Keeping your dog's ears clean and dry is an important part of keeping him healthy and happy. Dr. Marty Becker, known as "America's Veterinarian," explains how to do an easy-does-it ear cleaning.

Have you rubbed your dog's ears today? Sure you have. It's one of those things we do almost mindlessly, relishing their velvety softness and our dog's positive response. But did you know that rubbing your dog's ears is also a great way to make sure he's healthy? Think about it. If your dog enjoys having them rubbed, you can tell his ears are healthy. If they're tender from an infection or injury, he probably pulls away from you, unwilling to have them touched. So gently massaging your dog's ears is a great first step toward checking their condition. If you notice that he's sensitive about having them touched, it's time to take a closer sniff.

Sniff & See

Yes, I said sniff. Healthy ears don't have an odor. Make a habit of sniffing your dog's ears, starting when he's just a puppy, so you know how they smell normally. If his ears smell yeasty or downright stinky, it's likely that a bacterial or yeast infection is brewing.

Then take a look inside his ears. The skin should be nice and pink with a light coating of pale yellowish wax. A small amount of wax is part of the ear's self-cleaning system. If the ears look red or have a dark brown or black discharge, or if your dog frequently shakes his head, paws at his ears, or rubs them against the carpet or furniture, he needs a visit to the veterinarian to see what's causing the problem.

How do you know if your dog's ears need to be cleaned? If they look and smell good, leave them alone. In fact, cleaning a healthy ear can damage its self-cleaning abilities.

Clean the ears yourself (see the step-by-step directions below) if they have a mild odor and you see an occasional head shake. That may be enough to stop an ear infection before it takes hold. You should also clean the ears if the wax looks dirty gray instead of golden or if the ears look waxier than normal. When too much wax builds up, it can block airflow in the ear and lead to an infection of the outer ear canal.

Avoid Ear Infections

Take your dog to the vet if the signs—or smells—continue or worsen after you clean his ears. He may need a deep cleaning and antibiotic drops or ointment to resolve the infection.

Some dogs are ear-infection magnets. If you have a floppy-eared dog or a dog with a history of ear problems, check his ears weekly. There's no scientific evidence that dogs with droopy ears have more ear infections, but anecdotally they tend to be the ones that veterinarians see more often with ear infections. That said, allergies are probably the main cause of ear problems, and they are seen in dogs of all types.

Your best bet for preventing ear infections is to keep your dog's ears clean and dry. Bacteria and yeast love a warm, moist environment. Keep them at bay by drying your dog's ears thoroughly after a swim or bath.

woman cleaning dog's ear
Credit: Capuski / Getty

Step-by-Step Ear Cleaning for Dogs

  1. Tilt your dog's head downward with one hand and squirt a gentle cleanser (recommended by your veterinarian) into the ear, filling the canal.
  2. Using the flap to hold the ear closed, give it a nice massage—which will squish the cleanser around and soften any gunk inside.
  3. Step back and let your dog shake. You may want to hold a towel between you and your pooch so you don't get splattered.
  4. Wipe away any remaining cleanser with soft, dry tissue, not going any deeper than your first knuckle. That's all you need to do. (Don't mess around with cotton swabs that can drive debris deeper into your dog's ear.)

If you suspect your dog has an ear infection, schedule a visit with the veterinarian. In the meantime, if you wish to clean the ears, avoid pouring liquid directly into the ear canals because the eardrum could be enflamed or even ruptured. Instead, put a few drops of ear cleaner on a cotton ball or gauze and wipe the visible portion of the ear canal until your vet is able to look inside the ears with an otoscope.

A version of this article first appeared in Happy Paws Fall/Winter 2019.