Should I clean my dog’s or cat’s ears myself?

Like any family member, we want to look out for our pet's health and well-being. Diet, exercise, coat grooming, and regular check-ups with the vet are all fundamental pet care. But there's more to grooming than meets the eye!

Our dogs and cats use their ears for much more than just hearing. They also rely on them for balance and body language expressions. A build-up of earwax, debris or an infection can cause discomfort and pain and affect their overall health.

In this guide led by Dr Rosalind Holland (BVSc, MVM, MANZCVS), you’ll learn the dos and don’ts of pet ear maintenance. With practical information and expert advice, you can ensure clean, comfortable ears for pets who only know how to show love in their unique ways—tail wagging, purring, or a nudge of the nose.

Contact your veterinarian before cleaning your dog or cat's ears 

The first rule of pet ear cleaning is to get the green light from your vet. Before starting any ear-cleansing operation, always ensure your vet gives you the all-clear. They're the experts, and every pet is unique. Your vet can guide you on how frequently your pet’s ears should be cleaned and provide step-by-step instructions.

This is particularly important if your pet has a history of ear issues. As Dr Holland mentions “or they have an anatomical issue meaning they are more likely to develop ear problems, such as hair growth in the ear canal, then cleaning their ears regularly is even more important.”

Why the vet’s verdict matters 

Pets can have sensitive ears and cleaning them the wrong way can cause more harm than good. Plus, your vet may have specific advice about your pet’s breed, age, and health conditions. Always remember, safety first, and prevention over treatment always wins when it comes to your pet's ears.

Understand your pet’s ears 

Pet ears come in all shapes and sizes, from the iconic floppy spaniel ears to the majestic upright ones of the Siamese cat. These variations aren't just for looks; they can affect how you approach cleaning. Here's what to keep in mind:

Dog Ears 

If your dog has long, floppy ears that hang down, there's a high likelihood of reduced airflow, making the ears a haven for bacteria and yeast. Other factors, such as hair inside the ear canal, can increase the risk of bacteria buildup.

Cat Ears 

Cat's ears are designed to be extra sensitive. Cats aren’t particularly prone to ear infections, and often, such infections are due to an underlying cause, such as mites or allergies.

Maintain a gentle approach 

Ease and gentleness should be the mantra when cleaning your pet’s ears. Here’s how to keep the vibes gentle as you approach your pet’s ear-cleaning session:

  • Positive experience: Dr Holland’s suggested approach is to make the ear-cleaning experience as positive as possible for your pet. Treats, petting, and lots of positive reinforcement can make the process more comfortable for both of you.
  • Patience: If your pet doesn't seem to like their ears being touched, don't force it! Never try to clean your pet's ears if they're stressed or struggling; this could upset and may also harm your pet. Instead, take your cat or dog to the vet, and they'll be able to clean them for you.  
  • The right tools: To avoid injury, Dr Holland advises that you should never use cotton tips or put anything into the ear. “Instead use a few drops of cleaner in the ear canal and then use a gauze swab or some cotton wool on your finger and wipe around the entry to the ear canal. You can also gently massage the vertical ear canal just below the opening to the canal to help the cleaner penetrate well and break up debris.”

Use products recommended by your vet 

It's essential to use a cleaning solution that your veterinarian specifically recommends. Every pet's ears are unique and may require different products depending on their needs and underlying health conditions. Using the wrong product can cause irritation or even infections, so always consult your vet before using any cleaning solutions.

There are three main types of products for pets' ears:

  • Ear cleaners: These are specifically made to help remove wax, dirt, and debris from the ear canal. Some ear cleaners may also contain added ingredients like antiseptics or moisturisers to help keep your dog's ears clean and healthy.
  • Ear wipes: These are a convenient alternative to ear cleaners, especially for animals uncomfortable with liquid solutions in their ears.
  • Ear powder: Used for dogs with excess hair in the ear canal, ear powder can help absorb moisture and make it easier to pluck out hair that may be causing irritation or trapping debris.

Always remember you want what's best for your pet. Using vet-approved products assures that every drop of ear cleansers leads to comfort, not concern.

Stop if there is discomfort 

You know your pet’s typical behaviour, and any sign of discomfort should immediately stop the cleaning. Watch out for warning signs/ like:

  • Whining or whimpering
  • Attempting to pull away or escape
  • Shaking their head excessively after the cleaning attempt
  • Scratching at their ears more than usual

It's super important to listen to what your pet tells you and look for signs of pain or discomfort, even if they're not being vocal. If they're showing any of these signs, taking a break and consulting your vet is a good idea.

Understand the warning signs 

Knowing when to clean your pet's ears is important, but recognising when something may be wrong is crucial. Here's what signs and symptoms to look out for from Dr Holland:

  • Odour: A strong or unpleasant smell coming from the ears is a big red flag that something could be irritating your pet’s ears.
  • Discharge, redness or swelling: If the ear appears red, there is a very large amount of discharge, and/or the discharge is yellow, green, or smelly then you should get your pet examined by a vet.
  • Frequent scratching: Ear infections are also very painful so if your pet vocalises, flinches, or is uncooperative with ear cleaning they may have an issue that needs veterinary attention.
  • Head shaking: This can also be a sign that your pet has ear discomfort, although a bit of head shaking after cleaning is normal – we have all had some water in our ears after swimming and know what a weird feeling this is.
  • Vocalisation and wincing: If your pet has a negative verbal or physical reaction when you touch their ears, it could indicate pain potentially caused by an infection.

Ear, ear! 

While regular ear care might not be their preferred activity (unless treats are involved), you’re now better equipped to handle your pet's ears with the care they deserve. Remember, it's all about doing right by your pet. You may explore protection for your dog or cat by considering SPCA Pet Insurance – with three levels of cover to choose from.

This is information only and it is not financial advice. Please consider the relevant Policy Document available here to ensure these products meet your needs. Terms, conditions, limits, and exclusions apply. Waiting periods and excesses may also apply. SPCA Pet Insurance is issued by The Hollard Insurance Company Pty Ltd (NZBN 9429 042 129 851, FSP 480747), distributed by Greenstone Financial Services NZ Limited (NZBN 9429 047 013 582, FSP 646129) and is administered and managed by PetSure (Australia) Pty Ltd (NZBN 9429 049 378 085, NZFSL 8192554).