Funky Ears: How to Care for Your Dog’s Ears

Most dogs will agree that the process of ear cleaning is pure injustice.  Nothing scares me– I’ll sleep through thunder, and toddlers whacking my nose with a toy is quite charming.  I love to be hugged by men in giant Elmo suits at Times Square, and loud speed boats are cool because it takes me to Fire Island.  Although I’m a thick skinned New York St. Bernard, I take great offense to ear cleaning. It is an atrocity.  A crime.

My brother, Masa the St. Bernard, was quite dramatic about ear cleaning when he was first adopted at a year old.  He had chronic ear infections from dietary and environmental allergies, and his 165lb body would leap over couches to escape from wet cotton balls.  Today, he kinda sorta likes it, but he will not admit that he’s a masochist.

Here are a few tips on how to clean your dog’s ears.  Ear hygiene should be an essential part of regular care because clean ears prevents pesky ear infections.

SUPPLIES:
  • Ear cleaning solutions:  Most ear cleaners are alcohol and salicylate based, but some dogs are sensitive to alcohol or salicylate products.  In which case, find a product that is gentle to the ears, such as enzyme cleaners like Zymox or witch hazel solutions. Some dogs require alcohol or salicylates because the funk is severe. Although there are many efficacious OTC and products, consult your vet about the best product for your dog.
  • Wipes:  Cotton balls are suitable for dogs with small ear canals, but it can be quite precarious with larger breeds.  Commercial ear wipes, cotton pads, or soft paper towels cut into small squares are useful for dogs with big ears like me.  Preparation H wipes for humans are great, as the base is witch hazel, gentle on the ears, and perfectly sized to clean one ear.  
  • Q-Tips:  I don’t recommend the use of q-tips unless you have a very gentle hand.  Q tips can be useful to reach narrow crevices, but it should never be inserted into the ear canal to prevent damage in the inner ear.  
  • Treats:  The treats dispensed to convince your dog to participate in ear cleaning should be high value treats. Liver, cheese, meat, peanut butter– standard cookies or kibble will not convince your dog that ear cleaning means good times.  
HOW:
  • Place the high value treats at close proximity.  Heck, put peanut butter on a ladle and allow us to lick it while you prepare for the savagery.  Place your dog in a comfortable position that would allow you to easily reach him and restrain his movements if necessary.
  • Continue to offer treats to keep the curiosity.  
  • Place paper product into the palm of your hand in a wadded ball.
  • Thoroughly soak the paper product until it is drenched. Be generous– you want it to drip.  Give him more treats!
  • Gently insert the soaked paper product into your dog’s ear by opening the ear flap.  Close his ears with one hand and gently rub the base of his ears for a few minutes.  The longer the better, as you are loosening the accumulated debris, and allowing the solution to travel down the ear canals.  The rubbing motion should produce a squishing sound.  
  • Offer treats and provide lots of praise to let him know that he’s a superstar for dealing with squishing in his ears. Trust me, it sucks.
  • Pull the paper product out of his ears, and gently wipe the debris with the same cotton ball or wipe.  Repeat this process until his ears are free of reddish brown or brown discharge.  Do not use force on the tip of your fingers.  Be gentle, and praise the dog with more treats as he tolerates the process.  If some crevices are hard to reach, soak the q-tips with ear cleaning solution and clean the crevices that are hard to reach but NEVER into the ear canal.  
  • Wash your hands, and repeat on the other ear with a freshly soaked and new cotton ball or wipes.  Never insert the same cotton ball or wipe in the other ear, as a dog can have bacterial or yeast infections in one ear, but not on the other.  By using the same wipe or dirty hands, you can transfer the infection into the healthy ear.  
  • Tell him he’s a GOOD BOY or GIRL, and give em a hug.  Praise does wonders to compliance for future ear cleanings.  
WHEN SHOULD THE EARS BE CLEANED?:
  • For dogs with healthy ears, once every 2-3 weeks as routine maintenance should be sufficient.  Don’t wait until the ears are dirty to prevent ear infections. Once it starts, it’s hard to cure chronic ear infections.
  • Floppy eared dogs are prone to ear infections than dogs with pointy ears due to lack of air exposure.  The floppy guys should clean their ears every 1-2 weeks.
  • If your dog is a swimmer, his ears should be cleaned shortly after swimming as the ear cleaner will help to dry it out. Moisture remaining in the ears will cause the bacteria or yeast to thrive, so keeping the ears dry is crucial in preventing ear infections.
  • If your dog has an active ear infection, the ears should be cleaned once a day, followed with medicated drops as prescribed by your vet, or an over the counter remedy such as Zymox.  Get your dog examined by a vet if a particular OTC or prescription product that worked previously no longer works.  A culture is necessary to identify the cause to make sure that you are treating the ear infection with the right product.  
  • If your dog’s ears tend to get ear infections frequently due to allergies or swimming, clean his ears every week to prevent ear infections. 
  • Smell your dog’s ears– if it smells musky, it’s time to clean the ears even if you do not see any discharge.
  • Look inside his ears often– if there are brown or reddish discharge or waxy build up, it’s time to clean his ears.  
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOUR DOG HAS AN EAR INFECTION?:

When we have ear infections, it bothers the heck out of us. It itches and it hurts.  It’s horrendously uncomfortable.  Watch for the following signs:

  • Strange tilting of the head.  We’re not pondering the meaning of life.
  • Scratching at the ears and head with front and rear paws.
  • Whining while trying to reach the ears.
  • Redness, swelling, thick, or scaly skin in the inside of his ears.  A healthy ear has smooth, pale skin.
  • Odor– ear infections have a distinct, musky and yeasty odor.
  • Discharge– brown or reddish discharge often indicates ear infections.
WHAT CAUSES EAR INFECTIONS?

The causes are many, and some dogs are just prone to it due to the shape of their ears, activity, or genetic predisposition. The causes of ear infections are:

  • Bacteria or yeast
  • Dirt and debris
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Allergies (food or environmental)
  • Moisture
  • Ear mites
  • Dense hair in the ears (ask your groomer to keep the fur clipped inside the ears for better ventilation. Never tweeze, as this can cause complications in the inner ear or skin irritations).  

So as you can see, the best way to prevent and treat infections are frequent cleanings.  Keep the process positive– don’t get frustrated at the resistant or dramatic dog.  A combination of your positive energy and high value treats will eventually help us accept the procedure as innocuous, and routine regimen will prevent the frequent occurrence of ear infections!