Using Ear Cleaners for Otitis Externa

Otitis Externa aka inflammation (redness and swelling) of the external ear canal is a very common condition in dogs – in fact, despite it being one of the most common conditions seen in dogs – it can be a frustrating condition to manage. It occurs when the outside part of a dogs ear (from the ear flap and along the ear canal to the eardrum) becomes inflamed and thickened in either one or both ears. This condition can be uncomfortable and in some circumstances very painful and if left untreated, may require surgery to resolve it.

The risks of Otitis Externa

The risks of leaving Otitis Externa untreated can be serious as the dog can go on to suffer inflammation of the middle ear infection or in very severe cases the inner ear which is where the ear and brain actually meet. This can lead to the eardrum rupturing (resulting in deafness) and also life-threatening infection. Dogs that have severe cases of Otitis Externa may require surgical intervention to carry out ear canal ablation which is the removal of the ear canal.

A vicious circle

Most cases of Otitis Externa and associated ear infections can be managed and treated successfully so long as the initial trigger is discovered and treated.  If the initial cause is left untreated dogs may keep on developing secondary infections until the trigger is diagnosed and eliminated. Severe cases are sometimes seen in veterinary practices where the initial trigger has not been identified, and Otitis Externa becomes stuck in a loop of inflammation and infection. This can lead to the ear canals narrowing and infection taking hold in the middle or inner ear.  Scar tissue can then form in the ear canal with the effect of preventing some prescribed medications reaching the problem tissue as well as preventing skin, cells and hairs from leaving the ear which causes further problems.

Presenting cases

Most cases are often mild but they can worsen very quickly, and this is why timely diagnosis and treatment is important. Signs of otitis externa include the following:-

- Head shaking
- The underside of the ear may look inflamed and feel warm to touch
- Scratching and pawing at the ear
- Unpleasant smell coming from the ear
- Apparent discomfort or pain
- Discharge of brown, yellow or black wax
- Tiredness and irritability including perhaps not wanting to be touched around the head
If the eardrum ruptures then the dog may tilt their head, be unable to walk in a straight line and show a reluctance to eat. They may also be in severe pain and become deaf.

The causes of Otitis Externa

Causes are varied but include such factors as:-

- Allergies
Food allergies are a common cause of itching as well as allergies to something in the environment that causes itching and swelling in the ear.

 - The environment
Humid weather, swimming and foreign bodies in the ear from walking etc. all increase the risk for developing Otitis Externa.

- The shape of an individual dog’s ears
Dogs with larger hanging ears may be more at risk due to trapping warmth, moisture and foreign bodies in the ear canal. Dogs naturally have a long, narrow L shaped ear canal – an ideal breeding ground for bacteria and yeast if warmth, moisture and foreign bodies build up.

- Tumours
Growths in the ear canal may trap in warmth, moisture and foreign bodies encouraging yeast and bacteria to grow.

- Parasites
Ear mites can cause itching and swelling that can lead to a secondary infection.

- Other medical issues
Auto-immune diseases, a build-up of dead skin (keratinisation) or hormonal disorders can all create a breeding ground for bacteria and yeast to grow.

- Ear Cleaning
Ironically – over enthusiastic ear cleaning can be one of the causes of Otitis Externa. Cleaning a dogs ears too vigorously or incorrectly can cause irritation or debris to be pushed further into the ear canals and cause the problems you were trying to avoid in the first place!

When cleaning aids treatment success

The key to successful treatment is not only issuing the right medication; commonly a topical antifungal, antibiotic and anti-inflammatory preparation is prescribed but cleaning the ear in the correct manner has proven to be a significant indicator in the overall success of the treatment.


Treatment is usually begun at the acute phase of Otitis Externa symptoms, but once control is achieved and there is a substantial reduction in symptoms, it can be necessary to continue with an ear cleaner as part of a maintenance routine in order to prevent relapse. This is especially important where a dog has a predisposition to chronic Otitis Externa perhaps because of underlying problems such as canine atopy or when epithelial migration and regeneration is poor due to existing damage thus setting the scene for further episodes of otitis externa. The risks can also be generally reduced by regularly clipping dogs ears and drying the ears after swimming.

The importance of using an ear cleaning product at home

It is of utmost importance, therefore, that the dogs owners are taught how to use an ear cleaning product correctly in order to ensure its maximum effectiveness. This is where a veterinary nurse can help in demonstrating how the ear cleaning routine should be performed.

How to use an ear cleaning product

It is important that you are shown how to clean your dog’s ears correctly as the main risk is that you inadvertently push something into the depths of your dog’s ear canal such as a foreign body or dirt particles which could not only damage the ear but trigger an infection.


Massage the base of your dogs ears for around twenty seconds to soften and release any material. You may wish to consider using a suitable dog-friendly ear cleaner to make this more effective. The ear canal should be filled with the product, and the vertical canal massaged for approximately 30-60 seconds to soften and release any material within the ear. The excess product and any dirt or debris can then be gently wiped away moving from the tip to the ear, and the ear dried gently with a towel afterwards.

Ear cleaning maintenance

Once the ear canal is clean and not releasing any further dirt or debris then this routine can be carried out weekly but initially the frequency of cleaning; depending on the severity of the condition, may need to be carried out daily or several times a week.


Choosing the right ear cleaner for the patient, depending on the symptoms presenting, is of vital importance in not only treating but preventing cases of Otitis Externa. Along with the education of the dogs owners regarding carrying out a regular ear cleaning maintenance – this is the best two-pronged approach in symptomatic relief and prevention of what can be a difficult condition to treat.