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All the Reasons Your Dog’s Ears Smell

dog with big ears
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You’ve given your dog one bath after another but there is still a persistent odor. You can’t seem to figure out where it’s coming from until you finally pinpoint the problem—it’s his ears. 

Your dog’s ears look clean when you inspect them. So now you’re wondering, “Why do my dog’s ears smell?” 

Normally, dog ears do not have an odor. But smelly ears are a common problem most pet parents experience. 

Dog Ear Anatomy: A Quick Overview

dog with big ears on woman's lap

A dog’s ear canal is made up of three parts: the external, middle, and inner ear. The external ear—the part of the ear we can see—is called the pinna and protects the inner parts of the ear that house the important structures our dogs use to hear. 

Important nerves and blood vessels also run through the inner part of the ear and must be protected. Diseases of the ear can compromise these structures and cause permanent damage. This is why keeping your dog’s ears as healthy as possible is so important. 

Why Do My Dog’s Ears Smell? 

Dog with ear infection and smelly ears

Inflammation of any parts of the inner ear in dogs can cause irritation and lead to changes that cause a malodorous smell. Sometimes the smell is foul—like garbage or morning breath. Other times, it may smell pungent like cheese or sweet like caramel. 

Ear infections are the most common culprit of smelly ears in dogs, but can occur for many different reasons. Infections are most often caused by bacteria or yeast and often occur secondary (or in response to) a primary factor. 

Signs of ear infections in dogs include:

  • Pain
  • Itchiness
  • Redness
  • Discharge (with or without an odor)
  • Rubbing ears on the ground or furniture

Some dog breeds, such as those with floppy ears, hair in the external ear canals, and narrow ear canals, are more likely to have smelly ears than others. Dog breeds more susceptible to ear problems and ear odors include Bulldogs, Spaniels, Retrievers, Terriers, and Poodles

Below are some common reasons your dog’s ears may smell unpleasant. 

Bacterial Ear Infections 

These types of ear infections usually involve more than one type of bacteria. These bacteria can cause ears to smell sweet like grapes or caramel or rancid like rotten chicken or bad breath. Dogs with bacterial infections in their ears may rub their ears on the ground or on furniture to relieve itchiness. Bacterial ear infections often have white or yellow discharge. Other signs include head shaking or tilting and shying away from having their ears touched. 

Yeast Infections 

Smelly yeast infections in a dog’s ears are caused by Malassezia, a type of yeast. You might smell an odor similar to bread baking or beer. These types of ear infections are the itchiest for dogs. You may notice your dog rubbing his ears along the floor or scratching intensely at them. Yeast ear infections often have dark brown discharge.

Allergies 

Allergies are another very common cause of ear infections and odors in dogs— responsible for almost half of ear infection cases. Your dog may be allergic to something in the environment such as pollen or food; come into contact with an irritating substance; have generalized allergies, or experience a local drug reaction. Infections caused by allergies may not have a smell or may take on the smell of a yeast or bacterial infection.

Common signs of allergies include ears that are red or warm to the touch, rubbing ears along the floor or scratching at ears, discharge from the ears or sores/scabs on the ear. For severe or chronic cases, the ear canal may become firm and thickened. 

Ear Mites 

Ear mites are tiny and hard to see with the naked eye. Otodectes cynotis, Demodex, and Sarcoptes are the most common ear mites in dogs. They are very itchy and uncomfortable for dogs. Oftentimes, you will see build up in your dog’s ears that resemble coffee grounds. This build up can cause your dog’s ears to smell foul, but not rancid. This smell is usually similar to old trash. 

Ear mites should be treated immediately as they are able to spread from dog-to-dog. You might notice signs similar to ear infections such as ear scratching, head shaking, redness and head tilting. 

Foreign Objects

Surprisingly, it’s not uncommon for dogs to get things in their ears that don’t belong there. Plant awns, hair, grass seeds, or anything else your dog may have gotten into can end up in their ear. Your dog may also develop a mass or growth in his ear. Growths, polyps, or enlargement of the glands that secrete ear wax can also create the same trouble. 

Changes like these decrease ventilation to the ear. The ear canal cannot dry properly and humidity within the ear canal increases, which favors overgrowth of yeast and bacteria. 

Your dog may be more likely to get things stuck in his ear during the summer months. You may see him scratching his ears, shaking his head and—depending on where the object is—there may be a small amount of blood. 

How to Treat Smelly Dog Ears 

Veterinarian cleaning dogs ears

You should see your veterinarian in order to resolve the smell coming from your dog’s ears. Long-term ear infections can lead to a rupture of the eardrum and consequently a loss of hearing. 

Your veterinarian will do a number of things to obtain an accurate diagnosis of why your dog’s ears are so smelly. 

First, your vet will use an otoscope to examine the inside of the ear. Here the veterinarian will be able to see redness, discharge, or a mass or foreign object inside your dog’s ear. 

During the exam, your veterinarian may also take a swab from your dog’s ear to examine under the microscope. This will show whether your dog has mites, bacteria, or yeast in his ears. Bacterial cultures are necessary for dogs whose ear infections have not responded to previous treatments in order to choose the most effective antibiotic. 

Further diagnostics such as radiographs, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be necessary to examine the extent of disease in your dog’s ear. 

Surgery may be recommended for certain diseases such as chronic ear infections or masses. 

Medications to Treat Ear Infections in Dogs

Your veterinarian will prescribe either topical medications (such as ear drops for dogs) or systemic treatment (usually given orally) depending on the severity of your dog’s symptoms. 

The most common topical treatments are combination products that contain a steroid to decrease inflammation and itchiness, an antibiotic, and antifungal to control the infection. 

In the case of ear mites, medications such as ivermectin, selamectin and moxidectin can be used to kill the parasites. 

Best Ear Cleaners for Dogs

Dog ear cleaner and pug

All featured products are chosen at the discretion of the author. However, Great Pet Care may make a small affiliate commission if you click through and make a purchase.

If you want to clean dirt, debris, and wax from your dog’s ears, an ear cleaner is a must. There are plenty of over-the-counter products that make great at-home options, including:

Dog Ear Cleaners (also known as Ear Flush): These fluids are intended to flush into an ear for cleaning. Many ear cleaners are available over-the-counter, although prescription ear cleaners may also be prescribed by your veterinarian. 

Ear Drops for Dogs: If your dog has an ear infection, your veterinarian may prescribe ear drops, to be used in addition to ear cleaner. These ear drops may contain antibiotics, anti-yeast ingredients, and/or a steroid to soothe inflammation. 

Ear Wipes for Dogs: Ear wipes can be a simple way to clean the external portion of a dog’s ear. They look similar to baby wipes, but contain ingredients that are specifically intended to be appropriate for cleaning a dog’s ears.

If you have questions about ear cleaning products, talk to your veterinarian to determine the best option for your dog.

Great Ears Multi-Symptom Dog Ear Cleaner

Great Ears Dog Ear Cleaner

Smelly ears are no fun for you or your dog. Great Ears Multi-Symptom Dog Ear Cleaner boasts a light piña colada scent without being overpowering. Because it is made with plant-based surfactants, you can safely and effectively eliminate canine ear odors. Fortunately, it can be used on dogs over 12 weeks old on a regular basis for ear maintenance. The best way to avoid frequent veterinarian visits for ear infections is with regular use of a product like Great Ears. 

Highlights

  • Easy to use for canine ear odors, wax buildup, and itchiness
  • Safe enough to use on a regular basis
  • Won’t harm the ear’s lipid barrier thanks to conditioning and moisturizing ingredients
  • Perfect to establish an at-home ear care routine 
  • Natural formula is made in the USA
  • Also ideal dogs who swim, have allergies, or spend time in hot or humid weather

Things to Consider

  • Seek veterinary care to rule out ear infections
  • For dogs not used to ear cleaning, use positive reinforcement methods
  • Discontinue use if irritation develops

Sogeval Douxo Micellar Ear Cleansing Solution

Sogeval Douxo dog ear cleaner

When it comes to choosing the right dog ear cleaner, it’s important to look for gentle—yet effective—solutions. That’s why we love this ear cleaner made by Sogeval Duxo. It’s a very mild cleaner that removes debris, eliminates excess sebum, and relieves inflammation. The non-greasy formula contains phytosphingosine 0.02%, and phytosphingosine is a natural component of the epidermis, which helps to build up the skin’s defense barrier. Lastly, this product has a pleasant and light green tea fragrance that is natural and not overwhelming.

Highlights

  • Gentle and mild ear cleaner.
  • Contains phytosphingosine 0.02%.
  • Recommended by veterinarians.
  • Manufactured in the USA.

Things to Consider

  • Honestly, there’s nothing bad we can say about this cleanser. Most reviewers really love it!

Top Performance ProEar Wipes

Top Performance ProEar Wipes

While liquid ear cleaners should be used to get gunk out from the inner ear canal, ear wipes for dogs are a nice option to use between cleanings or to freshen up the outer portion of your pup’s ear. These wipes tackle buildup and help decrease ear odors. Plus, they are gentle and don’t have any kind of strong fragrance—which we like. One of these canisters will last you a LONG time, with 160 wipes in each. 

Highlights

  • Value pack with 160 wipes each.
  • Gentle enough to use regularly.
  • Suitable for both dogs and cats. 
  • Easy to use. No need to rinse following use. 

Things to Consider

  • Ear wipes may not be suitable for removing debris from deep in the ear.
  • Make sure to close the container tightly, so the wipes don’t dry out.

Mighty Petz 4-in-1 Dog Ear Cleaner

Mighty Petz 4-in-1 Dog Ear Cleaner

If your dog is prone to dirty ears, inflammation, itchiness, and build-up, this cleaner from Might Petz is a great option to help minimize infections and reduce vet visits. Made with aloe vera, this cleaner removes dirt, wax, and odor within three days of first use. Plus, this leaves behind a nice cucumber and melon scent that’s pleasant for pet parents. 

Highlights

  • It’s fast-acting and works quickly.
  • Fights dirt, build-up, itchiness, and odor.
  • Safe for both puppies and adult dogs.
  • Works on cats too. 
  • Manufactured in a GMP-certified facility.
  • 3rd party tested by an independent lab.

Things to Consider

  • If your dog’s ears are really dirty, it’s recommended to use the product 2-3 times per day.
  • Not every reviewer is a fan of the scent. 

Otomite Plus Ear Mite Treatment

Otomite ear drops for dogs

A dog’s ears may smell for a variety of reasons, including ear mites. These tiny little arachnids cannot be seen by the human eye. Dogs may scratch at their ears or shake their head. If ear mites are confirmed by your veterinarian, Otomite Plus can help. Designed to eliminate ear mites without further irritating your pup’s ears, this solution penetrates the stratum corneum. 

Highlights

  • May be used in dogs and puppies over 12 weeks of age
  • Product is made with a soothing olive oil base to help the ingredients disperse and penetrate in the dog’s ear (stratum corneum) 
  • Made specifically for ear mites
  • Easy to dispense and spread by massaging your dog’s affected ear(s) 

Things to Consider

  • Re-treat at least every seven days depending on the severity of the condition, but not more frequently than twice a week.
  • If the condition does not resolve within two weeks, discontinue and consult your veterinarian 
  • Recommended to treat all animals in the household per manufacturer’s instructions 

See more vet-recommended dog ear cleaners. 

How to Clean a Dog’s Ears

pet owner cleaning dog's ears

Ear cleaning is an important step in treating and preventing ear infections—and ear odor—in dogs. 

Debris in the ear canal can inactivate some topical medications and prevent medications from reaching the ear canal. Debris can also protect microbes and retain bacterial toxins that worsen infection. 

When cleaning your dog’s ears, it’s important to prepare your area and set up all of your supplies beforehand. Make sure that you have: 

  • A small, easy-to-clean location in which to clean your dog’s ears (such as a bathroom, laundry room, or even your back porch)
  • A tasty treat to reward your dog (peanut butter works great!) 
  • Dog ear cleaning solution 
  • Cotton balls or tissues 
  • A towel 

While many pet parents view ear cleaning as a chore that they should “push through,” the best way to clean your dog’s ears is to make it enjoyable. This can alleviate a lot of stress for both you and your dog. 

Here are some steps for ear-cleaning success, shared by Catherine Barnette, DVM:

Step 1: Select a quiet location that is free of distractions and easy to clean up. Ensure that your dog can’t get away from you, because chasing your dog around your house is a surefire way to increase everyone’s stress level!

Step 2: Place a tasty treat in an area where your dog can eat it as you’re cleaning the ears. If you’re in the bathroom, for example, consider placing a long trail of peanut butter along the side of the bathtub. You could also place peanut butter or dog-safe cheese spread on a treat dispensing mat like the Aquapaw and stick it to the bathtub. Eating the treat will distract your dog from the ear cleaning and encourage him to hold still. 

Step 3: Lift your dog’s ear flap (the pinna) and squirt dog ear cleaner into the ear. The amount of cleaner that is required will vary between dogs, but your goal is to fill the ear canal until the cleaner is about to overflow out of the ear. 

pet parent holding dog's head

Step 4: Massage the base of the ear gently (about 60 seconds). You should hear a “squishing” sound as the ear cleaner works its way throughout the ear canal.

Step 5: Let go of your dog’s ear. In most cases, your dog will shake at this point, which forces wax within the canal to rise up to the surface of the ear (due to centrifugal force). 

Step 6: Use a tissue or cotton ball to clean out the wax that has risen to the surface of the ear. Note: Don’t use cotton swabs, which can push debris further into the ear and even injure your dog’s eardrum. 

Step 7: Repeat as needed, until you are no longer removing a significant amount of debris from your dog’s ear.  

Step 8: Perform the same process on your pup’s other ear. 

Step 9: Use a towel as needed to dry your dog’s ears and coat. 

Dog Ear Cleaning Tips

Basset hound with ears being held out

Commercial pet ear cleansers have compounds such as cerumenolytics and drying agents that soften and breakdown the ear wax, slow the growth of bacteria, decrease secretions, and reduce moisture. 

If your dog’s ears have sores or scabs due from rubbing and scratching, you can try an over-the-counter wound care product to soothe the skin and promote healing.

How often you clean your dog’s ears will depend on a number of factors. For an average healthy dog, with no history of ear infections and no swimming, every 3-4 weeks is a good baseline. 

If your dog has floppy ears and/or has recurrent ear problems, however, your veterinarian may recommend cleaning your dog’s ears on a weekly basis. More consistent cleaning can help keep the ears clean and dry and facilitate early detection of infections. 

Dogs that spend a lot of time in the water should also have their ears cleaned frequently. Your veterinarian may recommend weekly ear cleaning or may recommend cleaning your dog’s ears after every swim. 

Not cleaning prior to applying medicine and cleaning too much are the most common reasons for treatment failure in dogs with ear infections.

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