A veterinary health expert explains the signs to watch before it leads to infection.

You might not think twice before wiggling a Q-Tip into your own ear, but cleaning your pet's ears is a little more complicated. And the first thing veterinarians want you to know is that you shouldn't be quick to clean them out yourself. You can actually cause more harm than good if you do. "For dog and cats who do not have ear problems, the best thing to do with ears is to leave them alone," says Gary Richter, DVM, veterinary health expert with Rover. "The ears are a delicate microenvironment and using ear flush or other cleaning products can actually lead to infections."

Hand to the ear cleaning of dog
Credit: Mykeyruna / Getty Images

That said, ear wax, discharge, and debris can accumulate in pets' ear canals, just like they do in ours. "While most ears are self-cleaning, some pets are more prone to this kind of accumulation than others and will require occasional or regular cleaning," says Tony DeMarco, DVM, owner of GoodVets in Lee's Summit, Missouri. "If you notice buildup in your pet's ears, you should consult your veterinarian about procedures to alleviate discomfort and prevent complications."

If you ignore the issues and debris continues to accumulate in your pet's ears, they'll feel some discomfort, and eventually, they could experience "itchiness, inflammation, and even infection," says DeMarco. "Inflammation and infection can damage the ear, [and can lead] to hearing loss." A pet who frequently scratches his ears or shakes his head may have too much buildup. Other signs it's time to clean your pets' ears include redness or irritation around the ears, visible debris, or a strong odor coming from within the ear. If you notice any of these symptoms, it's time to bring your pet to the vet, who can advise you on proper ear care methods, Richter says.

"A good rule of thumb is to check ears weekly for change in odor or appearance," Richter says. If your pet is predisposed to ear infections, one thing you can do to help prevent problems is keep their ears as dry as possible. For example, when you give your pet a bath, consider gently putting cotton balls in his ears to keep water from getting in. "Wet ears often lead to an infection," Richter explains. Just "don't forget to remove the cotton ball after the bath," he adds.


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