essential guide to cleaning your dogs' ears

The Essential Guide to Cleaning Your Dog’s Ears

Every time we groom our dog, give it a bath or so, it is equally important to clean its ears as it can lead to a host of health issues if not cleaned regularly and completely. Unfortunately, unlike trimming our pooches’ nails or combing and brushing their coat, cleaning a dog’s ears can be quite challenging as dogs are naturally averse to the idea of someone handling their auditory canals, much less poking something right inside. But it doesn’t have to be a nightmarish ordeal both for you and for your pet. We’ve prepared an essential guide to cleaning your dog’s ears to make the whole experience more pleasant.

A Look at the Canine Ear Anatomy

One of the best things about the ears of canines is that they are not really that different from ours. The only difference perhaps is that they have larger pinnas or earlobes that are sticking on the top side of their heads. Ours are located somewhere at the level of our eyes towards the side. That said, if you already have a fair idea of the structure of your own ears, it should not be difficult to understand the basic anatomy of the canine auditory apparatus.

Why is this important in the first place? Well, knowing the different parts of an organ should help you understand how best to take care of these parts. Additionally, knowing their specific functions can help provide the rationale for carefully cleaning these parts.

Clean dog ears

As we have already said, the canine ear is pretty much the same as the human ear and it consists of about 3 fundamental parts or sections.

  • Outer ear – This portion is what we see sticking out from our pet’s heads. It comprises of a pinnae or the earlobe which actually functions to funnel sound waves towards the inner structures of the auditory apparatus. You can think of the earlobe as a funnel which has a wide open collecting disc that narrows down to a tube. The narrow tube is what we call the auditory canal or, simply put, the ear canal. This terminates in an oval structure called the eardrum.

The earlobes of dogs actually vary in size and shape depending on the breed. Some have drooping earlobes while others may have pointed ones, sticking out straight up towards the sky. One characteristic of canine earlobes that is rarely seen in humans is that these can actually move independently of each other. One earlobe can move while the other is stationary. The lobes are often covered with hair. These serve to trap large particles such as dirt and debris so that they don’t reach the inner ear structures. Many pet groomers trim longer hairs or may sometimes pull them out completely.

The ear canal of dogs is longer and deeper compared to what we have as humans. It is also positioned at an angle instead of the much straighter auditory canal that we have. This more vertical orientation of the ear canal can increase the risk of lodging a foreign object deep into the tube which can block the auditory passage. However, there is good in such anatomical variation. Because the tube is longer and comes in at a more vertical orientation, it is able to funnel sound a lot more efficiently than that of the human ear. That is why the hearing of canines is actually 4 times more acute than humans’. They can also hear sounds at much higher frequencies which are undetectable by the human auditory apparatus.

The ear canal also contains a waxy substance known as cerumen. Earwax is an important component of the auditory canal as it protects the skin of this passage. It also assists in the lubrication and cleaning of the auditory passages while also protecting it against microorganisms like bacteria and fungi as well as insects and water. Maybe you’re wondering how it can help protect against water entry. Well, it’s a wax and it’s essentially composed of long chain fatty acids, cholesterol, and other oily stuff. This naturally repels water. Removing it will deprive your pooch of the natural protection against water and insect entry. However, not cleaning it to the point where the cerumen actually hardens, this can actually lead to hearing loss because of the blockage to the inner auditory structures. So, it would be wise to keep this in mind when cleaning your dog’s ears.

The eardrum is still a part of the outer ear, although it’s not uncommon for people to associate it with the middle part. The eardrum is what receives the sound waves funneled by the pinnae. When these sound waves hit the eardrum, they cause vibrations which will move the structures of the middle ear. It is important that this is not blocked, otherwise no sound will be ever transmitted into the rest of the ear.

  • Middle ear – If the outer ear is what funnels the sound waves inside the auditory apparatus, then the middle ear is what captures it and transmits it into the inner ear. We already mentioned that the eardrum is what receives sound waves from the external environment. Each sound wave that strikes the eardrum produces vibrations which will move the 3 small bones of the middle ear – the malleus or the hammer, the incus or the anvil, and the stapes or the stirrup. These are also known as the auditory ossicles. When these move, they send vibrations to the inner ear.

It is important to keep the eardrums clear of any obstructions as these can block the passage of sound waves leading to a reduction in the number and strength of the waves hitting the ear drum. If this happens, only very minimal vibrations are sent through the ossicles which can be easily translated as difficulty hearing.

  • Inner ear – This part of the canine auditory apparatus is what converts the vibrations generated by the preceding section into electrical signals that are then sent to the brain for processing. It includes what is known as the cochlea and the vestibular system which is actually responsible for balance.

Why Your Dog’s Ear Needs to be Cleaned

Cleaning your dog’s ears is all about removing obstacles that might impede in the more efficient transmission of sound waves, its conversion into vibrations, and its eventual transmission as an electrical acoustic signal to the brain.

As described above, the outer ear is where most of the problems will often start as this is what is essentially exposed to the elements. There are also conditions that affect the middle and inner ear but these are mostly the result of an outer ear problem that has worsened over time.

Here are some ear problems that are common to dogs.

  • Bacterial infections – These mostly occur if the natural protective layer of the auditory canal has been removed. That is why it is not really advisable to clean the ears on a daily basis as this removes the protective barrier that prevents the colonization of the auditory canal with staphylococcal organisms.
  • Fungal infections – Also called yeast infections, these are often associated with allergies. If the problem with bacterial infections is that there is virtually no cerumen to protect the skin of the ear canal, the opposite is true with yeast or fungal infections. These thrive because of excessive accumulation of cerumen in the canal. This helps facilitate the growth and proliferation of fungal species. As such, cleaning the ear canal and removing excess cerumen is a must. 
  • Mite infestations – Mites are more attracted to the ears of cats rather than dogs. However, if you have a multi-pet home, it is possible that some of these mites will also infest your dog’s ears. These can burrow into the skin of the ear causing inflammation. Cleaning your dog’s ears can help you identify if there are already mites starting to infest the canal. 
  • Foreign bodies – Almost anything that is small enough can get lodged into the auditory canal. From really small pebbles to small leaves to hair ball, these can block the passageway for sound waves leading to a reduction in hearing acuity. Cleaning your dog’s ears will help remove these obstacles.

You May Also Like: Ear Mites in Dogs: Symptoms and Treatment

Groomer cleaning dog ears

How to Clean Your Dog’s Ears

As you may have already guessed, the timing of the cleaning of your pooch’s ears is critical. Cleaning it too frequently and you risk developing bacterial infections because of the removal of the protective cerumen. Cleaning it infrequently increases the risk of developing fungal or yeast infections since you’re essentially giving these microorganisms the perfect environment in which to thrive.

Before you even start cleaning your mutt’s auditory apparatus, it is imperative to carefully evaluate it. If you see unusual redness or foul discharge from your pet’s auditory canal, forego the cleaning and seek a more thorough evaluation from your veterinarian. If there are other signs of inflammation such as warmth, pain, or itching, you can also seek the advice of your vet first as your pet may already have an ear infection. Some ear infections can actually be made worse by unscrupulous manipulation or handling of the ears. So, if you’re not sure, let your vet check it out first.

Now that we have made this clear, let us go through the step-by-step process of actually cleaning your pet’s ears.

  • Prepare your materials. For this you’ll need an appropriate canine ear cleaner, several pieces of cotton wool, lukewarm water, and of course your pet’s favorite treats.
  • Place your pooch on a table or put it on your lap. Make sure you have adequate lighting to visualize the auditory canal. If your mutt happens to be quite big, then you can just have it lying on the floor. You can also ask for assistance to hold your pet.
  • Gently fold back the earl flap or earlobes of your pet to visualize the auditory canal.
  • Note the appearance of the skin inside the auditory canal. Specifically, check for signs of redness or even discharge. If you see a waxy substance that is colored light brown, this is perfectly okay. However, if you see black or even reddish discharge or maybe even pus, then you’ve got an infection at hand.
  • Get a cotton wool ball and moisten it with lukewarm water. Gently wipe the skin of the inside of the earlobe. If you have ear wipes, you can use these, too.
  • If you see a lot of debris or even earwax, you will have to administer the appropriate ear cleaner. To do this, carefully insert the tip of the cleaner into the auditory canal and gently squeeze the container to release a few drops of the cleaner into the canal.
  • Fold down the ear flap or earlobe to cover the canal. Place your fingers at the area where the ear meets the head and give it a gentle massage. This will disperse the ear cleaner inside the canal in an effort to cleanse it. Continue massaging for about 20 seconds. You should hear a squelchy sound while massaging the base of the ear.
  • Once you’re done massaging, remove your hand and let your mutt shake its head vigorously. This will shake out excess solution and expel any debris or wax that has been dislodged by the cleaner and the massaging action.
  • Use dry cotton wool ball to wipe off any excess solution from the ear canal.
  • Give your pet pooch its favorite treat, praise it, and then proceed to do the same procedure in the other ear.

You may also like some of our dog grooming guides, such as dog grooming clippers, dog drying towels, dog wipes and dog grooming tables.

The process of cleaning your doggie’s auditory apparatus is quite simple. However, it is often wise to really check for signs of inflammation or infection so you will be able to seek more professional help. Oftentimes, appropriate antimicrobial treatment is provided to help kill the offending organism.

Here’s the thing. While it is generally easy to clean your dog’s ears, some pet owners use ear cleaners rather incorrectly. This can lead to permanent damage to the auditory apparatus of your pooch. If you’re not really confident in cleaning your mutt’s ears, it’s a lot better to have a professional do it for you.


  1. Dr. Marty Becker DVM, How to Keep Your Dog’s Ears Clean and Healthy, Vetstreet
  2. Amy Panning, DVM, Instructions for Ear Cleaning in Dogs, VCA
  3. Dog Grooming Tips, Animal Humane Society

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