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Ear Cleaning for Cats and Dogs

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Cleaning your pets' ears is important to their overall health and well-being. Dogs and cats have deep ear canals that travel down and in before reaching the ear drum.  Because air flow is limited in the canal, moisture can build up, especially in dogs with floppy ears or a lot of ear hair.  Moisture and ear wax promote bacterial growth, which is why ear infections are common in dogs and cats.  You can help prevent infections by keeping your pet’s ears clean and dry.  How often you should clean your pet’s ears (eg, weekly, twice a month, monthly, etc) depends on your pet’s physical characteristics and its individual habits (eg, dogs that spend a lot of time in the water need to have their ears cleaned more frequently).  If you suspect that your pet already has an ear infection, see your veterinarian for a professional cleaning and appropriate medication.

Your veterinarian can recommend a commercial ear cleaning solution, which are designed to breakdown the ear wax and clean the canal of any other dirt or debris.  It is a good idea to have someone else hold your pet while you clean the ears (or vice versa), at least until you get comfortable with doing it on your own.  Be careful not to press on or obstruct the ear canal while holding your pet’s head, so that the cleaning solution can get all the way into the canal.

Use one hand to hold the ear flap out of the way (if your pet has floppy ears).  Hold the bottle of cleaning solution in the other hand and squeeze a substantial amount of the liquid into the ear.  Don’t worry about using too much solution, because the excess just ends up on the floor (or spattered on you).  Then, immediately message the area between the ear and the neck to help loosen and dissolve the wax and debris.  It can help to close the ear flap and hold it there while massaging the area.  You may be able to feel the solution swishing around in the canal, like water in a washing machine.  Finally, use a cotton ball to remove the remaining liquid from the ear canal.  Repeat the above process until the cotton is free (or almost so) of wax and debris.

You can insert cotton balls one at a time into the ear canal, reaching in with the cotton ball in your fingers and always pulling it back out toward you (not pushing it deeper into the canal).  Make sure to not leave any cotton in your pet's ear when you are done.  Do not use Q-tips, tweezers, or another instrument to reach deeper into the canal to avoid possible damage to the canal or ear drum.

During the ear cleaning process, your pet will probably shake its head.  This is normal (but a little messy) and helps remove remaining solution from the canal.  However, try to prevent any head shaking at least until you have had a chance to massage the solution into the ear canal.  Keep your pet clear of hard surfaces (eg, doors and tables) as it shakes to avoid possible injuries to the ear flap that could lead to a hematoma.

Q&A

How often should I routinely clean my pet’s ears?

It depends on the individual pet, but monthly to weekly cleaning is usually recommended.

What should I use to clean my pet's ears?

It is best to use a commercial ear cleaning solution and cotton balls, because this combination will not damage the ear.

What if my pet shakes its head?

You will get spattered but otherwise no harm is done.  Continue with the cleaning and repeat the process if necessary.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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