How to Clean Your Pet's Ears

Author: Dr. Jason Nicholas

Published: May 15, 2015

Updated: September 13, 2023

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poodle mix with perky earsA Step-By-Step Guide to Cleaning Your Pet’s Ears

While it is always in your and your pet’s best interest to have red, itchy, foul-smelling ears evaluated by your veterinarian, at some point cleaning of those ears will likely be part of the treatment plan. And since we vets don’t always do the best job explaining or demonstrating the proper way to clean your pet’s ears, I’ve put together this step-by-step guide to help.

This guide is appropriate for both dogs and cats.

Supplies You’ll Need 

  • A safe and effective ear cleaner. Be aware that not all cleaners are created equal. Some are better than others at treating yeast infections, while others are better for treating bacteria. Some help dry the ears, while others don't. And some that dry do so because they contain rubbing alcohol or witch hazel, both of which can be downright painful and irritating to your pet’s already inflamed ears. 
    Bottle of ear cleanser

    There are several good ear cleaners/dryers out there. Here are a couple that you can easily pick up online, at your local pet store, or even at your vet's office. Always check with your veterinarian to ensure that you are using a safe and appropriate ear cleaner.

  • Something soft and absorbent to remove the dislodged debris and excess ear cleaner. Cotton balls, cotton make-up removal rounds, gauze squares, or tissues typically work well. It’s generally not recommended to use Q-tips® for at-home cleanings, as Q-tips introduce a risk of you damaging your pet’s eardrum (“tympanic membrane”). If you do use Q-tips, only do so if your pet is calm and still during ear cleanings, and even then, only use the Q-tips to get the debris out of the harder to get to nooks and crannies on the ear flap and at the opening of the ear - never insert the Q-tip into the ear canal itself.

  • An assistant and lots of treats. Cat and dog ear cleanings can be a two-person job — especially with pets that aren’t used to the procedure and in those with particularly inflamed and painful ears. The treats, of course, are for rewarding your pet throughout and following the cleaning, so as to make it as positive an experience as it can be for them — this may even save you from having to use an assistant for future cleanings!

  • A room or outdoor environment that can get dirty. Invariably, and no matter how much of the excess cleaner you try to get out, your pet will shake their head and get ear debris and cleaner on your walls and your clothes. It kind of comes with the territory, so be prepared.

Cat in a hammock with upright ears

Steps to Clean Your Pet's Ears

  1. Hold your pet’s ear flap up with one hand

  2. Using your other hand, invert the ear cleaner bottle and gently place the dispensing tip of the bottle just into the opening of your pet’s ear (be kind to your pet… either use room temperature cleaner or, better still, gently warm the cleaner slightly by putting the bottle into a warm water bath for a few minutes prior to use)

  3. Gently squeeze enough of the cleaner into your pet’s ear until you see the liquid at the ear canal opening

  4. Keeping the ear flap held up, put down the bottle of cleaner and use your newly freed up hand to vigorously massage the base of your pet’s ear (do this for a good 10–15 seconds). (If your pet's ears aren't too bad, or if they really don't like having the cleaner squirted directly into their ears, you can just moisten a cotton ball with the cleaner and then use that to clean in and around their ears.) 

  5. Again, keeping the ear flap held up, grab your cotton ball, make-up round, or whatever your soft, absorbent material is, wrap it around the tip of your finger and then stick that finger into your pet’s ear canal, gently wiping up and out as much of the cleaner liquid and ear debris as you can

  6. Repeat the wiping step above as many times as is necessary to get the bulk of the liquid cleaner and ear debris as you can

  7. Stand back (see note above about what happens to the excess cleaner and ear debris when your pet shakes their head)

  8. Release the ear flap

  9. Repeat on this ear as necessary

  10. Move on to the next ear and repeat the same process

Not all ear problems are caused by a bacterial or yeast infection, and even those that are often have an underlying problem. Some common underlying or predisposing problems include environmental allergies, food hypersensitivity, an ear tumor or polyp, a stuck grass seed ("foxtail") or other foreign body, a mite infestation, and a host of other possibilities.

So, if your cat or dog has red, painful, smelly ears, it truly is in your and your pet’s best interest to have your vet evaluate your those ears before you start any at-home treatments. Without doing so, not only might the treatment you initiate fail to fix the problem, it could actually make matters worse — prolonging your pet’s discomfort and costing you more money in the long-run, too. Read more about when NOT to clean your dog or cat's ears.

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About the author

Profile picture for Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Nicholas graduated with honors from The Royal Veterinary College in London, England and completed his Internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Nicholas spent many years as an emergency and general practice veterinarian obsessed with keeping pets safe and healthy. He is the author of Preventive Vet’s 101 Essential Tips book series.

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