Just like humans, dogs produce ear wax (cerumen). If there are factors present which increase production of this ear wax, or if the normal clearance mechanism is compromised, then manual removal might be necessary.
Why clean the ears?
1. So that your veterinarian can visualize the ear drum. Waxy debris obstructs the view, so the integrity of the ear drum cannot be ascertained.
2. To remove debris prior to applying topical ear medication to treat an infection.
3. As part of a preventative ear care programme, to minimize the chance of an ear infection occurring.
When performing a general clinical examination, for example during a yearly check up at the time of vaccination, a veterinarian will usually look at the inside of the ear for excessive wax or inflammation. A vet will only want to look further into the canal with an otoscope if the dog is showing symptoms of an ear problem, such as scratching at its head, rubbing its head along the floor or head shaking. Otoscopic examination of the ear canal is usually performed to check for the presence of ear mites, foreign bodies (e. g. grass seeds), polyps, tumors and middle ear disease.
If the ears are waxy, but there is no evidence of an infection and no itchiness, then regular cleaning with a dog ear cleaner is the recommended course of action. Ear cleaners can usually be purchased at veterinary clinics, pet shops or online.
What do ear cleaners contain?
Many ear cleaners contain ceruminolytics, which disrupt the wax by acting on the cells it adheres to. Many also contain lubricants, which soften and loosen the wax. The main components are listed below.
Detergent (e. g. docusate sodium, carbamate peroxide, sodium lauryl sulfate)
Lubricant (e. g. squalene, propylene glycol, glycerin)
Ceruminolytic (e. g. olive oil, aqueous alkaline solutions)
Disinfectant (e. g. parachlorometaxylenol)
Antimicrobial agents (e. g. lactic, salicyclic or oleic acids)
Drying agents (e. g. isopropyl alcohol)
Is there a recommended technique for cleaning the ears?
The most common cleaning regime is to apply the product, gently massage the ear canal and then wipe with dry cotton wool. The objective is to keep the ear canals open, clean and free from accumulations of wax, debris and hair. Start with one ear, go through the following process, then move onto the other one. Squirt some of the ear cleaner into the outermost hole in the ear, when looking at it from above. Hold your dogs head steady as it will be inclined to shake its head at this point and disperse the liquid. Massage the ear canal with your fingertips so that it makes a squelching noise. When you have massaged for a good 20 seconds, take a ball of dry cotton wool and clean out the ear by wiping in a corkscrew motion. Your dog may now shake its head to remove the tickly remains from its canal.
Can I pluck the hair from inside the ears myself?
Regular plucking of hairy ear canals will make cleaning easier and improve ventilation. Although it seems like a sore thing to do, there are actually no nerves running through the hair follicles in the ear canal so plucking is painless. Owners can do it themselves at home if their dog is cooperative, but many prefer to leave it to the grooming parlour or to a veterinary nurse.
How often should I clean my dogs ears?
As a rule of thumb, once a month should suffice. However, dogs with large hanging ear flaps such as spaniels and basset hounds might need their ears cleaning more often. Dogs that swim frequently also need closer attention.
What if the home treatment system does not work?
Some ears are so dirty, hairy or sore, that a dog will not permit its owner to clean them out via the technique described above. These owners require veterinary assistance, where either simple lavage or mechanical removal is performed.
This is usually performed under heavy sedation, or general anaesthetic. A syringe is attached to a soft catheter, which is fed into the ear canal. Water is repeatedly injected and then sucked out again, containing globs of wax and debris. This is repeated until the liquid sucked out is clear. Sometimes other liquids are used rather than water, such as dilute chlorhexidine or povidone iodine. However, these can cause damage if the ear drum is ruptured. Since by definition most dogs requiring veterinary assistance to clean their ears have very dirty ears, it is safer to use water or saline as an irrigant.
This is the safest method of cleaning out wax as there is no risk to the ear drum. Sedation is generally required. A wire loop or blunt curette is gently pulled along the lining of the canal, loosening and rolling wax out of the canal as it progresses.
Dr Matthew Homfray is one of the online pet experts at Why Does My Pet...?. Veterinarians, breeders, trainers, behaviorists and homeopaths are online right now waiting to answer your pet questions!