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Got Earwax? A Tutorial on How to Clean Your Dog’s Ears

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Clean your dog's ears

“There’s an entire crop of potatoes in here!” Nope, I wasn’t discussing our newest pocket garden. I was referring to the amount of disgusting brown crud in our dog’s ears. It confirmed my suspicion as to why she kept rubbing her head all over the carpet: earwax. Our vet confirmed the diagnosis, and now I was teaching my husband how to clean our dog’s ears. She was putting on her best drama queen performance for her daddy, and he was grossed out. There’s no denying earwax is disgusting, but it serves an important function for the ear. Learning to monitor it and clean your dog’s ears when it becomes excessive is pretty easy.

What is Earwax?

Glands produce earwax in the ear canal. The earwax and other oils, referred to as sebum, function as a barrier. They collect dirt, pollen, microbes, and other debris and then slide out of the ear. This process cleans the ear naturally. Healthy earwax is pale to yellowish and does not have an odor.

So when does earwax become a problem?

  • Your dog’s earwax turns dark in color.
  • You notice a heavy build-up in their ears.
  • Any odor becomes obvious.
  • Your dog shakes their head or rubs their head on the ground/furniture (this is our dog’s M.O.).

If you notice any of these signs, a good cleaning of your dog’s ears is warranted.

Predisposing Earwax Problems

Cocker Spaniel with ear wax

Some conditions predispose dogs to ear problems. If they don’t receive regular ear cleanings, you could find yourself making frequent vet visits.

Breeds with long-hanging ears are notorious for having earwax issues. Basset Hounds, for example, have long ear canals as well as ears that reach the ground and sweep debris. They need more frequent cleanings than other breeds.

Some Cocker Spaniels have a genetic condition that tells their glands to produce more earwax than normal. Add that to long ears and it’s a recipe for infection. These poor sweethearts need very understanding owners.

English Bulldogs have numerous skin folds – it’s part of their charm. All of those folds trap dirt and debris, though. Their ears require frequent cleaning to keep up. If they have allergies – something this breed is known for – the problem becomes more serious. In fact, any dog with allergies can suffer from excess earwax.

Poodles and poodle mixes actually grow hair into their ear canals. Since these breeds don’t shed, earwax becomes trapped in the hair and forms a hairball. This hairball then serves as a reservoir for infection (yuck!). When at the groomer, make sure you ask for their ears to get plucked. For any dog who visits the groomer, hairballs become a risk if hair falls into the ear.

Ear Cleaning Materials

Regular vet visits are also part of ear health

So you know there’s too much earwax in your dog’s ears, and you want to tackle cleaning. Before you start, gather some materials. Successful ear cleaning comes from having everything on hand.

  • Ear Cleaner: Use the cleaner recommended by your veterinarian. Cleaners with hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, or alcohol dry out the ear canal. Plus, if there’s any irritation, they make it worse. There are cleaners specifically designed for earwax; your vet will make the best recommendation for your dog.
  • Cotton Balls/Pads/Squares: These work best for removing earwax, dirt, and other debris. They’re soft, gentle, and absorbent. NEVER use cotton tip applicators! Applicators push debris deeper into the ear, causing complications. If too much debris pushes against the eardrum, it can rupture.
  • Towel: Ear cleaning is MESSY. Draping a towel over your dog’s head (if they’ll tolerate it) or yourself will help contain some of the “fallout.” At the very least, it will save you from smelling like the cleaner for the rest of the day.
  • Treats: You want to keep this a happy experience. After all, you’re going to have to make this part of your routine. Giving your dog a treat or two afterward as positive reinforcement will help you down the road.

Pick your “arena” carefully. Again, ear cleaning is messy. You don’t want to clean your dog’s ears on your favorite couch. We clean our dog’s ears on her bed (the cover zips off and is washable).

Clean Your Dog’s Ears 101

Clean your dog's ears by first finding the right spot to start

First, take a deep breath – this is easy (contrary to my husband’s commentary). If you stay calm, so will your dog. Okay, here we go:

  1. Sit with your dog’s backside braced between your legs or in a corner (if you have a large dog). You’re not mean; you just want them in one place.
  2. Hold the ear flap (pinna) straight up to expose the ear canal.
  3. Be careful not to touch the tip of the cleaner bottle into the ear (no cross-contamination) and fill the ear canal with cleaner. Yes, you need that much.
  4. Gently massage the base of the ear. You’ll hear “squishy” noises. This loosens up the stubborn earwax and debris.
  5. Use a cotton ball soaked in a cleaner to wipe away any debris on the pinna.
  6. Cover your dog’s head with the towel and let him shake his head (or have the towel over you and turn your head to the side to protect your eyes). This further loosens the debris and brings it to the surface.
  7. Lift the pinna again and wipe out the debris and cleaner with a fresh cotton ball. Only go as deep as your finger can reach. Don’t worry about hitting the eardrum – you can’t (I promise).
  8. Using a fresh cotton ball each time, repeat until it comes out clean.
  9. Give your dog a treat.
  10. Repeat with the other ear.

Your vet will let you know how often to clean your dog’s ears. You don’t want to overdo it or you’ll dry out the ear canal and an infection might develop. If your dog winces in pain, stop and consult your vet. Any prescribed medications should be administered after the ear is clean.

Clean Ears, Happy Ears

Cleaning your dog’s ears for the first time might be frightening – for both of you. However, once you get the routine down, it’s a breeze. Positive reinforcement will go a long way toward helping you. The removal of extra earwax leaves them feeling comfortable, and it prevents possible infection.

At least until she throws her head down and rubs it in the dirt.

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Andria Kennedy

Andria Kennedy

Andria Kennedy worked as a Licensed Veterinary Technician for 10 years, focusing on Emergency/ICU and later Cardiology, as well as volunteering at both the Philadelphia Zoo and Virginia Living Museum for over six years. She's now a freelance writer, but she gravitates toward writing projects with a focus on animals (once an animal-lover, always an animal-lover). She lives in Virginia with her husband, three cats (one "works" as her personal assistant), and a Greyhound who thinks she's a big cat — all of them rescues.

1 Comment

  1. Really informative, I like it

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