Should I Clean Inside My Dog’s Ears?

What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot actually.

Ear cleaning can be a great way to improve the health of your dog’s ears but it can also cause a lot of harm. Therefore, it’s important to know if it’s the right treatment for your dog.

Here I’m going to help you recognise when ear cleaning is beneficial & when it’s harmful. Everything I say here also applies to cats.

In two weeks I’ll talk about how to do it and what to use.

When To Clean A Dog’s Ears

Probably less than 10% of dogs need their ears cleaned regularly. Therefore, it is not advisable to start cleaning a dog’s ears unless your vet recommends it.

Just like with toenails, new dog owners are often told that ears need regular maintenance. This is untrue. Both areas just need to be kept an eye on in the majority of dogs.

What Is The Brown Stuff In My Dog’s Ears Anyway?

The brown material seen around the ear opening is called cerumen, or just wax. In the normal ear it is transported up the canal until it reaches the outside. Therefore, a small amount just in the folds is perfectly fine if the ear is odourless and not inflamed.

dog ear infection

A dog who may benefit from ear cleaning is one who suffers from frequent buildup of waxy material deeper in the ear canal. Certain breeds like Dachshunds are known for this, and removing it regularly via gentle cleaning at home can prevent ear infections.

To see it, shine a head torch or bright penlight straight down the vertical part of the ear canal. Brown material seen down here is abnormal. However, here’s why you shouldn’t clean it out without getting advice first…

3 Reasons Cleaning Can Make An Ear Worse

The picture at the start shows a view down my microscope after the wrong dog’s ears were cleaned. The little purple dots are bacteria, almost certainly Staphylococcus. This dog had a mild ear problem before the wash, and a severe one shortly afterwards.

dog ear yeast
Malassezia pachydermatis

I don’t blame the owner at all. In fact, if you look at the bottle she used, it actually says to use it for ‘otitis externa’ and smelly ears. This is an incredibly bad idea.

So the first reason cleaning can be bad is if the infection is bacterial, not fungal. Most ear cleaners only treat yeast (pictured here) and seem to make bacterial ones worse by adding excess moisture.

The second reason ear cleaning is harmful is when the ear is sore. Nearly all antifungal ear cleaners on the market are very painful when applied to raw tissues. It’s a lot like putting vinegar on a wound or rash.

We see a lot of head shyness in dogs who have had infections treated using cleaners. These dogs have been hurt with ear treatments and are losing their trust in people. It makes future treatment very much harder to the extent that some can only be successfully treated under sedation.

The third reason ear cleaning is harmful is when the ear drum is ruptured. Most cleaning solutions will cause nerve damage and balance problems if they enter the middle ear. I have seen this done several times. It usually occurs after a prolonged ear infection, but it can happen quickly in unlucky dogs.

When Not To Clean Ears At Home

If your dog is showing any of the following signs, please get a checkup before putting anything in the ear:

  • Head shaking or ear scratching
  • A head tilt or holding the ear down
  • An ear odour that’s different from elsewhere on their body
  • Redness or swelling around the ear opening

Almost certainly, your dog will have an ear infection or grass seed needing veterinary attention first. Afterwards, cleaning may be helpful to help prevent future infections but it’s almost certainly too late for this one.

Even for non-smelly ears with a bit of cerumen only, I would get a checkup just to be sure. Dogs are masters at hiding pain so you never know what’s lurking in the horizontal canal.

A single checkup first could save a lot of bother later.

You Might Also like: Why Dogs Get Ear Infections | How To Treat Ear Infections

Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!


2 Replies to “Should I Clean Inside My Dog’s Ears?”

  1. Omg. I didn’t know shampoos could damage the middle ear! I never cleaned my border collie x gsd’s erect ears but he developed canine vestibular disorder / vertigo in later life very suddenly. I read this was common in geriatric dogs and never thought anything of it. But could it actually have been caused by dog shampoo inadvertently running into his ears when we bathed him? If so how do I avoid shampoos that do damage and only buy ones that are safe and won’t cause harm?

    1. Hi Kiri. I wouldn’t be too worried about shampoos causing middle ear damage, as it seems quite rare. The main problem seems to be with ear cleaners. I would assume that your dog’s vestibular disease was the typical idiopathic geriatric form. If you are worried putting a plug of cotton wool in the ears before bathing does reduce the amount that gets in, but it’s vital that you remember to remove it afterwards!

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