Examining and medicating the ears of a dog

Image by Guy Johnson on Pixabay.
Image by Guy Johnson on Pixabay.

Most dogs don’t like having their ears examined, cleaned, or medicated, however, with a little patience and practice, you should be able to perform these tasks at home.

Some dogs will happily sit in your lap or on a table while you clean or medicate their ears, but many require some form of restraint. Ear cleaning and medicating can be messy, so cover good clothes and work on a surface that is easy to clean.

Ear problems are common in dogs. Dogs with heavy floppy ears have the most problems with ear infections. Some breeds have lots of hair in and around the ear canal which causes them to develop ear infections. Dogs that spend lots of time in the water also are prone to developing ear infections.

Dogs with skin allergies may have ear problems as part of the allergy.

About the ear

The ear has three major parts:

  • outer ear
  • middle ear
  • inner ear

The outer ear consists of the ear flap (also called the pinna), which can be upright (a prick ear) or floppy. The ear flap funnels sound into the ear canal. Unlike humans that have a short ear canal, dogs have a long narrow ear canal that makes an almost 90-degree bend as it travels to the deeper parts of the ear.

The outer ear canal is separated from the middle ear by a thin membrane called the eardrum or tympanic membrane. The eardrum is fragile and can be damaged by disease or during ear cleaning. The middle ear consists of three small bones, an air-filled cavity called the bulla, and a thin tube (the eustachian tube) leading from the bulla to the back of the mouth.

The inner ear connects to the brain and contains nerves and centers for balance and hearing. The pictures above show a diagram of the right ear as it appears if you are looking at the dog’s head from the front and a CT scan of the head.

The outer ear flap is usually covered with fur.

If the ear is itchy, scratching may result in hair loss on the ear flap or at the base of the ear. Severe scratching may also lead to tears at the edges of the ear. Ear damage may lead to bleeding between the skin and cartilage of the ear flap, or a hematoma, in which the ear flap is swollen, warm, and painful.

The inner side of the ear should be a healthy pink color. A small amount of black discharge may be observed.

Ear infections

Symptoms include:

  • redness
  • discharge
  • odor
  • head shaking
  • ear scratching
  • rubbing ears on the floor or other surfaces

How to hold your dog while cleaning or medicating its ears

One method to restrain the dog is to place it on a table. Stand on the side of the table opposite to the ear you are medicating; in the photograph the right ear is being medicated.

Drape your right arm over the dog’s shoulders. Wrap your left arm around the head and neck and use the fingertips of the left hand to push the ear flap back and up to expose the inner surface of the ear.

If the dog tries to stand, lean your upper body over its shoulders to prevent it from rising.

If your dog is too wiggly, try laying it on its side. Reach over its neck with your left arm and firmly grasp the elbow of the leg closest to the table. Always hold the leg close to the elbow, not close to the toes.

Keep your left elbow on its neck to prevent it from picking up its head. Use the fingers of your right hand to pull back the ear flap to expose the inner side of the ear. If the ear flaps are long, you can tuck the ear flap under your left elbow.

Holding the medication bottle in your right hand, place the prescribed number of drops of medication into the ear canal.

It is easier to perform this procedure if you have a helper.

Cleaning a dog’s ears

Ear cleaning solutions contain various chemicals and may contain drying agents. Check with your veterinarian regarding which product to use and how often to use it. Excessive ear cleaning can be damaging to the ear.

If the “non-furred,” inner side of the ear flap contains lots of fur at the opening to the ear canal, a few hairs at a time can be plucked. Lots of hair at the opening to the ear canal reduces airflow into the ear. Good airflow is important to maintaining a healthy ear.

A few drops of ear wash should be applied to the inside of the ear flap and then the tip of the ear wash bottle should be inserted a few millimeters into the ear canal, to place some of the solution down the ear canal. Be careful not to tightly force the tip of the bottle into the ear canal, as forceful squeezing of the bottle while it is wedged into the ear canal could rupture the eardrum.

The dog will usually shake its head as soon as the wash is inserted into the ear, ejecting much of the solution.

Massage the base of the ear to distribute the wash solution throughout the ear canal. Dogs usually like this part.

Use cotton balls to remove discharge from the inner side of the ear flap.

You can also use cotton swab to clean the inner side of the ear flap, but don’t insert them into the ear any farther than you can see.

Deep placement of a cotton swab can rupture the eardrum or pack wax and other debris farther into the ear canal, preventing medications from getting to the deeper parts of the ear.

Putting medication in a dog’s ears

Ear medications may contain several different drugs and can be ointments or drops.

Ear medications are most effective when placed in a clear ear. If they are placed on top of ear wax or other debris, they will not be as effective. Your veterinarian will give you instructions if cleaning is needed before ear medications are given.

Sometimes your veterinarian will recommend a thorough ear exam under sedation or anesthesia if:

  • the dog will not allow cleaning while it is awake
  • it is suspected that a foreign body such as plant material is inside the ear canal
  • the veterinarian needs to collect samples from the ear for cytology or culture

Whether using ointments or drops, place a small amount of medication on the inside of the ear flap and the prescribed number of drops into the ear canal. The tip of the ointment tube or dropper should be placed a few millimeters into the ear canal to assure that the medication goes into the ear canal. If the ear is stretched away from the head, the bend in the ear canal will straighten so the medication can be deposited over the entire ear canal.

Do not place the long neck of the ointment tube as far as it will go down the ear canal as you could puncture the eardrum.

Massage the base of the ear to help distribute the medication into the ear canal.

Dogs with chronic ear infections will benefit from anything that increases airflow into the ear canal. Airflow can be improved by:

  • plucking hairs from around the opening of the ear canal
  • tying or taping ears together on top of the head
  • pictured is a stretchy tubular fabric with holes cut for exposure of the ear canals. A regular sock can be used for smaller dogs. The ears may need to be taped together under the sock.

If the infection is severe or involves the middle and inner ear, oral medications may also be prescribed. Surgery is sometimes necessary if the infection is in the middle ear.

This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian. Washington State University assumes no liability for injury to you or your pet incurred by following these descriptions or procedures.