How To Clean Your Dogs Ears

how to clean dogs ears

Ear infections are pretty common in floppy lobed pups like the Labrador. Our chocolate Lab Rachel has suffered with this problem from time to time, shaking her head and pawing at her ears. Ear cleaning really helps.

Floppy eared dogs like Labradors are prone to poor ear health because the dropping of the ear creates a warm, moist environment beloved of bacteria. They also have narrow, hairy ear canals. Check your dog’s ears frequently, at least once a week. Clean your dogs ears if they ever look dirty, from the inside of the ear towards the outside of the ear flap.

To clean your dog’s ears you’ll need cotton wool swabs and some warm water. It’s a good idea to also have a bowl of treats on hand, and if your dog’s inner ear needs cleaning too, pick up some canine ear cleaner too. I’ll walk you through how the cleaning process is done, but don’t worry, it’s pretty simple.

It is best to get puppies accustomed to having their ears handled from early on. Be patient with training an older dog who is afraid of the ear cleaning process. Create and maintain an ear grooming schedule to maintain ear health.

Floppy Ears Breed Bacteria

Your Labrador’s ancestors were wolves, with upright and pointed ears. These ears weren’t just evolved to do a great job of detecting sound, they were also practical in terms of hygiene. Large open ear canals not only vastly improved their hearing capabilities, acting like the perfect antennae, but also aided them in staying clean and healthy as well.

Labradors have been selectively bred with a different structure to their ears than their pointy-eared ancestors, and the ear canal is covered with a soft furry flap. While these lovely soft ear flaps give our floppy eared dogs a distinctive look that we find so endearing, floppy ears are less practical from a health perspective. Plus, that soft inner ear fuzz that is so efficient at keeping out small debris is equally as efficient at trapping ear wax which creates a sticky trap for bits of gunk, hair and parasites.

A flopped over ear, like the Labrador’s, creates a nice, warm environment for germs to thrive in. It also traps dirt, ear wax and all sorts of daily grime deep in the ear canal and inner ear. And is one of the reasons that Labrador ear problems are sadly fairly common. As owners, learning how to clean dogs ears will help keep our dogs comfortable and healthy.


Dogs with Hairy Ear Canals?

Another cause of ear trouble in some Labs is an excess of hair inside the ear canal. Whilst some hair is useful for stopping debris moving down the ear canal, excess hair can cause it to block more quickly and make it harder for wax to shift.

You might be tempted to cut or tweeze out your Labrador’s inner ear hair if you notice it, but if this is not done carefully, the cropped hairs could fall into the ear canal and potentially cause even more problems.

The best thing to do is to show your vet and ask for their advice on whether any action needs to be taken in this respect. They may suggest they remove the hairs themselves or even advise that ear plucking become a part of your pup’s professional grooming routine.

Small Ear Canals Get Mucky!

Finally, some Labradors have small ear canals relative to the size of their head. Again, this makes it more likely that wax will become lodged and become a breeding ground for bacteria. Impacted wax may also create a host of issues from pain to hearing difficulties.

Keeping your Labrador’s ears clean will make them feel more comfortable, and reduce the chances of ear-related health issues. Dogs’ ears are sensitive, and having grubby ears can be upsetting for your dog. Keeping your dog’s ears clean and healthy will help him to stay happy.

How Often to Clean your Dog’s Ears?

If you are lucky, your dog’s ears may almost never need cleaning, but in others they need cleaning on a regular basis. So how will you know whether an ear cleaning session is in order? You can tell by doing simple checks on a regular basis.

The right time to clean your dog’s ears is when they look a bit grubby! If you notice the ear appears to have a bit of extra dirty build up or the wax is looking thicker or darker then it is time for a cleaning. The ear should still be a healthy, pale pink with no unpleasant odor or broken skin. Be sure to note the difference between a dirty ear and a medically unwell ear.

Checking Your Dog’s Ears

It is important to check your dogs ears at least once a week. This will ensure you keep on top of his ear health and make sure you catch or prevent any problems early on.

Make sure your Labrador is standing, sitting or lying down comfortably. Begin by calmly stroking his head. You can also give him a piece of kibble or a treat to distract him. Lift the flap of his ear and look into the ear canal.

A healthy dog’s ear should be pale pink and not have a scent to it. It should also be fairly free from ear wax, debris, discharge or blood although it may have a few flecks of ear wax dotted around the outer ear. Your dog should not react as though in pain, and they should be comfortable with you handling the ear flap.

Your Dog Ear Cleaning Kit.

To clean your dog’s ears you’ll either need water and wool, or a canine ear solution. Either with water, in what is often referred to as the natural method of cleaning, or using specially designed ear cleaning chemicals. The minimum equipment you will need to clean the external part of your dog’s ears are:

• Cotton wool pads or swabs
• Warm water

However, you may also find it useful to have to hand:

• Dog treats (in small pieces, either kibble or tiny bits of cheese work well for most dogs)
• A helpful friend!

To clean the inner ear you will also need

• Canine ear cleaner

Do not use ear cleaner made for humans or other pets, as it may not be as effective or safety tested for use on dogs.

How to Clean Your Dogs’ Ears with Warm Water

Get your ear cleaning equipment laid out within easy reach. If your Labrador is still a puppy pop him into your lap. If he is fully grown try and encourage him to lay down next to you with his head in your lap.

How to clean your dog's ears

Remain calm, petting and reaffirming your dog. Use treats if necessary. A second set of hands may be useful for less confident dogs.

Soak the cotton wool in warm water. Test the temperature of the water. Ensure if it only warm NOT hot! Squeeze out the excess water to leave the cotton damp not sopping wet.

Lift your dog’s ear flap with one hand, and with the other hand softly wipe the cotton wool across the ear. Remove any visible dirt and waxy buildup. Begin close to the ear canal and continue outwards towards the outer rim of the underside of the ear flap

Each time you wipe use a new piece of cotton wool, so that you are not reintroducing any removed dirt and debris back into the ear with subsequent wipes. Only wipe around the external parts of the ear, coming near to but not entering the opening of the ear canal. Do not introduce water or cotton wool into the ear canal.

If your dog appears happy and settled you can repeat this right away with the other ear. If he is becoming restless or stressed, then wait until they have settled down before continuing with the other ear.

How to Clean your Dogs’ Ears with Canine Ear Cleaner

If you have visited your vet due to concerns regarding your Labrador’s ears, he might give you some internal ear cleaning solution to use periodically in his ear canal. This usually comes in a tube fitted with a pointed nozzle, so that the liquid is directed into the ear canal.

You can also buy proprietary ear cleaning solutions online. We like Zymox but always check with your vet before using this or any other commercial ear cleaner on your dog. Always follow the instructions given by your vet or on the package carefully.

This will often be along the lines of placing the tube at the entrance to the ear canal, squirting the requisite volume of solution directly into the ear and then massaging the ear and the area beneath it with the ear flap closed. You will hear a squelching sound as the solution cleans the inner ear and while the ear will become damp there should not be a lot of solution leaking out of the ear if the correct amount is used.

Use cotton swabs to wipe out any excess cleaning solution wiping from the inside to outside of the ear flap. Remember excess moisture is one of the factors that fosters infections so drying your dog’s ears is very important!

You can help your Labrador to find the process less frustrating by giving him a high value treat immediately after you have massaged the solution into his ear. This will help them associate the less than pleasant ear cleaning with the much more enjoyable reward of a yummy treat.

Unusual Behavior After Cleaning Your Dog’s Ears?

After you have flushed your dog’s ears, dried them and you release him, you may find that he runs in circles around the room (a case of the zoomies!) shaking his head or rubbing his ears on the floor. This is perfectly normal.

Still it is probably best to carry out the cleaning process in a relatively empty, well contained space away from any fragile items–a bathroom is often preferred. You may be able to distract your dog afterwards with a game or a brisk walk.

Cleaning Your Puppy’s Ears.

Some dogs do not like having their ears cleaned. This can be an issue for some dogs with general cleaning, even more so for dogs with recurring inner ear problems who need routine inner ear cleanings. The best thing you can do is to get your dog used to being handled and having their ears cleaned from a young age.

If you are bringing home a new puppy, then every few days when he is sitting on your lap calmly gently stroke around his ears, lifting the flaps and doing a visual check. When he responds by staying calm and still give him a small piece of kibble as a reward. This will help him to get used to letting you inspect the ear. And see it as a rewarding experience when he shows the desired behavior.

When you are happy with these checks, you can do the same but with the occasional gentle wipe of the ear using a damp cotton wool pad. Just remember to reward him for being still, disinterested and calm, and to ignore him when he gets excited.

The Labrador Handbook by Pippa Mattinson(paid link)

Tips for Adult Dogs

If your dog is older and has developed a distaste to having his ears checked or cleaned you can combat this but at a very slow, patient pace. The best place to start is by training a reliable sit command. Check out our detailed “train your dog to sit” guide for more information.

Make sure your dog will happily sit while you are both on the same level. And while you have your hands on a a body part or area in which he is comfortable. Gradually over the course of several training sessions move your hands closer to his head and ears. Only go as far as your dog is comfortable. And every time he remains relaxed give him a piece of kibble to reward him.

Begin repeating the process with a cotton wool pad or the ear cleaner in your hand. If he is nervous of these items you will need to begin training by simply rewarding him for staying calm when you hold them in the same room as him. You will have to judge how far and how quickly you can move in each session by your dog’s reaction. Remember, it should be a rewarding experience in which you are gradually growing your dog’s confidence.

Make sure you have lots of high value rewards ready. Stay calm and confident in your handling of him. If you have a friend that your Lab knows well and trusts, then you may find it easier to carry out the final stage with them treat-streaming. Ask them to give your dog a continuous row of small treats while you do the cleaning.

The Labrador Site Founder

Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.

She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program 

Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website


  1. I have a question for you on the cleaning of my Lab’s ears. I have always used a soft warm and wet wash cloth with a mild baking soda solution. It cleans and deodorizes.

    I have never had a bad reaction to this.

    Is this OK?