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
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?
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:
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. Other signs include head shaking or tilting and shying away from having their ears touched.
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.
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 rancid or sweet smell of a bacterial ear 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 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.
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
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.
How to Clean a 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.
Use the following steps to clean your dog’s ear canal of debris:
Step 1: Fill the ear canal with a dog ear cleaner and massage for 60 seconds. Speak with your veterinarian if you’d like a product recommendation.
Step 2: Allow your dog to shake his head to help remove excess solution and debris.
Step 3: Residual solution and debris can be wiped from the ear canal and pinna with a tissue or cotton ball.
Note: Do not use cotton tipped swabs at home since they can push debris deeper into the horizontal ear canal.
Commercial pet ear cleansers can be found over the counter and 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.