reasons:

  • First, this wastes a lot of the ear cleaning solution, which means that you will need to buy the solution more frequently.
  • Second, you may actually rupture the eardrums by forcing a volume of liquid into the ear canals. 

Remember the eardrum sits at the end of the “L” shaped canal, and if enough pressure is placed into the canal it could damage the eardrum.

Ear Cleaning Frequency

In general, most dogs do not need super-frequent ear cleanings. For most pets, cleaning their ears every 1-3 months is sufficient to help keep their ears clean and comfortable. If your dog has frequent ear infections or has allergy issues, your veterinarian may recommend more frequent ear cleanings to help prevent ear infections from occurring.

Cleaning your pet’s ears, especially now that you know how to do it, can be easy to do at home. To make the process fun for your pet, give her treats during and after the ear cleaning. If you have any questions about cleaning ears or if you would like a demonstration on how to clean ears, please don’t hesitate to ask at your next appointment…we would love to show you how! And now, your pet won’t have an excuse for not listening to you!

Dr. Heintz and her dog, MimiDr. Heintz is a small and exotic animal veterinarian at Countrycare Animal Complex in Green Bay, WI. She earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Illinois – Urbana/Champaign. Her passion is helping all animals, whether furry, scaly, or feathered, lead long and healthy lives.