Unfortunately, ear infections in dogs are pretty common. If left untreated, they can get really bad, spreading to the inner ear and putting your dog at risk for deafness, facial paralysis, eye issues, or worse.
“The ear canal is a dark, damp, deep environment that doesn’t get a lot of air,” explains Dr. Carol Osborne, author and doctor of veterinary medicine at Chagrin Falls Pet Clinic. “So it’s a medium for bacteria and fungi to flourish.”
Regularly using a trusted dog ear cleaner can help prevent your dog from getting an infection in the first place. This is especially true if they’re a breed that’s particularly prone to ear infections, such as those with floppy ears (Think: Cocker Spaniels), those with lots of long or thick hair (such as Poodles), or those that spend a lot of time swimming (aka Golden Retrievers and Labradors.)
What to Look For in a Dog Ear Cleaner
We asked veterinarians what they recommend looking for in an at-home ear cleaner for dogs. Here are some shopping tips they suggest:
Choose a Vet-Approved Solution
The internet is full of homemade ear-cleaning solution recipes for dogs, but products that you buy in stores are often the safest choice because most go through extensive testing and clearly label ingredients. Some homemade ear-cleaning solutions can be harmful or irritating to the delicate skin in your dog’s ear.
Stick With Liquid Ear Cleaners
“[A] liquid ear cleaning solution is generally much more effective than wipes because dogs’ ear canals are quite long and narrow and actually have a right-angle shape,” explains Dr. Jamie Richardson, veterinarian and chief medical officer at Small Door Veterinary. “So wipes aren’t able to reach down into the canal to clean it.”
Liquid cleaners are also better at dislodging waxy gunk because, explains Dr. Antoinette Martin, veterinarian at North Mecklenburg Animal Hospital and Hello Ralphie.
“By squirting it into the canal, massaging the base of the ear, and then letting your dog shake it out, we can use the force of that shake to just get out all of that debris,” she explains.
That said, if your dog is anxious about ear cleaning or is new to it, Richardson says ear wipes for dogs can help as an interim solution to remove some of the debris. ”
Check the Ingredients
Be sure there isn’t anything in your dog cleaner that might be harmful.
“One of the big ingredients to watch out for, in my experience, is tea tree oil,” says Osborne. “I have seen dogs have all kinds of adverse reactions to that.”
The active ingredients will also give you an idea of what the cleaner does:
- Salicylic acid and lactic acid are antimicrobial, meaning they work best at preventing yeast or mild bacterial infections.
- Hydrocortisone helps combat itchiness.
- Ketoconazole is an antifungal treatment.
Consider Your Dog’s Specific Needs
Remember, some cleaners work better at removing wax, while others are better at drying an ear after swimming. Some are also medicated to prevent yeast, bacteria, or fungi from growing in the ear. Your veterinarian can discuss what your dog is most at risk for and point you in the right direction if you’re not sure what to get.
Best Dog Ear Cleaner: Overall Winner
Our Pick: Virbac Epi-Otic Advanced Cleaner
Almost all of the veterinarians that we spoke with for this article recommend this cleaner. It’s “a great general product for dogs with chronic ear issues,” says Richardson, that is “backed by scientific evidence showing [it] supports the pH of the ear and epidermal barrier, and reduces debris.”
Dr. Jerry T. Moore, retired veterinarian with 30 years experience and veterinary advisor at Bow Wow Labs agrees. “It has been around for many years and it’s safe, gentle, and pleasant smelling.”
- Has a nice citrus smell.
- It’s available in two bottle sizes.
- Works for dogs with allergies, sensitive ears, or chronic ear infections.
- Easily removes waxy debris.
- Contains a drying agent (salicylic acid) to dry out the ear canal.
Things to Consider:
- Some reviewers said it didn’t work as well for their pets with really waxy ears.
- Only vailable in 4oz and 8oz bottle sizes.
Runner-Up For Best Dog Ear Cleaner
Our Pick: Zymox Ear Cleaner
This was the second-most mentioned ear cleaner in our conversations with veterinarians. “[It’s] a great over-the-counter choice for basic ear cleaning in dogs with healthy ears,” says Richardson. She also likes that it has been scientifically tested as a cleaner to reduce debris.
- Contains a proprietary blend of enzymes to disinfect and clean the ear canal.
- Combats and treats bacterial, fungal, and yeast infections.
- Gentle enough to be used as a regular cleaner.
- Contains hydrocortisone, which relieves itching.
Things to Consider:
- While it can treat minor infections, talk to your veterinarian first in case they want to prescribe something stronger for a severe infection.
- Some reviewers complained that the nozzle on the bottle can come loose.
- Hydrocortisone might make it too strong for dogs that need frequent ear cleanings.
Best Dog Ear Cleaner For Bacterial Infections
Our Pick: MalAcetic Otic Cleanser
Dr. Jessica Herman, veterinarian with Fuzzy, says she likes this ear cleanser because “it works better with bacterial infections.” It also contains a formula of acetic and boric acid that helps balance the pH on the surface of your dog’s ear.
- Antimicrobial properties help prevent and treat mild to moderate bacterial infections.
- Easy to use.
- Available in three size bottles: 4oz, 8oz, and 16oz.
Things to Consider:
- Some online reviewers complained about its smell.
- Might not work as well at preventing all different kinds of infections.
- Some online reviewers found it didn’t work for their dogs with sensitive skin.
Best Dog Ear Cleaner For Fungal Infections
Our Pick: TrizULTRA + Keto Flush
For fungal infections, Herman recommends this cleaner, because it is gentle and contains antifungal ingredients. It can also be used as a pretreatment when applied 15-30 minutes before a topical antibiotic in more severe ear infections. However, talk to your vet before using it to treat a severe ear infection in your dog.
- It’s fragrance-free, making it a good choice for dogs who are sensitive to smells.
- It has a non-stinging formula.
- It contains ketoconazole, an antifungal agent.
- It can be used for other pets too, including cats and horses.
Things to Consider:
- It’s better suited for fungal infections than bacterial ones, so may not be as effective for all dogs.
- Pricier than some of the other cleansers on this list.
Ear Cleaner For Dogs With Waxy Ears
Moore also recommends this product, especially if your dog has very waxy ears. It’s safe and gentle enough to use 2-3 times a day if your dog’s ears get really dirty (though hopefully that shouldn’t be the norm once you start a regular cleaning routine.)
- Has a gentle formula.
- Available in multiple sized bottles (up to 1-gallon.)
- A good choice for multi-pet families because it is safe for dogs and cats.
- Formula cleans, dries, acidifies, and deodorizes.
Things to Consider:
- Has a strong smell that lingers even after you’re finished cleaning your dog’s ears. This bothered some online reviewers.
- Doesn’t work as well for yeast infections.
Most Affordable Dog Ear Cleaner
Our Pick: Pet MD Veterinary Tris Flush
Dr. Sara Ochoa, veterinarian at Whitehouse Veterinary Hospital in Texas, recommends this as an easy-to-use and affordable over-the-counter cleanser. “[It] contains an antifungal and antibiotic that would help clear any mild infection that your dog may have,” she says.
- A gentle and anti-stinging formula.
- Helps eliminate odors.
- Bottle is easy to use.
- Works for dogs, but also cats, making it a good choice for multi-pet homes.
- Comes in a large bottle size.
Things to Consider:
- Not fragrance-free and multiple online reviewers reporting that the smell is strong.
How To Use a Liquid Dog Ear Cleaner
Most liquid dog ear cleaners are fairly simple to use, but be warned—ear cleaning can get messy. So, you might want to clean your pup’s ears in a bathroom or outside.
Here are the steps you should follow as you clean their ears:
Step 1: Before you start, try to get your dog comfortable and calm. If they’re food motivated, Dr. Martin says, you might want to give them some treats. (Hint: peanut butter on a chew toy is often a great distraction.)
Step 2: Next, gently pull their ear back so that you can see into your dog’s ear canal.
Squirt enough solution into the canal so that it pools slightly.
Step 3: Massage the base of the ear gently for about 30 seconds to loosen up wax and debris. “You’ll hear a little squishing sound when you’re doing it right,” says Dr. Martin.
Next is the messy step. Let go of your dog so they can shake their head. They’ll do this naturally because the fluid tickles their ear and it will help the cleaning process by flinging the cleaning liquid (and the waxy grime it dislodged) out of the ear.
Step 4: After they’re done shaking, take a cotton ball or piece of gauze and gently wipe and dry their ear canal. Just be careful to not go too deep into their ear so you don’t hurt them and never use a Qtip or anything with a pointed end.
If your dog fights you during the cleaning process, take a break between each ear. You can also practice getting your dog used to the process by petting your dog’s ears and desensitizing them to you touching their ear before you clean it.
“If your dog seems to be in pain at any time during the cleaning, stop and contact your veterinarian,” says Richardson. The cleaning shouldn’t hurt your dog so if it does, it’s possible that they might already have an infection which requires veterinary treatment. It’s also possible in rare cases for your dog to have a reaction to one of the active ingredients in the ear cleaner.
Does Dog Ear Cleaning Prevent Infections?
The short answer is yes—regularly using a dog ear cleaner at home can help keep infections at bay.
Besides yeast, wax, and fungal buildup, ear mites and trapped water from swimming can cause inflammation in the ear too, leading to an infection. Some pets might also get allergies that irritate the skin in their ears, making them prone to infections.
However, if you clean your dog’s ears on a regular basis, including after they go swimming, you can help remove some of the waxy build-up, dirt, and moisture that creates this optimal environment for an infection to set in.
How Often Should I Clean My Dog’s Ears?
It’s hard to say because it depends what kind of dog you have. Their ear anatomy, lifestyle, and medical history all play a role.
“[It] varies greatly depending on the dog and their predisposition to ear debris buildup and ear infections,” explains Richardson. “Many dogs may not need their ears cleaned very often at all—less than monthly—whereas others may need their ears cleaned once a week or even every few days.”
If your dog goes swimming, you should always at least dry out their ears after they get out of the water to prevent an infection, says Martin.
However, it is possible to clean a dog’s ears too often, so most veterinarians recommend checking with your regular vet since they’re more familiar with your dog and their specific medical history.
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