Ear infections are common in pets, and an important way to help eliminate and prevent future infections is to clean their ears regularly. If your pet has an ear infection, effective ear cleaning is a vital part of treatment success as a medicated ointment that sits on top of a lot of wax will not resolve your pet’s infection. It is important to treat the ear canal correctly, ensuring the solution reaches the target location but it is equally important to train your pet to accept this treatment without causing it stress or pain. 

Anatomy of the ear:

Your pet’s external ear canal, unlike humans, has a vertical and a horizontal part. Most of the infection and wax build-up accumulates in the horizontal part. If this is not cleaned out properly, the infection will not resolve. In cases where your dog or cat is experiencing extreme pain or there is excessive wax and debris in the canals, your vet may recommend ear flushing under sedation. If you are taking responsibility for the cleaning, it is important to remember the anatomy so that when you clean, you lift the ear flap (pinna) at an angle to maximally straighten both canals and create and easy path for the debris to be removed by your cleaning solution. If your pet’s ears are red, sore, and inflamed ensure that you first see your vet who will prescribe pain medication to make the cleaning process less traumatic for your pet. 

Getting started:

You will need the following:

  • Gloves (if the ears are very mucky and you don’t want the smell on your hands).
  • Cotton wool (the soft type on a roll is easier; never use earbuds).
  • A gentle pH neutral ear-cleaning solution (we recommend Epi-Otic).
  • A few yummy treats for positive reinforcement.

The procedure, if done properly, can take from 5 to 10 minutes so ensure that you have set aside enough time and patience.

A note on ear cleaners: Your cleaning solution should be mild, and free from any potentially harmful chemicals. You should stay away from products that use vinegar, alcohol, or hydrogen peroxide, as they irritate the ear canal. Your vet will recommend a gentle but effective ear cleaner that breaks down wax, prevents yeast overgrowth, and helps to dry the ear canal.

In calm, desensitised pets, ear cleaning can be done by one person, but with young, excited animals, or pets that dislike (or are unfamiliar with) ear cleaning, it may be necessary to have one person distracting and/or holding the pet while another person instills the solution. If your pet is unsure about the process, remember to work confidently but calmly, displaying patience and providing a lot of positive reinforcement. A bad experience will only enforce your pet’s insecurity. If it is too complicated or difficult, please contact us to discuss possible alternative strategies. 

The procedure:

  • If your pet will allow it, carefully trim any access hair in or around the entrance to the ear canal with blunt-tipped scissors. Ear canals that are blocked by matted or excess hair cannot receive enough airflow to keep the ear canal dry. This can increase the likelihood of wax build-up and ear infections.
  • With one hand, gently flip the ear flap straight up. This is best done by cupping the ear flap (pinna) in your hand with the haired part of the ear against the palm of your hand and your thumb on the hairless inner surface of the ear flap. You should be able to see the inside of the ear (ear canal) this way. Some breeds of dogs have naturally upright ears, and in these dogs, the hand can simply be cupped behind the ear.
  • Holding the ear flap cupped in the palm of your hand means that the ear canal takes on the shape of a funnel. You can then place the room-temperature cleaning solution into the ear canal (on a cold day run the bottle under some warm water first to take the chill off) allowing the solution to fill the canal to the brim. Gently and slowly squeeze a stream of ear cleaning solution into the ear canal being careful not to allow the bottle tip to touch the ear canal, which would contaminate the bottle and its contents. Cats do not need a lot of solution to fill the ear canal and squeezing a cotton ball that has been soaked in solution against the entrance to its ear canal is often well tolerated.
  • Once the ear canal is filled with solution, lower the ear flap and massage the ear canal for 10 to 20 seconds. You should be able to hear a squelching sound as you compress the ear canal and loosen the wax.
  • Place the soft cotton wool at the entrance to the ear canal and agitate the canal (like you would if you were easing an itch in your own ear) to allow the fluid to be lifted out onto your cotton wool (and with it the wax). Allow your pet to shake its head and again use some cotton wool to clean the ear flap and outer ear canal.
  • If there is a lot of brown or waxy material that comes out, repeat the cleaning until you are sure the ear canal is clear of all debris.
  • If there is ointment that you need to instill for existing infection, wait for at least 30 minutes for the canal to dry and then instill the recommended amount. Massage it down while lifting the ear flap straight up to ensure the ointment is reaching the entire length of the ear canal.

Below are two useful clips on how to clean pets’ ears and instill ointment:

How to Clean a Dog’s Ears in Detail

EPI-OTIC® Advanced Ear Cleanser


My dog/cat doesn’t like ear cleanings. What do I do?

If your pet runs for the hills when you grab the ear cleaner, it is important to desensitise it to the procedure of ear cleaning. Firstly, ensure that your pet is not in any pain. A red and inflamed ear canal is highly sensitive and you will need to take your pet to the vet to receive pain medication before you start cleaning its ears.

Your pet is avoiding you because its afraid, not because it’s being naughty. This could be due to your pet not being used to being handled in this particular way, thus causing anxiety, or it has had a previous painful experience and is scared of being hurt again.

We cannot communicate freely with our pets. Therefore, it is important to show them that they are in no danger which results in an easier to manage process for both our pets and ourselves.

The process of desensitising your pet to ear cleaning must be done slowly and in a non-painful ear. The point of the process is to allow your pet to become comfortable with all the steps of ear cleaning, one step at a time, which reduces its stress.

The first and most important step is to ensure that your pet is comfortable with being handled. Dogs and cats are not naturally inclined to having their faces held. Hence, the reason for first slowly teaching them to let us touch and hold their faces. The biggest mistake you can make is to go headfirst into a new stimulus with your pet. You must pair any new (and potentially uncomfortable) stimulus with positive reinforcement (food and praise).

Start by holding your pet’s head. Only hold its head for one or two seconds, then let go and reinforce with a treat. Repeat this until your pet appears comfortable. Once your pet is comfortable, hold it still for an additional second or two. Continue to increase the amount of time you restrain your pet, and practice moving its head around with your hands. You should only move on to the next step when your pet seems entirely comfortable.

Next, you need to teach your pet to accept having its ears touched. Lightly hold your pet’s ear for a moment, then let go and reinforce with a treat. Once your pet is comfortable with that, move on to looking into its ear. The next step should be holding your pet’s ear open, then applying gentle massaging pressure to the ear. You should also practice gently wiping the interior of the ear with a cotton ball. Only once your pet is comfortable with being restrained and having its ears handled, should you begin the ear cleaning process.

Carefully squeeze out enough ear cleaning solution to fill your pet’s ear canal. Dribble it gently onto the pinna and not directly into the ear canal as this can be ticklish for your pet and make an unpleasant sound. Gently massage the base of your pet’s ear for about 10 to 20 seconds. Ensure that during this process you are distracting and rewarding your pet with much praise and many treats (smeared peanut butter or cream cheese on a Lickimat™ or smooth vertical surfaces such as a fridge or tiled wall works well). Allow your pet to shake its head to remove the fluid. Give a lot of praise at this point. This shaking should help loosen the wax and bring it out of the ear canal. Take your cotton ball and gently wipe the inside of the ear to remove any excess cleaning solution and wax.

How often do I need to clean the ears?

The regularity of cleaning your pet’s ears will depend on the individual pet and any conditions being treated. Most pets should have their ears cleaned once a month. However, a good maintenance routine for at-risk pets is once a week. Your vet will direct you as to how often to clean your pet’s ears based on its unique risk factors. As a general rule of thumb for pets with sensitive ears, theirs should be cleaned after every swim or grooming session to ensure effective drying out of the ear canal. 

Can my pet cause more damage if it continuously shakes or scratches its head?

Yes, your pet can cause damage to its ears through scratching and headshaking. In some cases, an otohaematoma (a collection of blood between the two cartilage layers of the ear) can develop which may require surgery. The continual flapping of the ears, scratching, or shaking of the head can indicate an ear infection. Left untreated, this can lead to middle ear infection, which is a severe and expensive condition to treat.

In summary:

Ear-cleaning solutions, when used correctly, will maintain your pet’s ear-canal hygiene and help to prevent infection. However, if you notice any of the following symptoms, you should contact your vet immediately:

  • Increased fluid, brown or pasty discharge from one or both ears.
  • Increased redness, swelling, or heat from the ear.
  • Increased pain.
  • Increased shaking or scratching of the ears.
  • Yeasty smell to the ear.

Owning a dog or cat that is prone to ear infections can be expensive and frustrating so please feel free to contact us at any time if you have questions or concerns.

Yours in petcare,
The Teva Team
Teva Veterinary Clinic (021) 851-3511