When NOT to Clean Your Pet's Ears

Author: Dr. Jason Nicholas

Published: May 8, 2016

Updated: August 25, 2022

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dog with ear infectionThis Guide Is For Both Cats & Dogs

Lots of cats and dogs get itchy, dirty ears. It's sometimes safe to clean their ears at home, but not always. Not every “itchy ear” episode is the same.

Diving right in with a medication or cleaner — even one that your vet previously prescribed — can cause problems.

What If You Use An Ineffective Ear Cleaner?

In the best-case scenario, if your pet has a yeast infection in their ear and you use a cleaner or medication that works best against bacteria versus yeast, you’re not likely to fix the problem; you could actually make it worse (by creating an environment that’s even more favorable to yeast growth), and you may be prolonging your pet’s discomfort.

What If There's A Ruptured Ear Drum?

Dogs ear is in pain

On the other end of the spectrum, if your pet’s eardrum is ruptured — which can easily happen with long-standing ear infections, or in the presence of a foreign body, like a "foxtail," or a tumor/polyp — the medication or cleaner you put into your pet’s ear(s) could actually cause deafness and much more severe pain.

What If the Ear Cleaner Stings?

Most often, though, what happens is that a cleaner containing rubbing alcohol and/or witch hazel is put into an already red and painful ear, causing burning and much more severe discomfort for your pet. This is a situation that we vets see on a daily basis in clinics and hospitals all across the country.

If you notice any of the following signs, please hold off on putting anything into your pet’s ears until your vet has had a chance to evaluate them:

  • Earflap is red and warm to the touch
  • Ear canal is narrowed (called “stenotic”) compared to what it normally looks like
  • Strange odor coming from the ear(s)
  • Abnormal discharge coming from the ear(s)
  • Head tilted to one side, walking like they’re drunk (called “ataxia”), or walking in circles
  • Your pet is “guarding” their ears — often shown by turning or moving their head away as you try to pet them, sometimes exhibited by them growling, hissing, yelping, or trying to bite your hand when you put it near their painful ear

Only your vet can look down in your pet’s ear canals, properly diagnose the problem (and any potential underlying problem that keeps chronic infections coming back), and prescribe the best, most effective, and safest treatment plan.

veterinarian cleaning a cats ear
And if that treatment plan does wind up including at-home cleanings, check out our step-by-step guide on how to clean your pet’s ears. After all, even I’ll admit, we vets don’t always do the best job of describing or demonstrating the process during your visit! I hope this guide helps to make up for it.

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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