Along with baths, brushing and nail clipping, cleaning your dog's ears regularly is an important part of basic grooming care.

Because of the way a dog's ears are structured, it can be hard for them to stay clean without a little help. Check them often, especially if you notice a smell or your dog shaking his head often. Some dogs need their ears cleaned more often than others. It's easy to do with a few wipes of a cotton ball and some gentle ear cleaner — and your dog will probably even enjoy it.

Do you need to clean a dog's ears?

dog ear anatomy A dog's ear anatomy makes it hard for material trapped inside to make its way out. (Photo: Dream Master/Shutterstock)

For people, we've been told not to clean out our own ears or worry about our earwax. But dogs are an entirely different story.

The anatomy of a dog's ear makes it hard for anything that gets trapped deep inside to make its way out. Directly inside the ear flap — which is the part of the ear that you see — the vertical ear canal travels down the head. It then turns inward, becoming the horizontal canal, according to The Spruce Pets.

The canal ends at the ear drum or tympanic membrane, which leads to the middle ear and inner ear. If these delicate areas are damaged, a dog's hearing can be affected.

Because of the twists and turns of the canal, if water or dirt gets trapped inside, it's hard for the material to naturally make its way back out to the surface. It can lead to itchiness and infections if it's not removed, points out VCA Hospitals.

How to tell if your dog's ears need cleaning

dog with big ears Check your dog's ears regularly to see if they need cleaning. (Photo: Richard Peterson/Shutterstock)

Don't just assume that your dog's ears need to be scrubbed. Overzealous cleaning can lead to infection and irritation, says the American Kennel Club (AKC).

To tell if your dog's ears need cleaning, take a look. Clean, healthy ears are pink and don't smell. They don't have any brown gunk in their crevices. Dirty ears have a distinct yeasty smell and may have some debris. Clean your dog's ears only if you notice they are dirty.

It's a good idea to get in the habit of inspecting your dog's ears regularly. That way you won't only clean them when they've already become too gross.

If you have a breed with long-hanging ears — like a cocker spaniel or a basset hound — you might have to clean his ears more often. Their ears trap material and make them more prone to ear infections.

Why is a dog's ear gunk brown or black?

You might notice upon inspecting your dog's ears that there are specks of brown or black material in the flaps. There are several possible reasons for this colorful discharge, says the Germantown Veterinary Clinic in Maryland.

Lots of earwax — The most likely reason for the slippery, colored stuff you see in your dog's ear, an excessive amount of earwax can gather in the folds of the ear. If it isn't removed, in some cases it can lead to an ear infection.

Ear infection — If the discharge is dark brown and is accompanied by a musty smell, there's a good chance your dog has an ear infection. Ear infections are often caused by moisture buildup in the ears and can be common in dogs with droopy ears as well as those that spend a lot of time in the water. Allergies can also trigger an outer ear infection, which can result in yellow or brownish-red waxy discharge. If you suspect an infection, see your vet.

Ear mites — If the discharge looks like coffee grounds, your dog could have ear mites. These are tiny insects that feed on the wax and oils inside your dog's ears, reports the AKC. The mites' biting makes your dogs scratch and that scratching can damage your dog's ears, leading to cuts and infections. Your vet can diagnosis and treat ear mites.

How to clean a dog's ears

To clean the ears, you'll need ear cleaning solution from your veterinarian. Don't use hydrogen peroxide, which can irritate sensitive tissue and damage the ear if used very often. Ear cleaners approved by veterinarians are made specifically for the ear and are safe for this delicate area.

You'll also need some cotton balls or gauze, a towel and some treats. Most veterinarians recommend that you don't use cotton swabs because you could push debris further down into your dog's ears or cause more harm by damaging delicate structures inside the ear.

You may want to clean a dog's ears in the bathroom or somewhere that it doesn't matter if things get dirty. Your dog will really want to shake his head during the process and gunk might go flying!

1. Sit on the floor. Have your dog sit in front of you so that his rear is between your legs. If your dog is very large, have him sit so his bottom is in a corner of a room and squat or stand next to him. Make sure he is relaxed and give him a treat if necessary.

2. Lift up one of your dog's ears in one hand and hold the bottle of ear cleaner in the other hand. Squeeze a generous amount of cleaner into his ear canal from slightly above the opening. Do not put the tip of the bottle right into the ear canal.

3. Holding the ear flap up, gently massage the base of the ear for about 30 seconds. Gently massaging the ear lets the fluid break up any debris inside the ear. You might hear a squishing or smacking sound.

4. Let your dog shake his head. (You might want to either cover his head or yours with a towel at this point in order to stay dry!)

5. Lift the ear flap up again and use the cotton ball or gauze to gently wipe the ear flap and top of the ear canal.

6. Give treats and praise and then repeat with the other ear.

If your dog seems to be in any pain during the process, stop cleaning and check with your veterinarian.

Why dogs might enjoy ear cleaning and massages

You might notice that when you clean your dog's ears, he might particularly enjoy the part where you are massaging them. Some dogs close their eyes, moan and twitch during the process.

Chalk it up to endorphins.

Your dog's ears are filled with nerve endings. When you rub them, it triggers the release of feel-good hormones called endorphins, says Dogtime. These hormones calm your dog and make him feel good all over.

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

How to clean your dog's ears at home (and why)
Clean your dogs ears regularly with some cotton or gauze as part of your regular grooming routine.