Cleaning and treating your pet’s ears

It's rarely your pet's idea of fun, but cleaning and treating cats' and dogs' ears is a skill we may need to acquire. We look at what you need to know to succeed.
Cute, maybe, but not like this!

We will have more success treating ear problems if we understand the purpose of ear products, as well as getting practical tips on the “How To’s”. Let’s start with a key question:

Do ear cleaners and medicated ear drops need to be used differently?

The short answer is yes! Medicated ear drops and ear cleaners perform different functions and so need to be used differently.

So, what’s the difference?

Using ear cleaners:

These are designed to clean ears (yes, the clue is in the name!) – so much like using soap to wash your hands, they are meant to be applied, massaged and (as much as possible) removed, as the aim is to leave the ear clean and dry. Whereas…

Using medicated drops:

….we want the drops to stay in the ear, where they are needed to tackle inflammation or infection. Like using moisturiser on your hands, these are applied and left to get to work.


But first, a warning!

If your pet’s ears appear inflamed (look red or feel hot), are scabbed or scratched, or are discharging yellow or brown matter, it is advisable not to begin home cleaning. Not only will this be painful for your pet, but if ear disease is present, it is possible that the eardrum is ruptured. Ear cleaners are not designed to be used with a ruptured eardrum, as cleanser entering the middle ear can cause irreversible damage. It is likely that your pet has an inflammatory ear condition or infection and will require prescription medication, so book a consultation with your regular vet for your pet to be examined.

And secondly, a warning!

If you have any doubts about your safety or have reason to think you may be bitten or scratched when looking at or attempting to clean your pet’s ears, seek professional help from your veterinary team first!

So how do you clean pets’ ears?

Here’s our 6-point path to success:

1. Plan:

Select a suitable area, well-lit and easy to wipe clean – the kitchen, perhaps, or even outside. Do not attempt this in your best silk blouse/dress shirt.

Have all the necessary equipment to hand: a suitable ear cleaner (see on) and sufficient absorbent material. If your pet’s ears are at all sore or itchy, use only soft tissues or cotton wool (pads may be easier to use and less likely to fall apart). If this is routine cleaning for bigger dogs with healthy ears, paper towel may be better.  And, by the way: plain water isn’t suitable for pouring down the ear canal; it doesn’t break down wax and can actually make things worse.

Do not attempt this in your best clothes….

2. Stabilise:

Work out how to restrain the patient! “Restrain” does not mean “vice-like grip” but it does mean to hold steady. A second pair of hands is useful, except in cats where it may well be essential. Even then, some cats are still difficult to manage, though Cat’s Protection has made a great video to help. 

If you do have help, smaller dogs are often treated more easily on a table: put a mat or heavy towel down to reduce them slipping and have your newly-appointed assistant scoop up the patient in a hug, with their hands under and up and back over the top towards themselves, round the dog’s neck and the belly, so that they are held against the helper’s body. Have the holder turn their face safely away from the dog’s head, so as not to get cleaner in their eyes if the dog shakes.

If you are alone and sufficiently bendy, you may find it easier to sit on the floor or hunker down in a corner with your dog between your legs and facing away from you. Whatever position you adopt, being calm, gentle and building up tolerance to being held and having treatments is essential. Watch this delightful video, Kind Hands, in theory made for puppies but in truth for all dogs. It’s much more important that you go slowly and gently to end up with a happy and co-operative pet, than that you rush into things and cause fear and a tussle with your pet.

Teaching a chin rest is a great place to start

Meanwhile, back at those ears:

3. Apply:

With the head tilted so the ear you are cleaning is higher than the other ear (this is where the extra pair of hands can come in useful!), apply a small amount of cleaner (about a quarter to a half teaspoonful at first, for a small or large dog respectively) to the top of the ear canal – not to the external flap or pointed and hairy ear (known as the pinna).

It can help to keep a hand cupped firmly but gently under the chin to encourage the pet to stay still and to keep the ear elevated, as head-shaking in response to the liquid running in is common. If you can see that the area is red or swollen, or your pet reacts as if in pain, you may need a veterinary examination to assess for inflammation or ulceration. Always err on the safe side!

4. Massage:

Imagine the ear canal in dogs and cats to be like an ice cream cone. You need gently to take the canal/cone between fingers and thumb and against the side of the head, then massage by squeezing your fingers and thumb towards each other. You should hear a satisfying squelching sound! No squelch? Not enough cleaner, so next time try a little more.  Aim to massage for about a minute or so, though you may need to build up to this.

5. Wipe clean:

Using your absorbent material, either place some in the top of the ear canal (enough not to get lost down the ear) and hold in place with a finger or wrap the material around a finger and gently insert into the top of the canal.

Which method you use depends on the size of your pet but don’t worry: even in the largest dog, you won’t cause any damage to the eardrum or deeper canal with a finger.

Cotton buds, on the other hand, are a different story. Never place or poke a cotton bud into your pet’s ear; that can push waxy material further down the ear canal, can hurt a sore, out-of-sight part of the lining and at worst could damage the eardrum.

Keep milking the ear from the base to the top to bring the liquid up to be absorbed. You should see that the cotton wool or paper towel is wet and has waxy debris. If so, well done! And if not, try again in a little while, as this can take some practice to get right (or maybe your pets’ ears don’t need cleaning).

6. Repeat:

Repeat steps 3 to 5, till the liquid comes away free of wax and debris; or take a break if need be and come back to clean again later in the day.

Ear cleaners are designed for frequent use, meaning once every 1-2 weeks; they are not generally meant to be used on a daily basis long-term as the tissues get too moist. If your pet’s ears are noticeably dirty within a couple of days of cleaning, review what is happening with your vet.

How do you apply medicated ear drops?

Remember, we want these to stay in the ear to tackle inflammation and infection. Always begin with a clean ear, using cleanser as advised, 10 to 20 minutes beforehand. Then apply drops as described above in Steps 1 to 4, but after gently massaging the canal to distribute the drops, leave them in place.

When you return for the next treatment, wipe any remaining liquid, wax and debris from the ear flap and the top of the canal before applying the next dose and leaving it to work.

 It is important to follow instructions carefully. Make sure you know how much, how often and for how long the medication is to be given. If in doubt, ask your vet before beginning. And if you are struggling to apply the drops, your pet is becoming distressed/aggressive or you feel the drops are not getting where they are needed, tell your vet – there may be other options that are easier to apply or can be applied less frequently.

Which ear cleaner should I use for my pet?

It is worth getting professional advice as to which cleaner is most appropriate for your pet.

There many ear cleaners on the market and they are not all the same. For example:

  • Cats are particularly sensitive to many chemicals, so must never have any cleaner that doesn’t specifically say it is suitable for them.
  • Ears that produce a lot of dark wax benefit from cleaners with squalene, such as Otoact.
  • CleanAural Sensitive and Otoact are particularly gentle for puppies and for dogs who are anxious about ears that have been painful.
  • Dogs who go swimming need cleansers that dry the ear well, such as Malacetic Aural, Epiotic or Clorexyderm Oto.


Note that swimming does not cause ear problems in perfectly healthy ears, but it triggers or worsens trouble in problem ears – it’s an important distinction.

The value of rewards

Finally, never, never underestimate the value of pairing treats with ear treatments. Choose a treat that your pet really loves, something that can be cut into pea-sized pieces. Keep these in a special pot, to be given only with the ear cleaner or drops.

The order is important:

Out comes the cleaner, out comes the treat pot – hurray!

Treat the ear, treat the pet, at every stage of the process, and at each action.

Put away the ear treatment, put away the pot – shame!

You know you are doing this correctly when the sight of ear treatments coming out causes your pet to look expectantly for the reward: cheese! sausage!