Canine Ear Health Guide

Ear care is an important part of caring for your dog. Even if you take your dog to the groomer on a regular basis, ear cleaning is still the one grooming task you should know how to do. Knowing how to safely clean your dog’s ears is important, as is having a basic understanding of canine ear anatomy, and of how to prevent and identify common canine ear health problems. Here, I will cover all of the dog ear care and health basics that are important for any dog owner to know. First, let’s start with anatomy.

Canine Ear Health Guide

Outer ear: The outer ear is also known as the pinna, which, depending on the dog, stands straight up, or folds over. This flap funnels down into the ear canal. When you look inside your dog’s ears, you are seeing mostly the pinna, and the vertical canal.

Middle ear: The outer ear (the pinna) funnels into the vertical canal, which leads to the horizontal canal. The horizontal canal ends at the tympanic membrane — which is also more commonly known as the ear drum. The ear drum is a very delicate membrane that separates the ear canals from the inner ear.

Inner ear: The inner ear is comprised of tiny bones and delicate fluid and air-filled membranous organs. The organs of the inner ear aid in and control sensory functions such as balance and motion. Have you ever had an ear infection before, and wondered why you were so dizzy? Now you know why — your inner ear is directly connected to your balance. The inner ear connects to the brain through nerves in the auditory tube.

Canine Ear Health Guide
1) Quality ear cleaning solution: There are countless types of canine ear cleaning solutions available. Your veterinarian can help you choose the best one, depending on how prone your dog is to ear infections. Some extra-strength formulas contain drying agents, for dogs that are highly prone to ear infections. If your dog is not prone to ear infections, opt for a basic variety that is free of unnecessary ingredients like dyes and perfumes.

2) Paper towels: For general ear cleaning.

3) Q-Tips: ONLY for cleaning debris around the areas of the outer ear (NEVER inside of the ear canal) after applying cleaning solution. Typically only necessary if your dog is recovering from an ear infection or mite infestation and has a lot of extra ear debris.
4) Cotton balls: Can also be used for general ear cleaning (like paper towels).
5) Small Cordless Clippers: If I had a dog whose ear hair was long and needed regular clipping, I would definitely use small quiet cordless clippers like these to do the job. I own these clippers for clipping between Miles’ toes, and they are fantastic.
6) Recent Prescription(s): If your dog comes down with an ear infection, you may choose to save the prescription once treatment is over. In the future, if your veterinarian diagnoses your dog with an ear infection again, you will have the prescription handy. A commonly prescribed medication is Otomax, which has a shelf life of 1 year 7 months.
7) Specialized Hemostat: This specialized small non-locking hemostat is perfect for the careful removal of excess fur that might cause the entry to the ear canal to clog. This tool should be used with great caution, when the dog is calm and gently restrained. Only for use if you are experienced, have steady hands, and have a dog that will hold relatively still!
Canine Ear Health Guide

Keeping your dog’s ears clean can substantially aid in preventing ear infections and ear mite infestations. The following illustration and descriptions of these two common canine ear ailments cover the symptoms and treatment of each, and illustrate the typical differences between the two. Note that if an ear infection is left for too long, it can begin look like an ear mite infestation.

Canine Ear Health Guide
Ear InfectionsSymptoms:

  • Redness/inflammation
  • Scratching
  • Rubbing
  • Discharge (usually in shades of brown)
  • Odor
  • Head shaking

Risk Factors:

  • Dogs with environmental or dietary allergies
  • Dogs with a propensity for skin problems
  • Dogs with compromised immune systems
  • Dogs with folded or floppy ears
  • Dogs that swim or are around bodies of water often
  • Dogs that have lots of fur in their ears


  • Your veterinarian will recognize a common ear infection right away, and typically prescribe a topical ointment such as Otomax (USA and Canada), which is given in “by the drop” dosages (based on the weight of the dog) twice daily for one week. Ears should be gently cleaned if excessive debris is present each time prior to medicating.
  • If you are unsure if the irritation is caused by an infection, or by a different cause, such as ear mites, be sure to see your vet immediately so he or she can take a look. Both ailments are very uncomfortable and often painful for the dog.
  • If the infection is serious, and has spread into the middle or inner ear, or has caused your dog to scratch excessively and create infected sores, oral medications will also be necessary.
  • Chronic ear infections (2+ times in a year) are a symptom of a greater underlying problem, which must be investigated and addressed. Common underlying problems are allergies (environmental or dietary) or excessive moisture build-up in the ear (caused by excess fur or often floppy closed ears). Having a sample of the discharge/debris examined under a microscope by experienced eyes is a very important first step.
  • Serious ear infections not only require additional medication and veterinary aid — they may require your veterinarian to temporarily bandage the ear in a way that allows for more airflow.

Ear Mites


  • Ear mite infestation is easy to spot because the affected ear will produce a dark, coffee-ground-like discharge. Icky black chunks.
  • Behavioral symptoms are similar to ear infections. The dog will be very uncomfortable, and will rub and scratch his ears and shake his head.


  • Regular weekly ear cleanings prevent excess accumulation of ear wax, which can attract ear mites.
  • Avoidance of infected animals! Ear mites are highly contagious. Dogs that visit dog parks, or that roam loose and unattended in backyard settings are at risk of being exposed to ear mites.
  • Ear mites can be spread between dogs and cats, even through very brief contact.


  • Treatment usually involves topical medication to eliminate mites.
  • In bad cases, your veterinarian will prescribe additional topical antibiotics to treat secondary wounds/infections caused by the irritation of the mites.
This article is not meant to replace veterinary care.
This article has been approved by a veterinarian.
Article and illustrations © 2014 Miles & Emma