Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
If your dog's ears stink, you may be wondering what you can do to reduce the unpleasant smell. While it's true that dogs are not always the prettiest smelling animals around in their natural state, they deserve to be given the benefit of doubt before being labeled as "stinky beings."
Sure, it's true that dogs love to get into things they shouldn’t and that many dogs carry a distinctive "doggy odor." If you’ve ever taken a whiff of your dogs' ears while they’re snuggling up to you and noticed a certain funky smell, trust your nose and ask your vet whether your dog's ears are OK.
Stinky Ears May Indicate a Health Issue
Turns out, stinky ears in dogs may stem from an underlying medical problem. Your vet is specifically trained to recognize when there's a problem, and when he has a doubt, diagnostic testing can provide an accurate answer.
If your dog's ears are stinky, don’t worry, often the route of the stinky situation can be fixed. The following are several potential causes for stinky ears in dogs and what can be done about them.
1) Bacterial Ear Infection
Normally, dogs have healthy bacteria that live and grow on their skin, hair, and yes, even in their ears, but sometimes more bad bacteria than good may infiltrate in the ears and start creating problems.
Bacteria are particularly fond of the ear environment because the ear provides a warm and moist place that does not allow very much circulation of air, therefore many bacteria thrive here.
Common types of bacteria found in a dog's ears include cocci (most commonly Staphylococcus intermedius and beta-hemolytic streptococci) and E. coli, Pseudomonas spp; Proteus spp, Klebsiella spp, and Corynebacterium spp.
Ear infections in dogs may pop up both on the outer part of the ear canal and potentially in the middle or inner ear as well. Symptoms include a foul odor inside the dog’s ear, yellow, brown, or bloody discharge from the ear, redness, swelling, head tilt, and scratching at the ear with associated localized hair loss.
Your veterinarian can take a sample of ear discharge (if present) to see if the infection is caused by bacteria and can then prescribe the proper medication for it.
Most of the time it is a topical antibiotic/steroid combination, but sometimes oral antibiotics may be prescribed.
Very important is to clean a dog's ears with a good ear cleaning solution before application. Your vet may do this for you. If you fail to clean the dog's ears first, the medication won't be able to penetrate the waxy layer on the ear and the bacteria will be protected from the medication continuing to thrive. It's therefore important to decrease the ear debris and gunk as much as possible before the application of a topical ear medication.
It is also important to understand that, in many cases, an ear infection is only a symptom and the underlying cause needs to be addressed so as to tackle the root of the problem.
2) Yeast Ear Infection
In this case, Malassezia is a common cause of yeast ear infections in dogs. This yeast is naturally found on the skin surfaces of many animals including dogs and has a rep for being a prime opportunist, taking advantage of vulnerable ears affected by underlying causes known to lead to ear canal inflammation.
Dogs affected yeast ear infections are known to develop symptoms very similar to bacterial ear infections including smelly ears (often described as a yeasty smell, sort of like sourdough), inflamed, hot and painful ears with ear discharge, head shaking and tilting, hair loss around the ear and scratching.
Upon looking at the dog's ears, the vet will likely examine the ear discharge under the microscope so to investigate the underlying cause.
Next, the vet may suggest a full cleaning of the dog’s ear canal followed by the use of the most appropriate medications. In particular, the vet may recommend using topical or oral ketoconazole or miconazole sometimes combined with an antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory drug.
3) Mites "Might" Be the Problem
If your pup is scratching vigorously at their ears and shaking their head, and all of this is accompanied by a dark brown to black discharge, they likely have ear mites. These little buggers are tiny (no bigger than a pinhead) and breed quickly.
They are more often found in puppies and younger dogs but can show up in older dogs too and don’t mind jumping species (they can’t be transmitted to humans). They tend to stick around the ear and are not fans of light.
So, if you want to be sure they’re the culprit, swap your pup’s ear gently with a cotton swab (remember not too deep) and shine a light on the contents. You’ll notice little white things wriggling under the beam. If that's the case, you’ve got mites.
You can treat mites with an over-the-counter pyrethrin-based solution, but given that these little suckers tend to bring unwanted bacteria, including yeast to the party, it’s probably safer to go to your vet and get a prescription medication.
You’ll need to apply it for at least three weeks until all of the mites have died, and any eggs left behind have hatched.
Your vet may also provide you with anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, or antibiotics to treat the additional problems that may crop up. You want to be sure that even if you only notice mites on one of your fur babies, that you treat all of them as mites are highly contagious among the fur-covered community.
Several Underlying Causes
As mentioned, ear infections in dogs are often just a sign of something else going on. In such cases, it's important to take care of the primary issues known for leading to opportunistic bacteria and/or yeast infections (yes, dogs can have both at the same time) and pesky parasites to establish into the ear causing stinky ears in dogs. The following are several potential underlying causes of ear infections in dogs.
1) Presence of Allergies
It may seem odd, but ear issues are often treated as skin disorders, and therefore, an itchy, foul-smelling ear infection may stem from an underlying allergy. The allergic reaction may derive from food allergies as well as irritating outdoor allergens (like pollens) or indoor products you may use to clean your house.
Interestingly, allergies are very common in dogs, and in the veterinary world are known to be a major cause of ear and skin infections.
2) Presence of a Foreign Body
Dogs who like to play outside and who have longer fur that may cover part of their ear canal, are at higher risk for picking up little oddities that sneak their way inside the ear. Running through tall grasses, for example, can lead to foxtails or other grass seeds clinging to that fur around the ear and then tipping inside.
You can avoid this by checking your pup when they come in from playing outside and also by keeping the fur around their ears trimmed down so there’s less for the sticky little things to latch onto.
3) Ear Wax Production
Some dogs may be prone to produce more ear wax and this can cause a mildly unpleasant odor. If this is the only culprit, your dog shouldn't show signs of trouble as seen in dogs suffering from ear infections. You should be able to easily remedy this problem by using a good ear cleaner. Since dog ears are delicate, only clean your dog's ears after following your veterinarian's guidelines and directions.
Consider though that when the ear wax production becomes excessive, the ear becomes moist and inflamed causing yeast and bacteria to multiple while overwhelming the dog's immune system. All of this predisposes the dog to an ear infection, points out board-certified veterinary dermatologist Dr. Michele Rosenbaum.
4) Hormonal Issue
If your dog's hormones get out of whack, that may be a culprit for that funky ear smell. Dogs are known to suffer from two main endocrine disorders, hypothyroidism and hyperadrenocorticism.
Hypothyroidism leads to lower than normal thyroid levels which can impact the dog's body in many ways. On top of predisposing dogs to ear infections, low thyroid levels in dogs can cause dogs to gain weight, suffer from hair loss and dull skin, act lethargic and feel cold.
Hyperadrenocorticism, also known as Cushing's disease, takes place when a dog's adrenal glands produce too much cortisol. On top of becoming predisposed to infections (including ear infections), affected dogs may exhibit the following symptoms: hair loss, an enlarged abdomen, increased drinking and urination and increased appetite.
5) Presence of a Growth
Dogs may also get ear infections and associated odor when they develop growths in their ears. A polyp, for example, can predispose a dog's ear to infections. Fortunately, polyps are benign growths.
Although not very common, dogs may also get tumors in their ears. Sometimes these growths may keep oozing and bleeding producing a bad smell. Some tumors may produce dead skin which can smell very strongly and may attract maggots.
Having the mass aspirated by the vet using a fine needle (fine-needle aspiration) may provide a good idea of what the growth is and the best surgical and medical approach to this (if any).
Most infections involve bacteria or yeast that normally live in your dog’s ear. They have their own niche or ecosystem that under normal circumstances, allows them to survive in the ear canal and the dog’s body (immunity) keeps them in check. When there is damage to this normal environment or ecosystem, such as allergic disease, tumors, or foreign bodies, these bugs can then overgrow and create an infection.
— Brett Wasik, DVM, DACVIM
How to Stop Dog Ear Odors
As seen, dogs may develop stinky ears due to several medical conditions. While you want to leave your pup’s ears in as natural a condition as possible, (after all they survived without us for centuries), you do have to have them checked and treated by your veterinarian. It goes without saying that in order to tackle your dog's ear odor, you will need to address the underlying problem.
- Good ear health can go a long way to preventing a lot of funky smells and discomfort for your pooch. Get your pup trained early to having you routinely check your pups’ ears for foreign bodies that might have slipped in during playtime.
- If allergies are your dog's culprit the good news is that with the help of a board-certified veterinarian you can find out what allergy your dog is suffering from and take steps to reduce exposure. If a food allergy is suspected, a food trial can turn helpful in identifying the triggering food component so that your dog can fight annoying ear infections (and their associated smell) once and for all.
- Ear mites are highly contagious pests that feed off ear debris and can spread to your other fur babies in a flash. They aren’t fans of light and getting rid of them may feel like a losing battle as most medications prescribed by your vet only eliminate the adult mites. Keep at it until all of the eggs are gone. You don’t want them popping up again if you can help it.
- Bacteria can turn bad in a snap, especially given the right conditions. If you’ve recently been treating your pup for mites, this might have been the case that the good bacteria in your pup’s ears have gone wild and attracted some not so nice friends. Getting an anti-bacterial agent into your pup’s ear as quickly as possible is a good move. Consult with your vet.
- Don't let your dog's ear infections linger for long. Left untreated, excessive shaking of the head may lead to an annoying aural hematoma. Not to mention, your dog's ear canal will begin to narrow due to chronic inflammation and so much scar tissue may build up that the ear canal becomes completely closed off to the world causing hearing loss, a nasty deeper infection and the need for surgical intervention, explains board-certified veterinarian Dr. Brett Wasik.
- Follow the Ear Wax (Or the Smell) Darin Dell, DVM, DACVD. Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital, Wheat Ridge CO
- Veterinary Information Network: What Do You Do When Ear Drops and Oral Antibiotics Don’t Work? February 24, 2017 (published)Brett Wasik, DVM, DACVIM (SAIM)
- Veterinary Information Network Ear Infections (Yeast Otitis) in Dogs Wendy Brooks, DVM, DABVP
- Zoetis Petcare, The Connection Between Your Dog’s Ear Infections and Allergies By Dr. Michele Rosenbaum
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 14, 2020:
Hi Devika, it is great that your dog's ears are fine. Ear problems in dogs can be very frustrating to deal with for both dogs and dog owners. Cheers!
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 14, 2020:
This is an excellent article, Adrienne. I have not had a problem with the ear problem. It does sound like infections are the most probably cause, yet it could be any number of things.
Mae Williams from USA on October 14, 2020:
Really informative for dog owners. Thanks.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 14, 2020:
Adrienne Farricelli thank you for an interesting insight to a dog's ear odor. I never had this problem with my dog's ear and you informed me with great interest. It is a useful guide!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 14, 2020:
Hi Heidi, I am glad to hear that allergy shots are working for your Golden. Allergies make people and animals so miserable! So far, short of strict avoidance or medications that only aim to mask the symptoms, allergy shots remain the truly natural way to to change the immune system’s response to allergens. Despite the long-term commitment, it is worthy in the long run.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 14, 2020:
Hi Peggy, long ears seem to indeed have more problems. Spaniels are notorious for having ear issues. However, then we have German shepherds who are predisposed to many ear problems too.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 13, 2020:
In our experience, long-eared dogs seem to have more of a problem simply because they have less air-flow than short-haired dogs. As always, your tips on what to look for and how to treat dogs are good ones.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on October 13, 2020:
Been there, done that when it comes to ear issues! Goldens are really prone to them with their floppy ears. And my current golden boy is especially plagued with them because of his allergies. Less so since we've got him on allergy immunotherapy. But still he has episodes. (That reminds me I have to clean his ears this week. Thanks.) My cattle dog girl with ears that stick out most of the time doesn't have it at all.
Yes, this can be a troublesome issue for many dogs and their owners. Thanks for raising awareness!