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How To Properly Clean Your Pet’s Ears

cat at vet getting ear cleaned

In the world of pet ownership, it only takes a couple of words to conjure up a visceral, sensory memory. “Dog breath.” “Wet dog.” “Cat pee.” Each compellingly icky in its own way, we spend billions of dollars a year trying to combat the lingering effects of these phenomena. So today, let’s delve deeper into the world of cavernous canals and explore how we deal with these two words: stinky ears. If you know, you know.
 
Ear cleanings are one of the most common requests we get at the vet clinic. From your vantage point as a pet owner peering into the ear, you really can’t assess the health of the ear with the tools you have. It can be hard to know whether you should be doing maintenance ear cleaning or trying to treat an ear infection without some professional guidance. So let’s start with the basics.

Anatomy Of An Ear

Most of us know at least one person who got sent to the ER because they stuck something (cotton swab, pencil, etc) too far into their ear canal and ended up injuring their eardrum. Dogs and cats have a different anatomy which makes this much harder to do - not that you should try! In fact, I’m about to explain why sticking a cotton swab in your pet’s ear isn’t something you probably need to do at all.

First things first: For our purposes, everything we can impact or treat as pet owners counts as the “External ear canal.” This starts at the outside of the ear (the pinna) all the way up to the eardrum. Both the middle ear and the inner ear are on the inside of the eardrum, and that’s where all the little bones and structures that are responsible for hearing and balance live. Unless the eardrum is ruptured due to trauma or disease, that’s not an area you can clean or medicate. So when you’re cleaning the ears or treating an ear infection with drops, you’re treating an infection of the external ear canal.

In dogs and cats, the external ear canal consists of three parts: the pinna, the vertical ear canal, and the horizontal ear canal. In people, the ear canal is one straight line from pinna to eardrum, but in dogs and cats the ear canal takes a 90 degree turn about halfway in. This means there’s a lot more opportunity for debris, fluid, and moisture to get trapped and build up around that bend.

It also means that if you put a cotton swab into the part you can access (the vertical canal), a very likely outcome is pushing ear gunk further into the horizontal canal, compounding any problems your pet may be experiencing, especially when that gunk is sticky.

dog getting ear cleaned

How To Clean Your Pet’s Ears The Right Way

The best way to clean a pet’s ears is with the right ear cleaner designed specifically for this purpose. Never use peroxide, which is highly irritating! By using a pet friendly ear cleaner, the liquid can get into both the horizontal and vertical ear canal, and dissolve or loosen up any sticky debris. 

I like to warm the ear cleaner bottle up by putting it in a bowl of warm (not hot!) water. Once you fill the ear up with the liquid, you give ‘em a nice squishy ear massage, breaking up all the dirt inside without actually having to put anything into the ear canal. Then step back because your pet will usually shake all the dissolved goo on you, your clothes, and your carpet. (Having a towel nearby or doing this in the tub is wise.) Then, you can use a cotton swab or cotton ball to clean up the parts of the ear you can see as the cleaner drains out. 

When To See The Vet

This routine ear cleaning is something you can do weekly, monthly, or in conjunction with bathing. This is best done as a maintenance routine to keep healthy ears looking and feeling their best.

If you think your pet has an ear infection, make sure you check with your vet before embarking on the cleaning process. Signs include:

  • Shaking their head
  • Pawing at their ears
  • Resisting any handling of the ears
  • Smelly discharge
  • Large amounts of discharge, ranging from dark brown to yellow or red
  • Reddened ear canal

Doing an otoscopic exam at the vet office is a quick and super important step in determining if your pet has a problem. It’s one of the most common reasons we see pets at the office, and very rewarding to help an uncomfortable pet feel so much better!

  • Your vet will want to examine the ear to see if there is an infection, foreign body, mass, or ruptured eardrum.
  • Ear infections require the right medication to treat yeast, bacteria, or both.
  • Medicated ear cleaners can make the process even easier.
  • For very dirty ears, it’s helpful to have the veterinary team do a “deep clean” first so the medication can penetrate more easily.
  • If the pet has very painful or ulcerated ears, you’re not going to be able to clean or medicate them- this may require sedation or oral medications to help get the ears to the point you can put in topical meds.
  • Sometimes ear infections are a part of a larger disease process, such as allergies.

For healthy ears, cleaning with a gentle ear cleaner is all you usually need to keep stinky ears at bay. Stick those cotton swabs back in the drawer and enjoy your snuggles!


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