Keeping pets’ ears clean contributes to their health and wellness

This information is provided as the 4th in our series of fundamental instruction on assuring the health and well-being of your pet’s health.  See our other blogs at :

 Keeping pets’ ears clean contributes to their health and wellness by preventing irritation and infection that can be painful and potentially lead to hearing loss. Ear infection (otitis externa) is one of the most common and significant small animal problems that is preventable.  If infections are left untreated, they can lead to hearing loss or extend into the inner ear and become life threatening. Pets are prone to otitis externa due to the long length and L-shape of their ear canals. Otitis externa is estimated to affect 20% of dogs and 7% of cats in the United States.

Remember, prevention of ear infections is the best “medicine!”

Observation of the ears regularly, and proper cleaning with appropriate cleaners go a long way to prevention of both acute and chronic otitis. I recommend cleaning healthy ears monthly. A small amount of ear wax buildup is normal for your pet. 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. If there is a bad odor from the ears, the ear canals look abnormal, or your pet shows discomfort during routine monthly ear cleaning, see your veterinarian promptly to avoid long term painful ear problems.

Directions for ear cleaning:

  1. Dry clean ears first with cotton balls and a hemostat.
  2. Place a good amount of ear wash into the ear canal.
  3. Massage the base of the ear for 30 seconds to soften and release any wax or debris.
  4. Allow your pet to shake his or her head to further loosen the debris.
  5. Wipe out the loose debris and excess fluid with a cotton ball.
  6. Repeat steps 1-4 as needed until all debris is removed.

Infections of the ear

Causes or inciting factors of infection include:

  • moisture (swimming, not drying after a bath)
  • parasites (ear mites, ticks)
  • allergy to inhalant topics, food allergens,
  • foreign bodies such as grass, seeds
  • bacterial/yeast overgrowth often due to inflammation of the ear canal

Endocrine disease, such as hypothyroidism, can predispose an animal’s ears to inflammation. Polyps and tumors in the ear canal or middle ear also can prevent drainage of wax and debris thus setting the ear up for infection. Narrowing of the ear canal due to tissue thickening (hyperplasia/fibrosis) prevents drainage as well.

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

  • 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

Treatment of infections at your veterinarian’s office

When we see an infection in an ear we start by examining the ear canal with an otoscope checking for foreign bodies, etc. We are often unable to see very deep in the ear due to debris so the next step is to remove some debris to examine under the microscope using special stains for bacteria and yeast. We are also looking for mites, etc. With chronic infections we would have to first culture the ear before doing anything else. Next we clean the ear, tubes are often required to flush the ear canal clean. Some pets allow us do this while awake, other do not. Hopefully after cleaning we can see the ear drum (tympanic membrane TM). Topical medications will depend on whether the TM is intact or not and depends on the organisms we see on cytology. With chronic ear infections we clean and apply anti inflammatory medications until we receive the results of the culture.

Home care after treatment Home care is critical for the prevention of ear infections. This consists of dry cleaning and instilling some type of liquid ear cleaner to get deeper into the canal on a daily basis. Once ears are cleaned and dried, instill a small amount of an appropriate medication. Some animal’s ears only require twice weekly or less cleaning. I use a small hemostat and a cotton ball. Use a piece of cotton larger than the ear canal but small enough to get deep into the ear. Trust me, you can’t hit the ear drum. Gently clean all the crevices in the ear as deep as you can go. Cotton size depends on ear size. Good cleaning is the most important part to resolve your pet’s ear infection. Stay after them. It’s a long term project, often months. Just because you can’t see the infection doesn’t mean it’s gone. Ear canals are long. At least every 2 week rechecks by your veterinarian with an ear scope while the infections are active is important to be sure things are improving. I like to medicate after every cleaning.