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How to Clean a Dog’s Ears

Brown puppy with floppy ears running through a grassy field

When caring for your dog, it is important to be aware of some of the basics when it comes to his hygiene. Routine nail trims and bathing are typically performed on an as-needed basis. However, when it comes to the ears, a good ear cleaning may be necessary more frequently. Dogs with certain ear types can accumulate dirt and debris more frequently, and other dogs may suffer from food or environmental allergies that result in inflammation of the ears which can lead to infection and pain.

Types of Dog’s Ears

Most dogs have either one of two types of ear classifications. There are dogs with erect ears, or the kind that stick straight up over the head (e.g. German Shepherd ears), and dogs with drop ears, or the kind that are floppy and hang alongside or below the head (e.g. Bassett Hound ears). These two classifications have variations, some of which have become characteristic for their dog breed. For example, the butterfly ear is a type of erect ear associated with the Papillon. The ears have long hairs over the outer edges of the ear flaps, and this makes the ears of a Papillon look like an outstretched butterfly’s wings. The bat ear is a type of erect ear associated with breeds like the French Bulldog and the Corgi. Bat ears are typically rounded and slightly larger in proportion with the size of the head, like the ears of some species of bats. The candle flame ear is a type of erect ear associated with toy breeds like the English Toy Terrier. The ear flap (or pinna) is shaped like a candle flame with a narrow base that becomes wider and rounder in the middle and then tapers to a point at the end of the ear tip. Dogs with drop ears can have the filbert variation, which is a filbert leaf-shaped ear that is characteristic of the Bedlington Terrier, or the folded ear variation, which is when the ear pinnae have a fold in them like with Labrador Retrievers.

Young terrier with their ear flopped up

Regardless of ear pinna type, all dogs have similar anatomy when it comes to their ear canals. There is a vertical canal, which is the part of the canal that is the most visible. It dives straight down and then bends to become the horizontal canal. The eardrum or tympanic membrane is located at the end of this canal. Sometimes these canals are short and narrow like in English Bulldogs, and sometimes the canals are deep like with large breed dogs. The vertical canal can sometimes have hair growing from it. This is more common with breeds like the Toy Poodle and Bichon Frise. Ear hair does not need to be removed or “plucked” if the ear canal is non-inflamed. However, infected ears can be difficult to clean when there is hair in the way, and so in this situation, ear hair plucking is important.

How to Tell When Your Dog’s Ears Need Cleaning

Brown Dachshund playing on a sandy beach

There are many signs that can help you determine when your dog’s ears need to be cleaned. Sometimes these signs can be very subtle like headshaking. Dogs will shake their heads when they wake up or when they come in from outdoors, but excessive headshaking can indicate inflammation or irritation in the ear. Dogs who scratch their ears frequently or rub their ears/face on furniture or the floor might be trying to tell you that their ears are itchy. If a dog’s ears are dirty or infected, then you may notice a foul or pungent smell when they are standing near you. You can try looking into their ears to see if there is a problem. Normal ear canals have a light pink color and are clear of debris and dirt. Dirty or infected ears might have a red color which can indicate inflammation. Dirt or debris can have a black or brown color and a waxy appearance. With severe infections, you might see a moist, yellow discharge in the ears. Infected ear canals can sometimes have a narrow appearance, also known as stenosis, and ears can be very painful to the touch when they are infected. If you see this, then contact your veterinarian right away.

Proper Cleaning Supplies

You only need a few supplies for cleaning your dog’s ears. A good ear cleaner is ideal because it can help dissolve wax and make it easier to loosen debris in the ears. Avoid putting things like hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol in the ears because these can cause inflammation inside of the ears. Be sure to ask your veterinarian for recommendations on which ear cleanser will work best for your dog. Cotton balls or gauze squares are used for cleaning inside of the ears. Cotton-tipped applicators can help clean the wrinkles in your dog’s ear pinnae but should never be placed inside of the ears. They can injure the eardrum or can break in half and get stuck in the ear canal. A towel is useful for cleaning up after a dog shakes its head. Also, having some treats on hand can make the experience more enjoyable for your dog. Peanut butter applied to a hard surface can be a useful distraction!

Cleaning Your Dog’s Ears

White chihuahua in a pink sweater laying on a rug with its ears perched

To get started, have your dog sit close to you or have someone else help keep your dog still with mild physical restraint and/or distract them with treats. Very gently pull the ear pinna upward and squeeze ear cleaning solution into the ear canal. Avoid touching the tip of the bottle to the ear to prevent bacteria or yeast from getting into the bottle. Once the canal is filled with fluid, release the ear pinna and gently massage the base of the ear for at least thirty seconds. Use a cotton ball or gauze square to wipe debris from inside the ear. Allow your dog to shake his head so that debris from the horizontal canal may come up to the vertical canal for easier cleaning. You can use a cotton ball or gauze square again to remove this debris, and you should only ever go as deep as your finger can reach inside of the canal. You can repeat these steps for the opposite ear.

If your dog appears painful during the cleaning or becomes fractious at any time, then stop the procedure immediately. You may be able to try again later when your dog is calmer. However, pain and inflammation can be an indicator of infection, and he may need more than just an ear cleaning. If this happens, then you should contact your veterinarian right away in case he has an ear infection or a ruptured eardrum.

Common Dog Ear Problems

Dogs can have ear problems for several reasons. Food and environmental allergies are the most common causes of otitis externa or inflammation of the ear canals. Bacteria and yeast exist in small amounts in a healthy ear canal, but when inflammation occurs, they can reproduce quickly and lead to infection, thus further irritating the ears. Parasites like ear mites can also cause ear infections. If you suspect that your dog has an ear infection, then contact your veterinarian right away. It is important to treat the underlying cause so that an ear infection does not become chronic and cause permanent damage. CBD can help with inflammation to ease pain and reduce the problem area.

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Ear cleaning is an important skill and can be difficult to master at first. It takes practice, and sometimes lots of treats, to be able to clean your dog’s ears. Knowing how to do so can not only help when he has an ear infection but can also be effective at preventing ear infections from occurring.

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dr. erica irish author at sitstay.com

Dr. Erica Irish
Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine.


  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201208/what-shape-is-your-dogs-ear
  2. https://dogdiscoveries.com/dog-ear-shapes-and-types/
  3. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/instructions-for-ear-cleaning-in-dogs

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