The Importance of Cleaning your Dog’s Ears

Just like humans dogs need to clean their ears on a regular basis to prevent dirt build up and illness. Although they may scratch their ears and shake their heads, this does not get down inside the ear where debris and bacteria can accumulate over time, so it is important to clean your dog’s ears for them.

They are messy creatures that like to run around, roll in the mud and stick their heads out the car window, so gradually the ear canals can become clogged with dirt and bacteria. This bacterium can get in to the middle and inner ear and cause numerous infections, resulting in pain, gooey discharge and in some cases hearing loss.

Like a lot of other procedures, such as checking the dog’s mouth or general grooming, cleaning the dog’s ears is a delicate process and needs to be done with upmost care to prevent pain or infection.

We like to think we are caring for our pets, but often go over the top. Cleaning the ears too much can actually lead to infection as the constant opening of the ear and exposure allows air borne bacteria easier access and the constant irritation with prodding around and using cleaning products can just upset the natural flow. It’s ok for a small amount of dirt and wax to be in the ear because it keeps bacteria and other debris away from the deep parts of the ear. It’s the occasional cleaning of this which keeps it from building up and causing any damage.

Facts about Dog Ears

Dog ears come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. Some droop right down to the ground, others sit erect on top of the head. It’s important to know what type of ear your dog has to best know how to maintain them, although the inner anatomy of the ear stays the same.

The outer part of the ear, whether they are prick ears or floppy ears are known as the Pinna or just flaps. This is just the extra bit that protects the entrance to the middle ear along with some hair. It contains a small amount of cartilage (soft bone) and helps to funnel in sound like a human ear.

If you follow the Pinna down you will see the ear entrance leading down through the Ear Canal, which bends at almost 90 degrees to protect anything getting around to the Ear Drum and inner ear. It is important never to force cotton buds in to the canal because it can damage the ear drum (causing hearing loss) and force dirt further down. The idea is to clean around the entrance to prevent dirt from building up and use cleaning agents to unblock and flush anything that is further down the canal.

The inner ear is the deepest part and goes beyond the Ear Drum, Bulla (small pocket of air to help amplification) and the Eustachian Tube (the secondary ear canal). The inner ear connects to the brain and affects balance, which is why in both humans and dogs an inner ear infection can have devastating damage, resulting in constant disorientation and sickness. (Think being on a choppy boat constantly). That’s scary for a human but even more distressing for a dog.

Problems and their Signs & Causes

There are a few tell tale signs that your dog has an ear infection or is just a bit clogged up with dirt. The first thing you can look out for is scratching, rubbing the side of the head along the floor and a general irritability around the ear area. They may also seem unhappy, depressed and off their food. This shows you that your dog is either in pain or has an infection that is itchy and uncomfortable.

If you check the ear and there is substantial gooey discharge or a big build up of dirt that might be too much to clean yourself then this also points towards and infection and you should take your dog to a vet for professional cleaning and syringing.

Along with dirt buildup or discharge usually comes a foul odor, which often points to something worse than just the regular smell of dirt. Normal dirt smells a bit off but an infection will smell almost rotten. In this case you may notice the smell before seeing the problem.

Sometimes the ear may be perfectly clean, although there may be redness, sores, inflammation or dry patches pointing to a skin infection or allergic reaction to something that came in contact with the ear. If it doesn’t die down this is another case for the vet and you should always wait for their diagnosis before buying a product.

Inflammation of the ear canal can be what is commonly known as ear disease or Otitis. This shockingly affects an estimated 20% of the dog population and is often undetected for months. If you suspect this is the problem you’ll need a veterinarian to take a closer look, give the ears a clean and possibly prescribe a course of medication to get rid of it completely.

There are lots of causes of ear infections and problems, although the most common is just general dirt buildup over time. Debris and objects can often get lodged in the ear and speed up the clogging process so it is important to check your dog’s ears after running through tall grass and weeds or swimming in a dirty river. It is easy for insects and other bits of wildlife to get in to the dog’s ears during these scenarios.

Unclean water itself can lead to infections because it’s a lot easier for water to flow down the ear canal and bring the dirt with it. Make an effort to dry your dog’s ears after a swim because moisture is a breeding ground for bacteria and yeast infections and the added warmth of inside the ear makes it the perfect home for nasties.

Dogs with floppy ears are the most susceptible to the above scenarios because they are closer to the ground and in some cases the ears are actually dragging along the ground. Insects say hey, this looks like a nice warm home to stay in, not knowing that it’s a living dog’s ear canal.

Occasionally your dog may pick up a parasite such as an ear mite, which unlike an insect that accidently found its way in the ear, actually needs the dog’s ear to survive. These small crab like creatures live off the dead tissue and ear fluid, breeding and biting inside you poor pet’s ear canal and if left untreated may spread outside the ear and on to the coat. This will cause severe inflammation and discomfort and should be treated immediately. If you have more than one dog they can spread very quickly, although they tend to affect puppies more than adult dogs. After visiting the vet for a good clean you will be prescribed medication and told how to keep the ears clean from then on. Despite this, mites can spread to even the cleanest dog’s ears so it is not a poor reflection of your care. Ear mites are different to flees because they don’t bite and draw blood, just feed off the skin.

Hypothyroidism is another ear problem and is common with breeds such as Labradors, Retrievers and Spaniels which have a big amount of ceruminous glands in the ear canal, resulting in more moisture for microorganisms and bacteria to grow and for parasites to live off. Hypothyroidism can come from this extra moisture or occur because there is a hormone imbalance which promotes the excretion of more moisture. This needs immediate attention because it can cause much worse problems than ear infections such as tumors and muscle weakness.

There are various other problems that can occur in your dog’s ears but the main thing is that you detect the signs and alert a vet so they can make a professional diagnosis.

Cleaning and Prevention

The good thing is that most of these horrible infections and problems can be prevented with some simple cleaning which you can do at home. You should already be giving your dog the regular once over for any problems and the ears should be part of this daily examination. If all is fine then there is no need to clean, but once you start to see dirt around the ear entrance or if the main ear flap has become grubby you should think about giving them a wash. To do this properly there are various tools you’ll need which can be brought from the store or a specialized pet shop. You’ll need:

  • Cotton wool balls (make sure they are not too soft and flimsy, so they don’t break off in the ear).
  • Cleaning pads (slightly tougher than balls and can soak up fluid from the inside of the ear).
  • Cloth (to wipe away any excess fluid).
  • Formulated Cleaning solution or eardrops (it’s better to stick with specially made products for dogs).
  • Ear drying powder (to help the drying process and prolong dryness altogether).

It’s ok to use cotton buds (q-tips), but under no circumstances should you push them in to the ear canal because you might force dirt further down or damage the ear drum directly. This is the same for water syringes. It’s fine to use them but shouldn’t be forced down the ear canal. Any deep flushing should be done by a trained vet and often under anesthesia to prevent discomfort. Alcohol based solutions should also be avoided because they can cause burning and pain to your dog’s ear. It’s best to use tested and formulated dog ear only cleaning products as they’ll be sure to work specifically for dogs. You can ask for a recommendation or prescription from a vet.

The process for cleaning a dog’s ear may be easy for some owners and difficult for others, depending on the personality of the dog. It’s best to put them on a raised surface, such as a table for you to gain easier access. The table also works as a slight distraction whilst you’re cleaning.

Gently pull the ear flap towards you and slowly squirt the non alcoholic cleaning fluid in to the ear. (You might need to put one arm around the dog for restraint if they find the sensation uncomfortable), all the while praising and petting them to keep them calm.

Next massage the exterior base of the ear for about 30 seconds so all of the fluid soaks in and begins to loosen any dirt and clean the ear.

Now get one of the cotton balls and gently wipe the dirt and excess fluid from around the entrance of the ear canal.

You now must be extra careful and use a cleaning pad to go slightly inside the ear and soak up the rest of the solution and dirt. To save you from going too far inside and causing damage, it’s a good idea to use some drying powder to soak up any remaining fluid and keep the ear dry for the next few days.

If there is an excess fluid on the outside of the ear, simply dry it off with a cloth.

Its fine to repeat any of the above steps until the ear is fully clean, although try not to overdo it and cause any damage.

Remember to give your dog some attention afterwards followed by a treat so they know they did a good job and they don’t associate the procedure with pain or discomfort.

Doing this twice a week is adequate and any more often can actually lead to ear problems as explained earlier.

Keeping the ears clean is just as important as any other method of cleaning you use on your dog. For continued care and maintenance it is important to look after your pet in every possible way. It not only saves on vet bills but also keeps them happy and healthy.

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