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Pet Health


To Flush or not to Flush (How to clean your dog’s ears!)

  My poor boy has allergies, and as most veterinarians will tell you, dogs with allergies often have ear issues…

Dirty Dog Ears and Allergies


My poor boy has allergies, and as most veterinarians will tell you, dogs with allergies often have ear issues as well. Their ears are usually stinky, irritated, itchy, and most always, their ears look dirty from a build up of yeast, overgrowth of ear wax, discharge, or whatever. In fact, treatment for Rex’s allergies has included not only a twice weekly bath, but a twice weekly thorough ear cleaning as well. Anyway, as long as Rex has had allergies, we have had a fight at keeping his ears clean and itch free.

We have moved several times with Rex in the last few years and because of this, we have had to change veterinarians. Generally, any vet we visit recommends the same protocol for dealing with Rex’s allergies… medicated baths, medicines, and ear cleaning. I am confused, however, that they sometimes differ on “how” to clean his ears. The majority of his veterinarians have instructed us to flush the ears by filling his ear canal with ear cleaner, massaging the area, and letting him shake it out and then wipe dry. But I recall one particular veterinarian who was adamant that we should never fill his ears with cleaning solution, but only clean the outside, visible area with a good ear cleaner and cotton balls.

Before moving forward, I want to remind you that we are not health care professionals at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts. We always recommend and refer our customers to their veterinarians for medical advice. We share our experiences with our readers in hopes of simplifying issues that they may be struggling with as well. In this blog, we are not recommending any particular protocol for ear cleaning. Those recommendations can only come from a medical professional.

While researching the subject of ear care in dogs with allergies, I have learned that much of what is recommended or prescribed by veterinarians is based on the dog’s breed, the condition of the ears themselves, and even the shape of the dog’s ear.

Any dog can have allergies, but there are some dog breeds that are more prone to developing allergies. Some of these breeds are Chinese Shar-Peis, Wirehaired Fox Terriers, Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, Boxers, Boston Terriers, Labrador Retrievers, Lhasa Apsos, Scottish Terriers, Shih Tzus, and West Highland White Terriers. Couple the propensity towards allergies with ears that are heavy and covered, and it’s likely to become an issue. Let me explain by first talking about how your dog’s particular ear shape can contribute to problem ears.

Your Dog’s Ear Shape and Cleaning

There are many different shapes of dog’s ears, but for simplicity, they all basically fit into one of two categories: 1) Ears that stand up, or 2) Ears that lay down. There are some ears that are kind-of in-between… they stand up near the skull, but may flap over a little, like the greyhounds, or the Jack Russell. But for all intents and purposes, I would put those in the category of “stand up” ears.

Dog ears that stand up are called sometimes called prick ears. They are erect, upright; sometimes (regretfully) cropped. There are many other more “technical” names for dogs with ears that stand up, like bat ears (think frenchies and corgis), hooded ears (Basenjis), and so on.

Then there are the ears lay down over the dog’s outer ear canal. Sometimes these ears are referred to as “dropped”, pendant, or folded. They simply hang down and range from everything from a shorter lab-like fold, to a heavy, hair-covered ear like a cocker spaniel. A thorough “catalog” of all the types of dog ears is a subject for another blog. The point here is to establish how a dog’s ear shape can affect his ear health. If we look back up to the list of allergy prone breeds above, some of the dogs with heavier, fold-over ears are the Golden Retrievers, Labs, Lhasa Apsos, and Shih Tzus.

Standing, or prick ears allow the most air circulation, plus – because of the visibility – they are easier to clean. Air circulation is important for good ear health as it helps limit moisture. Longer, folding ears can trap debris, dirt and moisture. It’s kind-of unbelievable how much “crud” can get trapped underneath a floppy ear sometimes! It is important to keep both ear types clean, of course, but longer dog ears tend to be more of a problem. Ears that lay over the canal can block airflow and can lead to moisture and yeast build-up. Add that to trapped debris and you have the perfect recipe for trouble. We sympathize… floppy ears are hard to keep clean and dry. Because of this, infections are more common in ears that flop-over or lay down.

Rex has longer, somewhat heavy ears. They often smell “musty” or yeasty. If his ears were exposed, they probably would have a more pleasant odor, as good airflow helps to counteract the pungency. Sometimes when Rex is resting, I will actually flip his ears over so they get some air. And sometimes when he is playing or shaking, his ears will kind-of turn inside out. It doesn’t physically hurt him, so I just leave them like that to allow some air in. Anything that increases air flow to the ear canal has to be a good thing, right? That might involve plucking some of the hair around the opening of the canal, or even pulling the ears back into a snood or scrunchie. Yes, that’s Rex in the picture with his ears in a scrunchie. You’ve gotta admit, it’s so darn cute!

How Allergies Contribute to Ear Infections

Allergies cause inflammation in the ear. Inflammation can upset the natural balance of a healthy ear. That natural balance includes moisture, yeast and bacteria. The word “bacteria” makes us go “Ew”, but it’s not always a bad thing. There are good and bad bacteria. But no matter how good the bacteria, things can quickly go awry when the ears become inflamed. The inflammation causes moisture to become trapped, creating an environment for yeast and bacterial to grow. What is the result? A nasty, miserable ear infection.

If your dog’s ear infections are a result of allergies, there is more to be done. First, make sure you are feeding your dog a highly nutritious food that will support his immune system. Second, work with your veterinarian to try to find out what he is allergic to. If it is a food allergy, adjust his diet accordingly. If it is an environmental allergy, try to eliminate as many of the allergens from his environment as possible. That sounds so simple, but I understand, it’s not.

Cleaning Your Dog Ears

The majority of Rex’s doctors recommend the flushing method of the ears for a thorough cleaning. And from what I am reading, most veterinarians suggest the flushing method. But it is my opinion that this method should only be used when suggested or performed by a veterinarian. If a healthy ear is flushed, you are simply introducing moisture into a perfectly “agreeable” ear environment. The moisture introduced by the ear cleaner could upset the normal balance and actually cause an infection.

At Holiday Barn Pet Resorts, our Grooming department cleans only the outer surface of a dog’s ear. We use an ear cleaner specifically for a dog’s ears, moisten a cotton ball, and clean the area that is visible around the ear canal. Then dry well. We are particularly careful not to allow water to enter the dog’s ear during bathing also. Water, moisture, wetness…., seems to be the villain in nearly all ear problems.

I don’t know why that one veterinarian was so insistent that I did not flush Rex’s ears to clean them. As I mentioned before, the condition of a dog’s ear and the overall health of the dog can certainly be factors when determining which method of cleaning is most effective. Perhaps at the time of Rex’s exam, his ears may have appeared clear and balanced which would warrant only a general – but thorough – outside cleaning. Or maybe it was just the opposite – the inflammation was so bad that adding a liquid cleanser would most certainly have become trapped in his canal. I don’t know. What I do know is that Rex has thrived under the care of all his veterinarians. I am careful to follow their advice and instruction, and we suggest you do the same.

That being said, always follow your veterinarian’s full treatment protocol when dealing allergies, and particularly with an ear infection… from cleaning to medicating. If the vet says to flush the ear canal, then by all means, flush. Finish all prescribed medicine, even if it seems like your dog is better. Not finishing the treatment can result in a recurrence of the infection. And be sure and follow up if your vet wants to recheck the dog after treatment is complete. Allergies are complicated. Ear infections are complicated… not to mention very uncomfortable for our dogs.

And, as always, if you ever need pet advice or if your pet needs a little staycation, reach out to one of Holiday Barn’s pet resorts in Glen Allen, VA or Midlothian, VA.


Check out our related post on preparing your dog for their first grooming appointment.

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