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When the Twitches and Scratches Matter. We’re All Ears

At A Glance

Earwax or cerumen is secreted by special glands in the ears and protects the ears from microbes, dust, pollen, mites, and other external agents. The color of earwax in dogs can range from yellow to brown, gray, and even black.

And while earwax is not something to be worried about, too much can indicate an infection. And if it is accompanied by a foul smell, change in color, or secretion, you must schedule a visit to the vet immediately. Common symptoms of ear infections in dogs include:

  • Redness or swelling
  • Inflammation or discharge
  • Your pet keeps scratching its ear excessively or rubbing the afflicted ear against the furniture or the ground

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Like humans, a dog’s ear consists of three main components — the outer ear canal, the middle ear, and the inner ear, each crucial to your pet’s ear health and hearing abilities.

And the earwax in your dog’s ears is responsible for keeping its ears clean, healthy, and free of debris. Any change in your dog’s earwax color could be a tell-tale sign of an infection, something I learned the hard way with my dog Cofi.

But as they say, prevention is better than cure. So, read on to know how to keep your dog’s ears clean and what to look out for so you can nip dog ear infections in the bud. I’ll also answer some common questions most pet parents ask, like, what color should the inside of the dog’s ear be or how waxy should my dog’s ears be.

I’ve also included a dog earwax color chart so you know when your dog’s ear issues might need medical intervention.

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What Is Earwax in Dogs?

Also known as cerumen, earwax, as the name suggests, is a waxy substance found inside a dog’s ears. And it serves an important purpose, protecting the inner ear from damage caused by dead cells, dust, debris, microbes, allergens like pollen and other foreign particles. Since it is water-repellant, it also prevents moisture from entering the eardrums.

And when it’s about time, the earwax will find its way out of the ear canal carrying all the unwanted stuff with it, naturally cleaning your dog’s ears in the process.

And all that gunk, gross though it may be, also cushions the ear against sudden injuries and protects it against infections. It works as a lubricant for the inner ear and possesses anti-bacterial and antifungal properties.

cleaning dog's ear

So, Should You Be Cleaning Your Pet’s Ears of Earwax?

No, not if your pet’s ears are healthy and there is no sign of any infection. Dogs with healthy, clean ears may never need to have their ears cleaned.

In most animals, dogs included, the ear is a well-balanced organ equipped to care for itself. If you begin cleaning your pet’s ears, you could end up upsetting the balance within the ear.

What most pet parents don’t realize is that you can change the pH of your pet’s ears by cleaning them.

Also, overcleaning may irritate the ear canal and lead to ear infections, something you were trying to avoid in the first place. So, leave your pet’s ears alone.

That said, certain breeds are prone to excessive ear wax, which could require your intervention every now and then.

Dog Breeds With Excessive Earwax

While I did say that earwax is normal, that’s not always the case, especially with excessive amounts of earwax which is definitely unhealthy. And some dog breeds are prone to high levels of earwax.

For example, a genetic condition in Cocker Spaniels causes the glands in their ears to produce excessive amounts of earwax.

Bassets and other dog breeds with long ear canals are also prone to excessive wax buildup.

Ear infections in English Bulldogs are very common. This is because their flat compressed heads directly impact the ear canal. This breed is also prone to skin conditions and allergies that can trigger an excessive secretion of earwax which often gets trapped in the folds of their ears.

In poodles and poodle crosses, hair also grows in their ear canals. Since these breeds do not shed, the earwax often gets trapped in the hair, blocking the ear and leading to infection if not addressed.

This research by Dr. Dan O’Neil for The Royal Veterinary College, University of London, gives us interesting insights. It states that Basset Hounds, Labradoodles, and Shar-Peis are most prone to ear infections.

Other Reasons That Trigger Excessive Earwax

In addition, dogs with allergies or swelling in their ear canals may have excessive earwax buildup. The chlorine in water also triggers excessive earwax in dogs that enjoy swimming or spending time in the water.

Even the surroundings you live in could lead to excessive earwax secretion. For example, dusty and windy areas, homes with open decks, or unkempt gardens can cause a dog’s ear wax secretion to go into overdrive.

Causes of Earwax Accumulation in A Dog’s Ears

Understanding the reason behind the accumulation of earwax in dogs can help you determine if it’s a cause for concern and needs veterinary intervention.

Improper Drainage

The thing with earwax is that it cleans itself out.

However, since dogs have an L-shaped ear canal, fluid and other substances can get trapped inside. Additionally, if your dog’s ear passage has abnormalities, it could get in the way of the expulsion process, resulting in earwax accumulating in your dog’s ear canals.

Your dog’s ear passage could also get swollen because of injury, infection, or inflammation or due to some congenital defect.

If you feel there’s ear wax accumulation in your dog’s ears because of improper drainage, please consult your veterinarian. Don’t try cleaning it yourself. Ears are extremely sensitive organs and must be treated with utmost care.

Ear Infections

The primary function of earwax is to trap disease-causing microbes and prevent them from entering the inner ear. The root cause of most ear infections is the presence of a foreign substance, biological or non-biological, in the ears.

The most common ear infection in dogs is Otitis Externa, an infection of the external, exposed parts of your dog’s ear, including the ear pinna.

An estimated 16.5% of dogs contract the disease at least once in their lifetime.

Also referred to as “swimmer’s ear”, it is caused by repeated exposure to water, which leaves the ear canal vulnerable to inflammation. It is common in dogs, cats, and other small animals.

Otitis externa can be acute or chronic, with persistent cases lasting up to 3 months or more. This disease causes changes to the insides of the ear, resulting in excessive earwax production. Since it occurs in the outer ear, it is one of the easiest to treat.

If unchecked, Otitis externa can lead to Otitis media and Otitis interna.

  • Otitis Media occurs in a dog’s middle ear, situated just behind the eardrum. According to the National Library of Medicine (NCBI), 50% of dogs with Otitis externa are also susceptible to Otitis media.
  • Otitis Interna occurs in the inner ear. This is where the canal meets the brain and connects with other vital nerves for balance and hearing. Given its proximity to important nerves, Otitis interna is the worst of all three types.

Otitis, if left untreated, can lead to hearing loss or even facial paralysis in your pet.

The worst part?

It is hard to detect. The following symptoms may indicate that your dog has Otitis:

  • A continuous discharge from the ear – with an odor in case of a yeast infection
  • Your pet whines or flinches when given an ear rub
  • The external ear looks red and inflamed
  • Continuously scratching or rubbing of the ears
  • General irritation
  • Shaking of the head
  • Scaly, flaky skin

applying ear drops to dog's ear

Ear Mites

Ear mites are the second most common ectoparasite affecting dogs and cats and can lead to dark waxy discharge from the ears.

Dogs usually contract ear mite infections from other infected animals. Although these parasites live on the skin of animals, they can also affect the inner ear of dogs.

You can easily spot an ear mite infection by observing the earwax discharge in your pet. Ear mites are visible to the naked eye, so inspect your pet’s ears regularly to check for a mite infestation.

What the Fact! Ear mites can cause skin allergies in humans with highly sensitive skin. Although rare, it is best to clean your house thoroughly if your pet has contracted an ear mite infection.

Allergies

Allergies are common in pets, including dogs, and symptoms include itching — either localized or generalized.

Allergy-related ear problems are widespread in dogs, and what often starts out as itchy or irritated ears could escalate into a severe infection in the ears. As a pet parent, look out for the following:

  • Scratching at or around the ears
  • Hair loss around the ears
  • Frequent shaking of the head
  • Smelly discharge from the ears

Injury to the Ear Canal

Unhealthy or excessive earwax production is not a medical condition in itself. It is always a side effect or symptom of an infection or injury.

Your dog may have sustained ear canal injuries, which could also trigger excessive earwax production.

Since internal injuries are difficult to spot, you may not realize something is wrong with your pet until the symptoms worsen. This is why I make it a point to check Cofi’s ears regularly.

Gently pull back the flaps of your dog’s ears and peer inside. If you see a clean and pink ear canal, all is well. If it’s not, call your vet.

Watch out for these symptoms:

  • Is your dog losing its balance?
  • Is it shaking its head too much?
  • Do you feel your dog has problems chewing its food or keeping its mouth open?

All these could indicate your pet has sustained an ear canal injury.

wipings dog's ears

Color of Earwax and Its Meaning

If your dog is healthy, the color of its earwax will range from pale yellow to light brown. Let’s see what any other color signifies.

Black/Dark Brown

Black to dark brown earwax is usually the result of fungal infections in dogs.

Brittle blackish-brown earwax can also indicate an ear mite infestation that could appear like used coffee grounds to your eyes.

So, how to treat black wax in dogs’ ears?

If you notice such dark earwax, do not attempt to clean your dog’s ears at home. Instead, I suggest taking your dog to the vet immediately. In most cases, your dog will be diagnosed with a yeast infection.

Light Brown

Light brown earwax is normal if it is not accompanied by a foul smell, discharge, redness, or rashes.

When light brown earwax is associated with these other symptoms, it could indicate an infection, allergic reaction, or inflammation.

Reddish Brown

More often than not, the wax in your dog’s ear will appear reddish brown if its body produces too much of it.

That said, polyps, allergens, overcleaning, or excessive exposure to chlorine water can also turn the ear wax reddish brown. Moisture accumulation is another factor most pet parents overlook.

Red

Red earwax indicates the presence of blood in your dog’s cerumen. It could mean your dog has sustained an injury or suffered from bug bites, ear mites, fleas, etc.

Pruritus is another condition that results in red earwax. The condition translates into itchy skin and can be caused due to allergens.

Quora user and dog mom Wendy Veith says allergens in your dog’s food or even the environment can lead to it developing a case of pruritus. And when left untreated, it can be quite stubborn to get rid of.

If your dog’s red ear wax turns dark red over time, your Feedo might have ruptured its eardrum. And you need to head to the vet right away.

Yellow

Pale yellow earwax accompanied by a clean and pink ear canal sans swelling or discharge is normal and is not a cause for concern.

However, I cannot say the same about wet or moist yellow earwax — an indication your dog has contracted an ear infection that needs immediate treatment.

Green

Green to dark green earwax accompanied by a foul smell is a symptom of severe microbial infection. It could be bacterial or fungal, and both cases need immediate medical intervention.

Watch out for other symptomatic behavioral changes, such as your dog shaking its head, pawing its ears, and growling in pain.

Gray

Gray earwax is generally a sign of dust and dirt buildup in your dog’s ears. You can try cleaning it gently if your dog shows no signs of pain. If your dog flinches when you touch its ears, it is most likely suffering from an infection.

swabbing its ears

How to Clean Your Dog’s Ears

If you’re wondering how do you get wax out of a dog’s ear at home, the golden rule for cleaning is to be extremely gentle. Only stick to cleaning whatever earwax you see and refrain from poking and prodding.

When done right, you can prevent your dog from contracting infections. DVM Jeff Grognet says, “Cleaning your dog’s ears at home can also help prevent ear infections.”

Here’s how you should go about it:

  • Put the recommended amount of vet-approved ear-cleaning solution in your dog’s ears with the help of a dropper. Allow it to sit for 30 seconds.
  • Gently massage the base of your dog’s ears for another 30-40 seconds.
  • At this point, your dog should shake its head, allowing any excess solution to leak out.
  • Take a sterilized piece of gauze and pour a few drops of the ear-cleaning solution on it.
  • Now use the gauze to gently wipe away any wax/debris that may have accumulated in the outer parts of your dog’s ears.
  • Depending on how frequently you clean your dog’s ears or how much buildup it has, you might need to repeat these steps every few days.

Dos and Don’ts of Cleaning Your Dog’s Ears

Follow these rules while cleaning your dog’s ears at home.

Dos:

  • Consult your vet to know how often you should clean your dog’s ear of earwax. This will vary depending on its breed, living conditions, etc.
  • Request your vet to demonstrate the right way to clean your dog’s ears and remove earwax.
  • Only use vet-recommended drops and medications in the approved quantity.
  • Use cotton swabs/cloth/Qtips to clean your dog’s ears.
  • Be extremely gentle and cautious during the process.
  • Stop immediately if your dog howls in pain when you try to clean its ears.
  • Have patience. Some dogs enjoy having their ears cleaned; others don’t. Don’t rush.
  • Remember to clean your hands before and after removing earwax from your dog’s ears.
  • Familiarize your pet with the cleaning tools so it does not get scared of foreign objects.
  • Give your pet a treat for cooperating. Your dog should have a positive association with its ear-cleaning sessions.

Don’t:

  • Experiment with cleaning solutions and techniques when it comes to cleaning earwax.
  • Tuck, pull, tug, or mishandle your dog’s ears. Remember, they’re extremely sensitive organs. If you’re not gentle, you can hurt them.
  • Let the infection fester unchecked for an extended period. It will worsen over time and may even get extremely difficult to treat.

checking dog's ear

How To Tell If Your Dog Has An Ear Infection

Head-Shaking

The most discernible sign of ear infection in dogs is if they are shaking their heads. An infection causes abnormal secretions and earwax buildup. Dogs shake their heads in an attempt to get rid of the gunk accumulated in their ears.

An ear infection can leave your dog feeling extreme discomfort and pain. It will try to alleviate the discomfort by manically shaking its head or rubbing it against the floor or furniture.

Discoloration

Your dog’s ear canal should appear spotlessly pink if it’s healthy.

Any discoloration, including red patches, indicates an infection. You may also notice brownish-red, red, green, gray, or black guck in the folds of its ears.

Most microbial infections cause discoloration. Don’t attempt to diagnose what’s ailing your dog. Take your pet to the vet immediately.

Unpleasant Odor

Most infections lead to foul-smelling discharge. Even if you get a whiff of odor from your dog’s ears, give them a thorough inspection.

While it’s easy to notice abnormalities, including foul smell, in breeds with upright ears, it will take some effort in dogs with droopy and floppy ears. Gently lift your pet’s ear by its tip, peer, and sniff to check for any unpleasant odor.

Discharge

Any discharge, especially foul-smelling yellow to brown discharge, is an undeniable sign of an ear infection. While the root cause could vary depending on whether it’s a bacterial or fungal infection, get it treated at once if you notice discharge.

All three types of Otitis can cause discharge. So it’s best to get your dog’s ears checked by a vet to rule out infection.

Inflammation

Allergic reactions and microbial infections cause burning red inflammation in a dog’s ears. Get your dog’s ears checked if you notice red patches, swelling, rashes, or any unusual redness.

Excessive Scratching

Allergies, ear mites, and infections can cause itchy spots in your dog’s ear flaps. The more the ears itch, the more your pet will scratch its ears. It can even get cuts and sores in the process.

Crusts and Scabs on the Ear Flaps

Sometimes, certain infections result in crusts or scabs, especially near the edges of a dog’s ears. If your dog has sustained an open wound, a scab could form over it. And scabs are itchy and will make your dogs scratch uncontrollably.

So, scabs and crusts can indicate your dog has an ear infection. Your pet may even infect its scabs by scratching it too much.

dog at the vet

Treatments That Can Be Helpful For Dogs With Ear Infections

Dogs are prone to infections, including in their ears. And where there’s an infection, there’s a treatment, too.

Immediate Care

When you realize your dog has an ear infection, the first thing to do is visit the vet.

I cannot reiterate enough how important it is to seek professional medical help if you notice your dog in distress. Despite our best efforts, we may not be able to help our pets. And home remedies or hacks may end up aggravating their condition.

Your vet may prescribe antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medicines in addition to cleaning your dog’s ears. Follow the instructions and keep your dog on the prescribed course of medication.

If you feel your dog is experiencing too much pain, you can feed it Benadryl.

The recommended safe dosage for the medication is 0.9 to 1.8 milligrams per pound of a dog’s body weight.

That said, checking with your vet before administering any medication is best. Safe than sorry, remember!

Please refrain from using home remedies that suggest using apple cider vinegar or hydrogen peroxide solutions to clean your dog’s ears. It’s not safe. Such hacks could further irritate your dog’s ears, worsening the situation.

Long-term Care

  • Keep it clean: Maintain a vet-recommended cleansing routine. And ensure you follow your vet’s advice even if your mutt’s not happy about it.
  • Regular vet visits: Remember to take your dog for regular health checks. These visits need not specifically be for an ear checkup. But most vets will check your dog’s ears too.
  • Perform an ear check at home: Make it a point to check your pet’s ears for earwax buildup, foul smell, or discharges. Once every week should be good enough.
  • Be mindful of the surroundings: Taking your dog for a hike or camping trip? Keep an eye out for any allergic reactions. Observe precautions and carry medicines.

vet check-up

Frequently Asked Questions

How To Clean Dog’s Ear Wax At Home?

Use a vet-prescribed cleaning solution and fill your dog’s ear cavity with it. Let it sit for 30 seconds before gently massaging the base of its ears for another 30 seconds. By this time, the earwax must have dislodged itself from your dog’s ears. Use a sterile gauze dipped in the same solution to wipe it off.

How To Treat Black Wax In Dogs Ears?

Do not try home remedies. Black wax could indicate an ear mite infection in our dog’s ears. Just take your pet to the vet.

Does The Color Of Ear Wax Indicate Health Issues?

Yes, it does.

How Much Does It Cost to Take a Dog to the Vet for an Ear Infection?

The cost would depend on the type of infection, its severity, and your location. However, you can expect to spend anywhere between $100 and $175 to treat your dog’s ear infection.

If it’s a recurring infection or requires a long course of medication, you may end up spending more.

So it’s good to invest in pet insurance to ensure visits to the vet don’t pinch. But first, check with your provider to see if it covers the cost of ear infection treatment.

Can Hydrogen Peroxide Be Used for Waxy Dog Ears?

No. Although you will find multiple home remedies that use mild hydrogen peroxide or apple cider vinegar solutions, I advise against using either. Ear infections are no joke. They cause a lot of pain and discomfort to your pet.

So don’t experiment. Take your pet to the vet instead.

How To Prevent Ear Problems In Dogs?

The best way to ensure your dog does not suffer from ear problems is to keep its ears clean and check them regularly at home.

You can also take your pet to a trusted groomer. And get your pet’s ears checked every time you take it for its routine vet visit.

 

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Paul Andrews
https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-andrews-172490189/

A digital marketing expert by profession, Andrews is a gifted writer and animal lover at heart. A self-confessed "pawrent", Andrews is well-versed in all things dogs. He uses his years of experience of raising puppies into show-quality dogs to help guide first-time pet parents. He believes in spreading the joy that comes with being a dog dad and advocates more families to adopt pets.