Vet Reviewed

By Carmela Ciuraru | October 19, 2023

You probably haven’t spent much time pondering your dog’s earwax, but you might want to think about it a bit. That’s because the color and texture of your dog’s earwax (also known as cerumen) is a key indicator of their overall ear health. Excessive earwax can be quite painful, which is why gently cleaning your dog’s ears regularly is so important. That said, cleaning your dog’s ears too often can result in itching and irritation. 

What is earwax, exactly?

It’s normal for dogs to have some earwax, just as it is for humans. Produced in the ear canal, earwax plays an important role in keeping your dog’s ears healthy and clean, helping to protect the ears from infections. Too much earwax? That’s a problem. An excessive accumulation can lead to infections (bacterial and fungal), ear mite infestations, and more, which can then cause even more of a wax buildup. 

In a normal state, earwax functions to:

  • Keeps the ear canals clean
  • Keeps the ear canals moist
  • Traps dirt, dust, pollen, and debris

What do the different colors of earwax mean?

Generally, dark-colored earwax in your dog’s ears (or just one ear) indicates a problem of some kind. 

Healthy earwax is a pale yellow color, healthy and normal. Even light brown is fine. But a dark brown discharge can mean a yeast infection, while a dark green waxy buildup often smells bad and indicates a bacterial infection. Gray or even black earwax means that there is an excess  buildup of dirt and debris. Dark red is perhaps most worrisome of all: it is typically caused by blood, and could mean a ruptured eardrum.

What’s the best way to clean my dog’s ears?

First, make it a habit to check your dog’s ears. To do so, hold up one ear gently and check for any discharge or smell. If you spot pus, redness, or a large amount of wax, you should take your dog to the vet for an exam. One sign is if you see your dog shaking their head or scratching their ears constantly. A healthy ear appears pink and clean, and free of excessive dar, wax—and it’s also odorless.

Plan on checking your dog’s ears about once a week to identify any issues early on, such as too much debris in the ears or a possible infection. You can make this check part of your dog’s home grooming routine. 

It’s important to seek your vet’s advice before going in for any sort of cleaning, because if the ear is damaged, you can create bigger problems with improper cleaning methods. If you’re cleared to proceed, cleaning your dog’s ears is easier when you use the correct supplies and techniques. If you’ve never cleaned a dog’s ears before and are nervous, you can also ask your veterinarian for a demonstration.

To get started, help your dog get settled comfortably—maybe when they’re feeling tired and calm, such as after a round of fetch or a park walk. Use a damp paper towel or cotton ball—do not use Q-tips—to wipe gently around the inside of each ear, and then use whatever ear cleaning product your vet has recommended for cleaning. (Never use hydrogen peroxide.) Lift one ear flap and squirt in a little ear cleaner, allowing it to drip into the ear canal. Very gently massage at the base of your dog’s ear for a minute or so, then stand back and allow your dog to shake their head. Lift the ear flap again and gently wipe inside the ear with your cotton ball or a piece of gauze. Continue wiping until your cotton balls remain clean.

Another veterinarian-approved method is to soak a cotton ball with the cleaner and then gently clean around (and within) the opening to the ear canal. As you clean, the liquid will tend to squeegee into the ear canal. This technique is especially helpful for dogs who are very sensitive about having their ears touched or cleaned. It’s a less direct way of cleaning, which avoids squeezing the liquid directly into the ear canal—that can be quite painful if there’s sensitivity due to an infection. (Cold cleaner squirted into the canal can really freak out some dogs! It’s best to avoid this.) And don’t use water to clean your dog’s ears as this can predispose them to an ear infection or even make it worse. 

One interesting thing to note is that many dog groomers pluck hair out of dogs’ ears when they groom them. Sometimes this is helpful, because it removes hairs that can cause extra dirt and debris to be trapped in the ear. But sometimes the irritation of plucking the hairs can be problematic, such as when all the hair in the canal is removed and the dog can get an ear infection more easily. Plucking at home is best avoided. Ask your vet before you pluck or otherwise interfere with your dog’s ear hairs, or any other part of their ears.

Keep in mind that when cleaning your dog’s ears, you should never to stick anything down into the ear canal, including Q-tips. The rule of thumb is to only clean as far as you can see. If you think your dog needs a deeper ear cleaning than you can provide, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.

No dog enjoys this procedure, of course, but it’s important and must be done regularly. If your dog is especially squirmy, have a friend or family member assist you while you do this. Also, it’s a good idea to have all your supplies on hand before you begin, so you can work quickly. You might also want to have some tasty treats on hand to reward your dog for some much-needed patience. 

Some dogs need their ears cleaned less often than others. As always, to determine how often you should clean your pup’s ears, consult your veterinarian.