When your dog shakes her head, is it a sign her ears need to be cleaned or could there be a bigger problem? Cleaning your dog’s ears at home can be a simple process with the right tools. But knowing how to clean dog ears at home, how often to clean your dog’s ears and when to call your vet are factors to consider.

How often should I clean my dog’s ears?

As with all-things health related when it comes to our pets, talking to your veterinarian is an important first step in understanding your dog’s specific needs. However, signs to look for that your dog’s ears need cleaning are:

  • visible discharge
  • odor
  • visible dirt or wax

You should inspect your dog’s ears weekly to see if they need cleaning by your or your veterinarian or if there is any sign of infection.

Note that over-cleaning can potentially cause further irritation to your dog’s ears, but in general, dogs who are prone to ear infections or dog breeds, such as droopy-eared Cocker Spaniels or Basset Hounds may need more frequent cleaning to prevent debris build up in their ears, while other dog breeds don’t need their ears cleaned as often.

“There are some dog breeds with excessive ear canal hair that can prevent products from reaching the deeper parts of the ear canal, such as Poodles and Oodles,” says Dr. Jill Aschehoug, Associate Veterinarian with VCA Loomis Basin Veterinary Clinic in California. “In those circumstances a veterinary visit may be in order for a proper ear cleaning.”

What to use to clean dog ears

If you have the go-ahead for a home ear cleaning, make sure you have the right tools.

“Never use home-mixed or over-the-counter remedies unless directly recommended by your veterinarian,” says Dr. Aschehoug. Also avoid household products like vinegar, hydrogen peroxide or household soaps.

Also, never use a Q-tip, which can puncture your dog’s ear drum, cause trauma to the ear canal or push debris further into your dog’s ear.

What you will use to clean your dog’s ears depends on the type of dog you have (straight ear, floppy ear, long ear) and the type of cleaning he needs. For most dogs, you just need to trim the ear hair if it covers the ear area and use a dog ear wipe or swab to gently clear the outer ear, not going into the ear canal so you don’t hurt the ear drum. There are easy over-the counter products available online or in pet stores that your veterinarian may recommend. Here are a few:

$13.99. Pet MD Ear Wipes

$11.99. Earthbath Ear Wipes

$19.95. Jax & Cali Ear Swabs

If your dog’s ears need a more thorough cleaning because of wax build-up, itching, irritation, smell or bacteria, discuss with your veterinarian if you need to take your dog in because it’s due to an infection or if it is OK to clean the ears at home with a dog ear-care solution. There are great dog ear-cleaning solutions available from your veterinarian or online or at a pet store that your veterinarian may recommend, like Vetericyn Plus antimicrobial ear rinse.

If using a dog ear-care solution at home, do it at a time when your dog is calm, and you have the time to work slowly. This process can be messy so do it in the bathroom or outside. Proceed with these steps.

Step 1: When your dog is sitting calmly, gently hold up the ear flap. You’ll need access to the ear, so trim the excess hair around the ear and gently wipe it away, making sure it doesn’t go into the ear.

Step 2: Put dog-ear-care solution into the ear following the package instructions or your veterinarian’s instructions. Massage the ear canal to break down the wax and debris, giving about 30 seconds of gentle pressure in a circular motion.

Step 3: Let go of the ear and let your dog shake her head to remove any leftover fluid and gunk.

Step 4: Wipe away any remaining liquid or debris.

Step 5: Offer a treat for being a good pup, then repeat on the second ear.

If you clean your dog’s ears and things seem worse, stop and call your veterinarian.

When not to clean your dog’s ears

Never clean a dog’s ears when the following signs of infection are present:

  • Redness or swelling in the ear canal
  • A foul odor
  • Discharge that is dark brown, a yellowish green or bloody
  • Obvious pain or discomfort when you touch the ears
  • A scratch or cut near the ears, especially if it’s inflamed

If your dog starts repeatedly shaking her head without signs of infection, contact a veterinarian immediately as she could have a foxtail or other foreign body in her ear canal, which could worsen or lead to a ruptured ear drum with a home cleaning.

Keeping your dog’s ears clean and free of build-up can keep them healthy and happy and allow you to keep an eye on any changes that may be cause for concern.