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canine health problems
Dog with big pointy ears

📷 by Kelly Lacy

The essentials

  • Stinky dog ears are generally caused by bacterial or yeast infections — There are several ways they can become infected.
  • Ears come in all shapes and sizes — Some dog breeds are genetically prone to smellier ears than others.
  • Untreated ear infections can become serious — Abnormal odor is usually an early warning sign that it’s time for a vet visit.
  • The best way to treat smelly ears is to prevent them — But there are some vet-approved ways to treat them as well.

Let’s be honest, our pups’ ears are the best. Upright or floppy. Big or small. Long-haired or short. Every ear is as impressive as it is adorable, and that’s not just because the average dog hears four times better than humans do. Your pup’s ears can also move independently of each other to show emotion and mood, making them one of the best ways to read their body language and understand their personality.

So what happens when those super-ears start to smell a little funky? Nothing good. Abnormal ear odor is almost always an indication of an underlying health issue. To help spot signs of disease and infection long before the smell starts, it’s helpful to have an understanding of the structure of your pup’s ears. Let’s start with the basics.

Your pup’s ears 

Your dog’s ears have three major areas, all of which work together for hearing and balance.

1. The outer ear

The outer ear includes the ear flap (pinna) and the ear canal. The ear flap is made of cartilage and its shape helps to funnel sound waves through the ear canal to the eardrum. Unlike humans, dogs have long, narrow ear canals that are bent at an almost 90-degree angle, making it difficult to clear out debris that gets inside.

2. The middle ear

The three main components of the middle ear are the eardrum, a small air-filled chamber called the bulla, and the eustachian tube. The eardrum transmits sound to the inner ear, while the bulla and the eustachian tube connect the ear to the back of the throat to create airflow and stabilize your pup’s ear pressure. Since the eardrum is extremely fragile, it can easily be damaged by an infection.

3. The inner ear

The inner ear is a highly complex structure that connects to the brain. It houses the cochlea, the organ responsible for hearing, and the vestibular system, the organ responsible for balance.

Possible reasons for stinky ears

There are as many reasons as there are dogs. Some of the most common are below:

  • Yeast infection. Yeast buildup usually happens when too much moisture gets trapped in or around a dog’s ears. This can lead to an infection and an unpleasant odor, so definitely keep an eye on your pups with skin folds or a lot of hair in or around their ears.
  • Bacterial infection. These infections are less common than yeast infections but can be more severe. More extensive situations can turn into a full outer ear infection or even result in a punctured eardrum.
  • Allergies. Environmental, food, and flea allergies can cause bacterial or yeast infections in dogs’ ears, as well as contact dermatitis. Plus, an itchy pup tends to scratch, which can lead to infection-prone lesions.
  • Ear mites. More commonly found in puppies than adult dogs, ear mites are contagious and cause severe itchiness and discomfort. They can also often lead to a secondary bacterial or yeast infection that will need to be treated. 
  • Debris, dirt, or foreign objects. Dirty ears can be resolved with a thorough cleaning, but always check your dog after playing outside for any foreign objects that may have gotten stuck inside their ears. Depending on where you live, grass awns and foxtails can be common culprits.
  • Water in the ear. A dog’s ear canal is long and narrow and bends at an almost 90-degree angle as it gets deeper. The anatomy alone makes it difficult for fluid or water to get out.
  • Genetics. Some dogs, like Labrador retrievers, are naturally prone to wax buildup. Others, like chow chows, have narrow ear canals. These genetic predispositions can cause dogs’ ears to smell without routine cleanings.
  • Other underlying health issues. Hypothyroidism is typically caused by an immune-mediated disease that attacks the thyroid gland, preventing the production of thyroid hormones. Other possible underlying conditions that can lead to smelly ears include tumors and polyps.

Common signs of ear infections in dogs

Some dogs only show minor symptoms (or no symptoms at all), but most pups experience a fair amount of discomfort. Common symptoms include:

  • Head shaking
  • Itchiness and scratching
  • Odor
  • Redness, swelling, and inflammation
  • Dark brown or yellowish discharge in the ear canal
  • Crusting, pus, blood, or scabs in the ears

Breeds most prone to ear infections

Dogs with big, heavy, or floppy ears, pups with extra hair in or around their ear canal, and breeds that love to swim are all susceptible to ear problems. A few of these breeds include:

  • Cocker spaniels
  • Beagles
  • Basset hounds
  • Labradoodles
  • Chinese shar peis
  • Bulldogs
  • Dachshunds
  • Golden retrievers
  • Labrador retrievers
  • Cavalier King Charles spaniels
  • Newfoundlands
  • Boykin spaniels

Diagnosing and treating ear infections

Ear infections can be quite painful for your pup and seldom go away on their own. They should be treated by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Your vet will perform an otoscopic exam and an ear cytology, which involves swabbing a sample from the ear canal and examining it under a microscope. In severe cases, they may recommend sedating your dog to examine the ear canal and flush the ears thoroughly.

🚨 An untreated ear infection can rupture the eardrum and spread into the inner ear, causing symptoms like a head tilt, involuntary eye movement, and walking in circles. Get your dog immediate help if you notice these symptoms.

Once your pup’s ear infection is diagnosed, your vet will provide a treatment plan for a speedy recovery. This usually involves a medicated ear cleanser and topical medication for you to use at home. In more severe cases, they may also prescribe oral antibiotics or anti-inflammatory medications.

👉 Make sure to provide your vet with your pup’s full medical history so they can also treat any underlying conditions that cause recurrent ear infections. 

Preventing stinky doggie ears 

Prevention is the best medicine. A few helpful tips to prevent ear infections in pups and stop smelly ears before they start are compiled below:

Stay on top of hygiene and grooming — Every pup needs a spa day from time to time to keep them smelling fresh. Routine ear cleanings, occasional baths, and haircuts or hygiene trims can also help prevent earwax buildup and matting around the ears — a win-win for everybody.

Keep up with monthly flea treatments — There’s a good chance dogs hate those tiny bugs even more than humans do. Flea and tick control should be a top priority for your pup’s overall health. Some options even protect against mites, too.

Make a habit of random ear checks — It can be hard to spot early signs of ear problems, especially on our furry friends with long, floppy ears. Monitor your dog’s ears daily to stop any problems before they start, and always watch out for abnormal head shaking or ear scratching.

Ask about testing your pup for allergies — Believe it or not, food allergies can cause recurrent ear infections in pets. If your dog’s ears keep giving them trouble and you can’t figure out the culprit, talk to your vet about starting them on a food trial to test for allergies.

Keep their ears dry — Some dogs just really love to get wet. Unfortunately, excess moisture tends to cause smelly ears and infections. Once your pup has had their fun swimming in the lake, running through the sprinkler, or digging in their water bowl, clean their ears with a routine ear cleaner that contains a drying agent.

Our vet-recommended pick for healthy ears

Frequently asked questions 

What can I use to clean my dog’s ears?

Here’s our complete guide. The safest way is with a veterinarian-approved dog ear-cleaning solution and a cotton ball or gauze. Don’t use cotton swabs or tweezers, which can push dirt and debris deeper into their ear or cause damage to their eardrum. You should also avoid alcohol and hydrogen peroxide.

How can I get rid of the smell in my dog’s ears?

First, talk to your vet to figure out what’s causing the smell and have your dog’s ears properly cleaned. After that, the best way to deal with smelly ears is to try to prevent it from happening again by keeping your pup’s ears dry, practicing good hygiene, and administering flea treatments on a regular basis.

Why do my dog’s ears stink?

The most common causes of stinky ears in dogs are yeast and bacterial infections.

Can I put lavender in my dog’s ears?

Essential oils like lavender have been shown to help soothe itchy or smelly outer ears, but they should never be used inside your pup’s ears. Talk to your vet before introducing any new products into your dog’s regimen.

What’s the best homemade ear cleaner for dogs?

Any ear cleaning solution used on your dog should be vet-approved, so it’s best to avoid at-home remedies.