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Should I clean the “dirt” out of my dog’s or cat’s ears?

With the weather so humid and hot at the moment we are seeing lots of ear problems associated with dogs and cats (especially dogs) and on a daily basis I have discussions with clients who feel their animal has ‘dirty ears’ and they want to know what they can do about it.

First thing to understand is that unless your animal has been rolling in the dirt, or has been working underground in the mines, or your children have been pushing dirt into your animal’s ears, then the reality is that the ‘dirty ear’ is caused by a yeast called Malazzesia.

Yeast love moisture, heat and love a dark area to live – there is no greater area of the body of the animal that attracts yeast than the ears. Especially if the animal has floppy ears or has hair causing the moisture to build up in the ear canal.

Most floppy ear breeds or long haired breeds have yeast growing inside the ear canal – most of the time the yeast lives ‘in harmony’ with the animal and there is no irritation or discomfort caused. But, sometimes the yeast population gets out of control and causes problems that your veterinarian must treat.

So to start off with – when I get asked the question about what can you (the pet owner) can do – my first comment is “why” do you want to do anything?

If you just want the ear to look nice and not have the brown “dirt” then the youcan just put a clean cloth or handkerchief on your little finger and gently clean out the canal as far as you can put the finger in without using any force.

There are a number of things I do NOT recommend

  1. I do NOT recommend the use of alcohol washes or cloths – the alcohol removes all the protectant oils that the ear depends on and then it damages the cells of the ear canal and can lead to serious inflammation and bacterial infections.
  2. I do NOT recommend the use of cotton buds to be put inside the ear canal – these cotton buds usually cause the yeast and other ‘crud’ to be pushed down the canal causing more problems.
  3. I do NOT recommend cotton wool or a cloth pulled over a toothpick and pushed down the canal – same reason as above and in some cases I have seen the canal wall damaged and bleeding and infections resulting from the damage.
  4. I do NOT recommend the use of ‘Ear Cleaners’ that are sold in pet shops unless a veterinarian has recommended them for a specific animal with a specific problem. These ear cleaners are based on alcohol or acid and can cause irritation to the canal or can disrupt the normal mucous and oil that the body uses to keep the ear canals “normal”.

Yes, I understand that in some animals the yeast can cause problems but in most cases it is because the animal had too much hair in the canal or the ear canal did not “breathe” enough to allow the ears to dry out of moisture.

Talk to your vet about what they recommend but my advice to most owners is;

  1. Exercise your animal – if you run your animal then the ears flap and the canal “breathes”
  2. If your animal swims a lot – dry the ear and the upper part of the canal when you rinse your animal off.
  3. Keep the hair out of the ears on  regular basis
  4. Clip the hair away from the bottom of the ears (what we call a “bullseye” effect) to prevent hair blocking the canal when the ears of flopped over.

Remember the ear canal needs to have its protectant oils and wax to maintain normal health so please be careful not to disrupt those substances by putting anything down the ear canal and please do not push anything down the canal – the damage you do may outweigh and benefit you are trying to achieve.

Leave the ear cleaners alone unless your vet recommends them and keep the ear, the canal and the skin around the ears clean and free from hair.

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