Ear Care 101
Regular, proper maintenance of a pet’s ears is essential in protecting it from painful and dangerous infections.
To pluck or not to pluck, that is the question. Ear cleaning can be very controversial in our industry. Everyone has an opinion on the subject, so to whom should you listen? Personally, I feel that a groomer should first understand the basic science behind the ear canal and skin. Then they can make a choice for each canine and feline client, based on that knowledge and the individual pet’s condition.
Luckily, healthy dogs seem to manage their own ear health with few issues. However, whenever a four-legged client’s ear does not look normal, I recommend an ear exam with a veterinarian. It is important not to diagnose, simply note what you see. Look for swelling and discharge, along with foul odors and signs of pain when the ears are touched. The vet can hopefully detect the problems before a severe issue comes up.
Groomers and pet owners should never attempt to correct an ear infection on their own. They can be extremely painful for the animal, and infections can lead to permanent damage and hearing loss if not treated properly.
Veterinarians know that there is much more to an ear examination than meets the eye. Ear issues can be caused by a variety of things. The main causes are parasites, food allergies, product reactions and foreign objects in the ear, as well as accumulation of hair, dead-skin buildup and autoimmune diseases. In addition, extreme changes in the outer ear canal from swimming or bathing to improper ear-cleaning techniques can provide the prime environment for the growth of bacteria, fungus and yeast.
Veterinarians use many ways to diagnose ear issues, including MRIs and skin scrapings from the dog’s ear flaps to test for parasites. They even do skin biopsies to check for autoimmune diseases. The most common tool used to diagnose ear problems is a microscopic examination of the ear discharge.
The Science of Ears
The anatomy of dog and cat ears is similar. The ear canal is shaped like an “L,” with the eardrum located almost at the end. However, while the feline ear canal is more than twice as long as a human ear canal, the ear canal in canines is more than four times longer than it is in humans. There are three parts to the ear canal: the external, middle and inner ear. When you look into a dog or cat’s ear canal without special equipment, you can only see half of it—do not probe deeper.
The inside of the ear canal is a continuation of the skin. The only difference is there are additional sebaceous glands, and the apocrine glands are deeper in the dermis. Normal earwax is a mix of fluids from both glands. The skin grows from the inside out, and it takes approximately six weeks for the cells to develop from bottom layer to top layer under normal conditions. However, any stimulus (either chemical or physical) can speed up the cellular production. When this happens, the skin’s reaction is not normal, and the result is the production of extra skin cells. When this happens inside the dog’s ear canal, the extra skin cells die and build up—they have nowhere to go. Think of it as a scab that sits in the bottom of the long, L-shaped ear canal. How will this scab be removed?
In a healthy ear with normal cellular production, the ear maintains good balance. Normal amounts of skin cells are shed and are removed by the normal amounts of the skin flora— microorganisms that live on the skin surface. But when we pluck hair from the ear, we cause a reaction. If we are gentle and pluck small amounts of hair at a time, we may not create enough of a reaction to cause the overproduction of skin cells.
If plucking does cause a reaction, the extra cells produced will need assistance to be removed in a few days or weeks. In order to help the skin flora manage these extra cells and stay in balance, the ear needs to be flushed routinely during the healing process, or there will be an overproduction of the bacteria and yeast that feed on the extra cells, causing complete chaos. So, think before you remove large amounts of hair from the ear canal at one time. Remember, you may be causing an injury to the skin. Veterinary studies show that a cut in the skin can speed up cellular production from six weeks to seven days, which multiplies the numbers of cells on the dog’s skin or in the dog’s ears by six times what is normal.
There are a lot of things to consider when plucking the hair from an ear. How much hair is in the ear canal? If you are working on a regular four- to six-week customer with a small amount of coat in the ear canal, you probably will not have any issues with plucking. However, if you come across an ear that has never been plucked before or has what some of us like to call double-feathered ears, you will need to consider the big picture.
The bottom line is that if you are going to stimulate the skin’s surface by removing a lot of hair, you need to educate the customer. When I admit a new client, I like to examine the ears, so I can educate the pet owner on existing issues or identify possible issues that may occur during the ear-cleaning process. I explain that the ear-cleaning process is a catch-22.
If I do not pluck and clean the dog’s ears, it will get limited air in the lower part of the canal, and the lack of oxygen can cause an imbalance in the ear flora. Many very bad bacteria are more prolific in an environment with less oxygen. But if I do pluck, I will cause some irritation that will require maintenance at home. I mention that they need to take home a really gentle ear cleaner to flush once or twice a week until I see them again.
If pet owners are not comfortable with that, or if I feel there is just too much coat in the ear or an existing issue, I send them to the vet for direction. In most cases, the vet will provide a wash or ointment to manage the inflammation after they pluck the ear.
Over 30 years, I have had only three dogs that could not have their ears plucked—a Poodle, a Schnauzer and a Kerry Blue Terrier. They all had double-feathered ears and were maintained with regular flushing and veterinarian visits. The key is to educate on the front side, not after an ear issue occurs. I have owned Standard Poodles for 30 years, and rarely, if ever, have I had any issues with my dog’s ears. I attribute it to our routine cleaning process and the cleaner that we use.
The best way to remove the buildup of debris and flaky skin is to flush the ear. It is the only way to truly reach the bottom of the canal. A slightly acidic cleaner works well in managing the bacteria. It is critical that you remember to communicate with pet owners and ask if their dog or cat has any ear drum damage. If there is any doubt, do not flush.
Finding the Right Solution
You can purchase an ear-cleaning solution specifically created for pets. I use—and helped create—the new HydroSurge ear cleaner. Make sure what you are using is free of large amounts of irritants, such as alcohol. A good ear cleaner includes a surfactant cleansing agent. The ear cleaner may also contain boric acid, which functions as an anti-fungal agent, and astringent used in the treatment of various yeast and fungal infections.
Some ear cleaners also include glycerin, which is a natural humectant that offers hydration and soothes dry, itchy skin, as well as small amounts of tea tree oil, which is a natural botanical antiseptic, anti-inflammatory ingredient that helps fight bacterial and fungal infection while cleaning the skin surface without irritation. Aloe vera is another natural botanical ingredient with anti-inflammatory properties that soothe and calm the skin. These ingredients are known to be effective and help counteract the stimulation caused by plucking. They should be in small enough amounts as to not harm the pet, but still add therapeutic benefits.
After I lather a dog the first time, I will place a small amount of ear-cleaning solution in its ears and massage the base. Let the dog shake its head, as this will help loosen debris and force it to the outer ear. Then take a cotton ball and gently wipe the outer ear canal. Do not wipe any farther than where you can easily see in the canal. Repeat this process a few times until the outer ear and canal are clean.
If you only wipe the outer ear and canal, you may end up pushing debris further down the canal, causing issues. I pack the ear with cotton and lather the entire outer ear with shampoo. Then I rinse. Once the ear is squeaky clean inside and out, I will rinse an extra few times. Sometimes, I even soak longer ears in a small bucket to make sure they are rinsed well. Following the bath, I always pull the cotton out, add a few more drops of cleaner, and then place a dry cotton ball back in the ear, so the noise of the drier does not scare the dog or cause ear damage with its high-velocity air.
My cleaning is less aggressive with cats. I normally only clean the visible part of the cat’s ear canal with a moist cotton ball, allowing a small amount of cleaner in the ear. I then let them shake their head. A cat’s inner ear is more sensitive than a dog’s. Because they have thinner skin, they absorb chemicals quickly, so make sure you use a cleaner that is gentle. Cats have been known to become intoxicated and very ill from ear-cleaning solutions. I have one feline client that has had a ruptured ear drum in the past, so I avoid getting any liquids in his ear at all.
As much as I would like things to be black and white, there is no exact science to cleaning ears. Each pet requires a quick look in its ears each time it comes in to be groomed or bathed. Determine with the owner what the right course of action will be, and then proceed. Most of my clients get their ear hairs removed and have no issues with it. However, there are a few that have either allergies or autoimmune issues, or they are just too over-coated. With them, I give and take. I pick only enough hair to allow airflow, and I am gentle. If they are having serious issues, though, I will abstain altogether, and point them to the veterinarian’s office or follow the protocol the veterinarian has already set in place from past experiences.
In any case, regular maintenance is key, because when an ear is allowed to get too hairy, it is definitely going to cause an inflammation and cellular response. Just make sure every dog leaves with clean, dry ears inside and out.
Christina Pawlosky is a Certified Master Groomer, professional handler, breeder, and successful pet store and grooming shop owner (The Pet Connection) since 1985. She is currently the National Training Manager for Oster Professional Products and produces grooming DVDs through her website GroomerWorks.com.