How To Clean & Treat A Dog’s Itchy Smelly Ears: Vet-Approved Products To Use

Does your dog have smelly ears? Itchy ears? Brown spots inside?

Ours does. Quite often. He’s a Labrador mix.

Some dog breeds tend to have more ear infections than others, but basically any dog with floppy ears is likely to get ear infections — including Labrador Retrievers.

destin went to the vet (again) today for a bad ear infection

Here’s a vet-recommended 2-step process for cleaning and treating your dog’s itchy, dirty, smelly ears.

Take it from me, you should do this before it turns into a serious ear infection!


How I Clean My Dog’s Ears

Dogs and ear problems go hand in hand — especially in the summertime.

Our 3-year-old Black Lab, Destin, always gets that brownish-black gunk in his ears.

The vet said this is a form of yeast infection, and the best way to treat it is to follow this 2-step procedure:


#1 – Clean the ears thoroughly with a dog-approved ear wash. (We use Corium 20 — got it at the vet.) Bonus: It makes your dog’s ears smell GREAT!

How to do it:

  • Squirt a liberal amount of Corium-20 directly into the dog’s ear canal — you can’t use too much. (When squirting, be careful not to touch the insides of the ear with the tip of the bottle, because your dog will likely jump when the cold liquid hits his ear, and you could hurt his inner ear with the bottle if you’re not careful.)
  • Use the dog’s own ear to close the ear opening and massage all of the liquid around inside his ear — up high and down low. Use a fair amount of pressure to literally massage the inner ear and work the liquid down into the canal itself. But don’t rub too hard — you’ll know when you’re being too hard… dogs typically enjoy a light massaging of the ears.
  • corium-20-dog-ear-cleanerThen, let go of his ear, and let your dog shake all of the excess ear wash out of his inner ear. You won’t have to do anything to prompt him to do this. Your dog will be eager to give a good head shake the very moment you stop massaging his ear… so watch out!
  • After a quick “treat” for good behavior, get your dog back into a position that will enable you to look into his ear while his head is resting either on the floor, or on your lap.
  • Finally, tear a cotton ball in two or more smaller pieces. Hold your dog’s ear “open” with one hand, while wiping a small piece of cotton through the entire inside of his ear. For our Black Lab, it takes about 4 or 5 “wipings” with small cotton balls to get all of the now-loosened gunk out of one ear.


#2 – Treat the ears immediately with a prescription antibiotic and/or antifungal and/or anti-inflammatory medicine.

We use Otomax — got it at the vet. Otomax is the vet-recommended choice for treating a dog’s ear infection because it’s one of the few dog ear meds that has all 3 — antibiotic, antifungal, anti-inflammatory medication — in one.

Otomax is an effective combination steroid, antibacterial, and antifungal ointment used to treat acute and chronic ear infections. The active ingredients are betamethasone valerate, a steroid; gentamicin sulfate, an antibiotic; and clotrimazole, which is antifungal. ~Drs. Foster & Smith

How to do it:

  • Squirt one big drop in each ear.
  • Use the dog’s own ear to close the opening to the ear and massage the liquid all around the inner ear.
  • That’s it! (The Otomax is much thicker than the watery Corium-20, so it’s less messy when your dog shakes his head.)

destin and his supply of meds to cure his ear infection

This 2-step process typically keeps our dog’s ears clean, gunk-free, and itch-free for about 2 months — sometimes longer! The process itself takes about 5 minutes to do both ears.

If at-home remedies for ear cleaning are preferred, the best mixture to reach for is white vinegar in water as a 50/50 mixture. The vinegar acts to break down the wax in the ear, and creates a pH in the ear which prohibits the growth of bacteria and yeast. ~Vet4Petz


UPDATE: I Found A Cleaner + Treatment In One… Zymox!

Recently, hubby and I took a 5-week long motorcycle trip across the country and our dog stayed with a pet sitter.

When we returned, my dog’s ears were itchy, smelly, and filled with tiny brown spots — a form of yeast.

I wasn’t too surprised, since my dog is prone to this type of ear infection if we don’t keep his ears clean. (We use Corium-20 year round.)

Since my vet was closed several days in a row for the holidays and I was out of Otomax, I got the next best thing: Zymox. It doesn’t contain any antibiotics like the Otomax does. Instead, it contains Hydrocortisone 1% — a steriod. The Zymox successfully treats my dog’s ear inffsmellections just as quickly.

In fact, Zymox may even be better than using the Corium-20 first to clean the ears, and then the Otomax to treat the ear infection — because it cleans and treats in one step!

Now I’m happily using Zymox whenever my dog starts shaking his head a lot or pawing at his ears. It works like a charm every time.

zymox-ear-infection-treatment-for-dogsHow to do it:

  • Apply liberally to uncleaned ear, filling the ear canal.
  • Gently massage and work the fluid into the ear.
  • Wipe the ear to remove any excess (after your dog instinctively shakes his head right away).
  • Apply once a day for 7 days, or 14 days for chronic infections.

By the way, at my dog’s next annual vet appointment, I told our veterinarian that I switched from using Corium-20 and Otomax to using only Zymox instead. He took a good look inside my dog’s ears and said, “Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s working!”

NOTE: You cannot use a separate ear cleaner (like Corium-20) or a separate ear treatment (like Otomax) whenever you’re using Zymox. The Zymox does it all, and you don’t want to over-treat a dog’s sensitive ears.


Why Dogs Get Smelly, Itchy Ears

Our veterinarian said our dog will likely have this “problem” all of his life is because he’s got long flappy ears they tend to trap moisture inside — it’s the perfect environment for growing yeast.

About the only thing we can do is to prevent this from happening more frequently is to keep his ears as dry as possible.

So after he goes swimming, or gets a bath, we use a cotton ball to dry up any water & moisture that remain in his ears.

Since we keep an eye on it, it hasn’t really been much of a problem for us. But in those early days, when he was a pup, he was coming down with ear infections every month. Now, it’s just part of his grooming routine to get his ears cleaned & treated on occasion.

Oh, and how do we know when it’s time to go through the process of cleaning and treating our dog’s ears again?… He will usually start pawing at his ears, scratching them, or tilting his head to one side, like his ear is bothering him. That’s when we break out the dog ear cleaner, and the ear treatment medicine, and we “do ears.” He knows exactly what to expect.

UPDATE: As mentioned above, these days Zymox is my dog ear infection treatment of choice — instead of Otomax. Not because there’s anything wrong with using Otomax, but because Zymox is a cleaner and treatment in one. So… year round I use the Corium-20 to routinely clean my dog’s ears and prevent ear infections from forming. Since we travel so much and leave our dog with a pet sitter for long periods of time, he might go for awhile without the routine ear cleaning and, as a result, an ear infection might pop up. That’s the only time I use the Zymox (alone).


More Tips For Cleaning Your Dog’s Ears

Lynnette Walczak

Lynnette Walczak

I like to help people find unique ways to do things in order to save time & money -- so I frequently write about "outside the box" ideas that most wouldn't think of. As a lifelong dog owner, I often share my best tips for living with and training dogs. I worked in Higher Ed several years until switching gears to pursue things I was more passionate about. I've worked at a vet, in a photo lab, and at a zoo -- to name a few. I enjoy the outdoors via bicycle, motorcycle, Jeep, or RV. You can always find me at the corner of Good News & Fun Times as publisher of The Fun Times Guide (32 fun websites).

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  • Kathryn

    Change her food!! We give our Chocolate Lab Natural Balance Lamb and Rice!!

  • Sharon

    im a new comer to this site i love all my dogs but cannot afford regular visits as i wish i could so any advice i can get would be so helpful so please send all the help you can

  • Toys

    Just wanted to say good work before i i forget.

  • Shanin

    Yup, its seems like your dog has a food allergy. Very common in dogs becuase they eat the same thing all the time….its usually to chicken or beef (hopefully not wheat). Switch food to something less common like lamb as previously suggested or talk to people at a local pet store (not the box shops) to find something inexpensive.

  • Keirstyn

    I wish our dogs would do this. We have special ear squirts for them but they’re terrified of them and it takes 3 people to get the job done. At least it helps their ears stop itching though :) Thanks!

  • Amicks_4

    My 3yr old black lab has this ear problem also. I clean her ears daily with a cleanser vet gave me and use the otomax also. NOTHING seems to be working she constantly shakes her head, flops the ears. it is driving us all crazy. I do not know what else to do. My Vet is no help either. I have taken her in 3 times in the last month for a ear cleanse & do the 2 step process at home but it doesn’t help. Does anyone know what else I can try…..PLEASE HELP!!!!!!

    • Ripmit

      I was wondering if you got any answers to your dogs ear problem.  I have a great dane, 9 months and I swear 7 of those  months he has had ear issues.  They are constantly dirty.  One vet told me to use 1 part white vinigar to 4 parts water and I used it religiously for several months but his ears are still gross.  They smell.  He is constantly shaking his head as well.  I feel your pain.

  • chellebean

    I have a Golden Doodle and she has had ear problems for more than a year now, she’s 2. The vinegar and water mixture does not work for her, it leaves her ears ‘wet’ and ‘crackling’ when I massage them. I use distilled white vinegar and rubbing alcohol,50/50 mixture, the rubbing alcohol is drying, and the vinegar kills the bacteria in the ear leaving it undesirable for anything to live in the ear. Right now she is on an antibiotic ear drop, once they are done I will start the vinegar/rubbing alcohol mixture, and will spritz it in her ear as well as around the outside of her ear as well. I also clean her ears with Hydrogen peroxide when she has an infection, as it helps disinfect the area, as well as dry up the ‘wet’ ear. If your dog’s ears are really hairy, trim the hair away from the outside ear and use ear powder to pull any excess hair from inside the ear canal out, this seems to help get air into the ear as well. Hope this helps!

  • Kay

    amy, I too have a shih Tzu. I am at my wits end with ear issues! we’ve spent 8 years dealing with ear issues. last nite we spent hours with a dog with shaking head. we clean his ears with zymox. sometimes it helps sometimes not so much. he has allergies too. I tired of this. might try the vinegar/water solution. he has sores in his ear because he has scratched it so much….I don’t know.

  • Kay

    living with a dog with allergies, ear issues etc can be a nightmare! after 8 years of treating my Shih Tzu, it’s worse now than ever. I see some of you use vinegar/water. might give that a try but vinegar on open sores from scratching may not feel so good.

  • Kathy Simmons

    I prefer not to use COTTON BALLS. It leaves small particles of cotton behind in the ear canal, especially with the kind of rubbing needed to clean my dogs ears. I use instead gauze which solves that worry. We have been told to apply Othomax about one hour after cleaning the dogs ears (not immediately as suggested here). Evidently this ensures a drier ear canal and better medication efficacy. I might not have read carefully here, but don’t see HOW MANY DAYS to continue treating with othomax. I presume once a day (not twice) is the daily dosage? Like all antibiotics, dogs (like people) can develop resistance with frequent use of the same medication. Our vet has changed to a different antibiotic for that reason.

  • Madonna

    I just ordered the Zymox and will see how it works for my dog. I only have one that has itchy ears :(