Maybe your dog's ears look a little crusty. Maybe she's been scratching them or shaking her head a lot. Whatever the impetus, you need to be careful when you're cleaning canine ears. If you use the wrong method or materials, you could hurt your dog, even render her deaf.
When to Clean
Dogs ears are great at hearing but not so great at self-cleaning. Waxy buildup has to work its way out of a maze of ear tissue before it reaches the ear flap, and even then may stick around. Clean this buildup before it becomes glaringly obvious, but the frequency of such cleanings varies by individual dog. There's a simple test: If your dog's ears look red or inflamed whenever you get ready to clean them, you're probably cleaning them too often. If he shakes his head and scratches his ears excessively after or even before cleaning, a vet checkup is in order.
What to Clean With
Whatever you clean your dog's ears with, make sure it's clean. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends cotton balls dampened with mineral oil, hydrogen peroxide or a commercial solution designed for dog ears. A soft rag works, too. Cotton swabs, while perfectly acceptable for people, aren't recommended because of their potential to cause injury should you slip and stick them into your dog's ear. Make sure your cleaning materials are damp, not dripping, to ensure water doesn't run into your furry friend's ear canals. Have dry materials ready for cleanup, too. If you're using a commercial solution, read the bottle -- some of them have drying agents of their own.
How to Clean
Before you begin, settle your dog into a sitting or lying position and lift back her ear flap with your off hand. Clean your dog's ears with fresh cotton balls or a soft rag by gently wiping from the base to the tip of your dog's ear. Carefully loosen waxy buildup with light, circular pressure, so as not to upset your dog or injure her ear. Never insert anything directly into your dog's ear -- doing so may inadvertently damage her hearing or render her deaf. If you notice changes in your dog's behavior after ear-cleaning, call your veterinarian.
When to Worry
Try not to clean your dog's ears too often, as this can lead to irritated skin, to say nothing of the irritated dog. As for frequency, you'll have to play it by ear. If it seems like your dog's ears require almost daily cleaning, ask your veterinarian for advice. Because of the contoured textures in dog ears, especially near the skull, it's easy for parasites and bacteria to roost there. Any common material -- grass, for instance -- can get stuck in there and cause ear infections, too. If you spot crusty material or discharge, call your vet, particularly if it's darker-colored, bloody or smelly. Hair loss around the ears is another sign something may be wrong.
- Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine: Otoscopic Examination of the Dog and Cat
- University of Illinoise Extension: Be on the Lookout for Problems in Dogs' Ears
- Louisiana State University: "Anatomical Studies of Canine Vascular and Ligamentous Ear Structures With Relevance to Acute-Onset Deafness"; Cathryn Kay Stephens-Sparks