An interesting study published recently in Veterinary Dermatology (Bartlett et al 2011) looked at bacterial contamination of ear cleaning solutions used on dogs at home. Ear cleaners are widely used by dog owners, but since the bottles the cleaners come in are used repeatedly and can have direct contact with the ear, there’s a chance for contamination of the bottle and/or its contents.

In this study, the researchers collected ear cleaner bottles from dog owners and cultured both the applicator tips and the contents. Bacterial contamination was detected on 10% of the bottle tips and in 2% of the solutions. The relative numbers make sense, since the tips are most likely to have contact with the ear. Regardless, this shows that a small but still reasonable percentage of bottles contain bacteria that could be inoculated into the ear.

Finding bugs is one thing, but determining if they are types that can cause disease is another. The researchers identified a few different bacteria, including Staphylococcus pseudintermedius, which is an important cause of ear infections. This isn’t too surprising since the bugs that cause infection are typically those that are also normally found in (healthy) ears at low levels (and therefore the types of bugs with which cleaner bottles might have contact).

Expired ear cleaners were more often contaminated. This doesn’t necessarily mean that age leads to increased risk of contamination. It could just indicate that bottles that have been used more and over longer periods of time are more likely to become contaminated. Similarly, large bottles more often had contaminated tips, probably because of more overall use (and correspondingly more chance for contamination).

An interesting aspect was the finding that solutions containing Tris-EDTA had higher contamination rates. Tris-EDTA is a solution that is often included in ear cleaners as it has been shown to be useful for treatment of infections caused by Gram-negative bacteria.

What does this mean for people that clean their dogs’ ears? It’s hard to say. We don’t know whether a little bit of bacterial contamination poses a realistic risk. However, it’s reasonable to consider using smaller bottles and discarding them after they are used to treat a dog with an ear infection (as opposed to regular ear cleaning).