A vet and pet parent clean a cats ears with gauze.

Ear Cleaning Tips for Cats and Dogs

Cleaning your pet’s ears should be part of a normal grooming regimen. Without regular cleanings, waxy debris can build-up in the ears, making them more prone to irritation and infection. The frequency of ear cleanings varies from pet to pet and can range from weekly to just a few times a year.

Certain pets may benefit from weekly cleanings, such as pets that have floppy ears, suffer from allergies, or have a history of infections. Pets should also have their ears cleaned any time they are bathed or groomed, as exposure to water may lead to moisture accumulation in or around the ears, ultimately resulting in the development of infection.

Basic Ear Anatomy

Prior to cleaning your pet’s ears, it is important to have a basic understanding of ear anatomy, as this will help you clean the ears more effectively and avoid causing any trauma or damage.

The ear canal of a dog and cat is L-shaped, with both a vertical and horizontal portion. The eardrum (tympanic membrane) separates the external portion of the ear from the middle and internal portions of the ear. When cleaning the ears, you should focus on the vertical portion of the ear canal, as this will help you avoid causing damage to the eardrum.

Cleaning Equipment

You should always use a pet-formulated ear cleanser to clean the ears. Avoid products such as vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, soaps or shampoos, and even water, as these may increase irritation and also trigger an infection rather than preventing one. There are various medicated cleansers as well, which may target bacterial and/or fungal infections. These should only be used as directed by your veterinarian.

Gauze and cotton balls are best for cleaning. Anything that can be stuck down the ear canals, such as cotton swabs, should be avoided. These types of products can cause further damage to the ear canal, such as lacerations (cuts) or direct damage to the eardrum. They can even break and get stuck in the canal, leading to an unwanted emergency visit.

Step-by-Step Guide to Cleaning Your Pet’s Ears

  1. Cleaning the ears should be a happy and pleasant experience for both you and your pet. In order to ensure that this happens, always have treats handy and use plenty of words of affirmation.
  2. Have all of your equipment ready prior to starting the ear cleaning.
  3. Sit on the floor next to your dog or cat. It may be helpful to have someone hold them just in case they try to squirm away. It is best to approach them from the side or slightly from behind to gain the best access to the ear canal.
  4. A good way to distribute the ear cleanser in the canal is by soaking gauze or cotton balls in it, and then placing a few drops in the canal. If your pet’s ears are floppy, lift the ear flap (pinna) up in order to get better visualization of the canal and to help straighten it out, so that you can better place the gauze or cotton balls. This method will prevent the tickle sensation a pet may feel when the cleanser is squirted down the ear canal, and may help prevent your pet from immediately shaking their head.
  5. Once you have the gauze or cotton balls at the top of the canal, gently massage the canal from the outside. You should hear a squishing sound, which is the ear cleanser distributing itself throughout the canal. Continue this for 30 seconds.
  6. You can now remove the gauze or cotton balls from the canal, and while doing so you may use them to wipe out some of the debris.
  7. Allow your pet to shake their head. This will help dislodge the debris from further down in the canal.
  8. Take some more fresh gauze or cotton balls and wipe out the remainder of the canal until all of the debris has been removed.
  9. If your pet is currently being treated daily for an ear infection, you can now place the ear medication in the ear as directed by your veterinarian.
  10. Repeat the process with the other ear.

When to Contact Your Veterinarian

If your pet ever appears to be in pain during an ear cleaning, please stop immediately and contact your veterinarian.

Also, if your pet has excessive or stinky debris in the ears, the ears seem red or inflamed, or your pet is shaking their head or scratching at their ears more than normal, you should contact your veterinarian. These can all be signs of allergies and/or an ear infection and will likely need to be addressed with more than just regular ear cleanings.

It is always important to follow-up with your veterinarian after treatment for infection. Some pets may need additional or longer courses of treatment even after their signs (such as scratching or head shaking) resolve.

Some dogs with recurrent ear infections may need additional diagnostics, such as a culture of the ear to look for resistant bacteria, or advanced imaging of the ear canal such as a CT scan or video otoscopy.