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Pet Education

The Importance of Proper Ear Cleaning in Pets

Keeping pets' ears clean contribute to their health and wellness by preventing irritation and infection that can be painful and potentially lead to hearing loss. Ear disease is one of the most common conditions in pets. The medical name for inflammation or infection of the outer ear canal is otitis externa. Otitis externa is estimated to affect 20% of dogs and 7% of cats in the United States. In 2007, Veterinary Pet Insurance reported that treatment for ear infections ranked as the number one medical claim made for dogs and number eight for cats.

Why do pets get so many ear infections?

Pets are prone to otitis externa due to the long length and L-shape of their ear canals. Debris and bacteria love to collect at the corner of the L and with the naturally warm and sometimes moist environment of the ears, it becomes the perfect environment for infection.

Dogs that are most prone to ear infection include floppy or long-eared breeds (Cocker Spaniels, retrievers, basset hounds, etc) because the long ears hang over the ear canal entrance and prevent the canals from drying out. Dogs that swim and get water into their ears and pets with over-production of wax or hair growth deep in their ear canals are also at increased risk. Ear infection can also result from underlying conditions such as skin allergies and hormonal disorders such as hypothyroidism.

Other conditions that can affect pets' ears and mimic infection include ear mites, foreign bodies (especially plant material) and ear tumors.

What are signs that your pet may have an ear infection?

Signs of ear problems include:

  • Scratching or rubbing of the ears and/or head
  • Head shaking or tilting the head to one side
  • Pain around the ears—your pet may shy away from you petting his or her head
  • Odor or discharge from the ears
  • Redness or swelling of the ear flap or the ear canal
  • Changes in behavior—ear infections are painful and many pets will become snappy or irritable

If you witness any of these signs in your pet, see your veterinarian for a thorough ear examination to determine the cause of the problem. If infections are left untreated, they can lead to hearing loss or extend into the inner ear and become life threatening.

Cleaning your pets' ears

Due to the ear canal shape and the lack of an agile thumb and forefinger to use a Q-Tip, the ears are very difficult for pets to clean themselves! They rely on us to examine and clean their ears to help prevent painful ear disease.

Natural pet products, such as Herbal Ear Wash, are best to help naturally and gently dissolve wax and debris. Herbal Ear Wash is gentle enough to use weekly and does not sting.

Directions for ear cleaning:

1. Place a good amount of ear wash into the ear canal.
2. Massage the base of the ear for 30 seconds to soften and release any wax or debris.
3. Allow your pet to shake his or her head to further loosen the debris.
4. Wipe out the loose debris and excess fluid with a cotton ball.
5. Repeat steps 1-4 as needed until all debris is removed.
6. Praise your pet and offer a healthy natural treat when you are finished!

If cotton-tipped applicator swabs are used, they should NEVER be put into the ear canal. Misplaced swabs can rupture the ear drum as well as pack debris farther down into the ear canal, rather than removing it. For a video demonstration of ear cleaning, please visit PetEducation.com.

Preventing Ear Disease

Remember, prevention of ear infections is the best "medicine!" It is recommended that pet owners examine and clean their pets' ears once weekly with a natural pet product as described above.

If you have a long-eared pet, use a hair band or soft cloth to tie the ears above the head to allow complete drying of the ear canals after ear cleaning, bathing or swimming. Excess hair around and inside the ear should be removed to allow for better air flow and prevention of infection. It is also recommended to treat any underlying condition (such as allergies or hypothyroidism) that predisposes your pet to ear problems.

A small amount of ear wax buildup is normal for your pet. If there is a bad odor from the ears, the ear canals look abnormal, or your pet shows discomfort during routine weekly ear cleaning, see your veterinarian promptly to avoid long term painful ear problems.


Donna Spector, DVM, DACVIM, is a renowned, board-certified Veterinary Internal Medicine Specialist who has practiced at the Animal Medical Center in New York City and other leading institutions. She is an active member of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. Dr. Donna has written and lectured extensively on topics including nutrition, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, kidney failure and respiratory disease. She is widely recognized for her role as consulting veterinarian to HALO, Purely for Pets, her TV appearances with Ellen DeGeneres and her widely-quoted pet health advice in print and on radio.  Dr. Donna performs medical, nutrition and weight loss consultations for dogs and cats through her web-based veterinary consulting service, www.SpectorDVM.com.

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