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The essentials

  • Stinky dog ears are generally caused by bacterial or yeast infections — There are several ways they can become infected, from environmental to underlying medical causes.
  • Untreated ear infections can become serious — Abnormal odor is usually an early warning sign that it’s time for a veterinarian visit.
  • The best way to treat smelly dog ears is to prevent them — But there are some vet-approved ways to treat symptoms as well.

Let’s be honest, our pups’ ears are the best. Upright or floppy, big or small, or 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 dog’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, like a yeast infection of the ear. 

This type of infection is one of the most common culprits that make a dog’s ears stink—and they can occur any time yeast (such as Candida albicans  ) is overproduced in your dog’s ear canals. This growth can lead to musty or sweet-smelling ears—which is your signal that it’s time for a vet visit.

To help spot signs of disease and ear infections long before the smell starts, it’s helpful to have an understanding of the structure of your pet’s ears. Let’s start with the basics.

Your dog’s ears

A dog’s ears have three major areas  , all of which work together for hearing and balance. Overgrowth and infection can occur in each of these areas of your dog’s anatomy, making routine self-checks key to infection prevention. 

  • The outer ear: This area 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. 
  • 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.
  • The inner ear: This area of your dog’s anatomy 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.

Why do my dog’s ears stink?

There are nearly as many reasons for stinky ears as there are breeds of dogs. Pet owners need to recognize certain symptoms to decide what can be treated at home, and when it might be time for a trip to the vet. Some of the most common causes of stinky ears in canines include the following.

Yeast infection

While not an infection caused by bacteria, yeast overgrowth can occur in your dog’s ears—causing irritation, itchiness, and redness. Secondary infections from scratching and abrasions can compound this problem, resulting in pain and discomfort for your furry pal. 

Yeast buildup usually happens when too much moisture gets trapped in or around a dog’s ears. This can lead to an infection and a strong, musty odor, so definitely keep an eye on your pups with skin folds or a lot of hair in or around their ears.

Bacterial infection

Chronic ear infections and stink can be caused by a bacterial infection due to the accumulation of bacteria in your dog’s sensitive ear folds. These infections commonly occur alongside 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 if the bacteria moves further into your dog’s ear.


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. If you believe that your dog’s ear infection or musty smell is caused by allergies, connect with your vet. They can help you to safely trial different diets with your furry friend and choose one that meets their unique nutritional needs.

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. These are unfortunately a common problem in many pets and pet households and require extensive cleaning and treatment to fully remove.

Debris, dirt, or foreign objects

Dirty ears can be resolved with a thorough ear 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.

🚨 If your pet has something inside their ear, please take them to your vet instead of trying a DIY fix. They can remove the culprit safely from your dog’s ear.

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. Trapped water in ears can create a moist environment and can lead to all types of ear infections and yeast overgrowth. Proper drying after a bath or splashy day outside is key to preventing infection and inflammation of the ear canal.


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.

Breeds most prone to ear problems

Treating smelly dog ears

Ear infections, yeast overgrowth, and other problems that cause smelly dog ears 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, an ear culture, and 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 problem is diagnosed, your vet will provide a treatment plan for a speedy recovery. The plan your vet chooses depends entirely on the root cause of the smelly dog ears. Many pets might require a medicated ear cleanser and topical medication for you to use at home, as well as acute care in-office. 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.

How to prevent stinky dog ears

Wondering how to get rid of smelly dog ears? We’ll tell you—prevention is the best medicine. If your dog’s ears stink, take them to the vet for timely treatment. If they don’t yet, consider implementing a few of the preventative tips listed 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 periodic ear checks. It can be hard to spot early signs of ear problems, especially in 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 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.

Frequently asked questions

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

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 do I get rid of my dog’s smelly 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 regularly.

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 or OTC remedies before receiving approval from a medical professional.

Why do my dog’s ears smell like dirty feet? 

Your dog’s ears might smell like dirty feet for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common culprits include bacterial infection or yeast overgrowth—which often results in a musty, cheesy, and “feet” smell. 

What does it mean if my dog’s ear smells like cheese? 

If your dog’s ear smells like cheese, they may be dealing with a bacterial infection. A vet visit is needed to determine the cause and pick a course of treatment for your furry friend—and it’s better done sooner than later. The longer you let an infection go, the more you increase your chance of injury and permanent hearing loss. 

How do you get rid of the yeast smell in a dog’s ears? 

If you smell a sweet, musty odor in your dog’s ears, it’s likely due to yeast overgrowth. This will require a vet visit to properly diagnose and treat. Ask your vet about antifungal medication and pet-safe at-home remedies to help bring your furry friend some comfort.