Smelly dog ears can be unpleasant for both dogs and their owners. But what causes them – and how do we fix it?
Smelly ears in dogs have a few potential causes, some more serious than others. And the type of smell may indicate what the problem is. In this article, we will explore the causes and symptoms of ear infections, dog ear mites, and wax buildup, as well as how to treat them and identify one from another. Hygiene is key to preventing these problems in the first place. So, we will also look at how to clean our dogs’ ears thoroughly, safely, and what products are best to use.
Causes of Smelly Dog Ears
In order to treat your dog’s smelly ears, you must first identify the cause. Here is a list of all the possible reasons why your dog’s ears may be smelling bad.
The most common cause of smelly dog ears is the excessive build-up of moisture or wax. Dog’s ears are supposed to be self-cleaning, but there are a few situations in which these mechanisms get disrupted. Floppy-eared dog breeds like Spaniels and Labradors. Their long, heavy, fluffy ears don’t allow for much airflow and regularly lead to excess moisture. Regular ear haircuts may help with this, but not always.
Allergies can also disrupt those mechanisms. If your dog is not floppy-eared but still struggles with wax, they may have an allergy. Typically to pollen, something in their diet, or they could be having a reaction to the cleaning products you’re using. If the cause of the allergy is unpreventable, it can be treated with antihistamines. Hormone imbalances like hyperthyroidism could also be to blame. If you suspect this to be the case, tell your vet so that they can advise you on the appropriate lifestyle changes and treatments.
If your dog is suffering from wax build-up, they may experience muffled hearing and earache or itching. Sometimes dogs feel no irritation at all, though they may be frightened or anxious if their hearing has been altered. The wax will be visible to you when you take a look inside. It will be yellow and color and mild in smell. If this is the cause of your dog’s smelly ears, your vet will suggest an ear cleaning solution. If your dog’s waxy ears are not preventable, you may be advised to make ear cleaning a weekly – monthly occurrence depending on their needs.
Infection is another common reason for smelly ears. This also more often affects floppy-eared breeds for the same reasons. Dog ear infections may be accompanied by excessive scratching, head shaking, pain, redness, swelling, discharge, and a low or irritable mood. Scratching can cause cuts that can spread the infection. Try to keep your dog calm by distracting them and gently massaging their ears to relieve the irritation.
Yeast infections in dog ears create a strong musty smell. They are brought on by a build-up of candida, often from spending time in the water. If your dog has a yeast infection, your vet will clean their ears and prescribe an anti-fungal treatment to clear it up.
Bacterial infections are caused by bad bacteria entering the body, in this case, the ears, through an opening in the skin or airways. These ear infections are accompanied by strong discharge and an extremely bad smell. If your dog’s ears are infected, your vet will clean them and prescribe a course of antibiotics. Dogs can get both types of infection at the same time and this is not uncommon. In this situation, your dog may seem off-balance, uncoordinated, and keep turning in circles. They will need a combination of both types of drugs to fight off the infections.
Infections can spread deeper into the ear and lead to hearing loss if left untreated. So take your dog to the vets as soon as possible if you think their ears are infected. Remember not to clean your dog’s ears the day before taking them to the vet as this will make the diagnosis harder. Should the infection have already spread, your dog may need tablets, injections, or surgery to treat it.
If your dog’s ear infection is recurrent, there may be an underlying problem that needs to be addressed. This could be a tumor or foreign object stuck inside the ear, so tell your vet and get it treated before there is permanent damage to your dog’s hearing.
If your dog has dark brown granular deposits within the ear, the foul smell could be due to mite infestation. Ear mites are picked up outdoors, often from other animals. They’re often accompanied by scratching, head shaking, droopy ears, and dark discharge. You may even be able to see the tiny mites. If you can they will look like white pin-pricks jumping around. Again, try to keep your dog calm, as scratching could lead to cuts that could then get infected.
Ear mites are more common in cats but can affect dogs, more often younger dogs than older ones. They might sound serious and scary, but unlike other types of mite, they don’t bite or burrow and are quite easy to treat. Your vet will clean your dog’s ears to get the mites out and then prescribe them an anti-parasitic medication.
Mites can cause worse problems if left untreated, such as hearing loss, loss of balance, and hematomas. They are also extremely contagious – though not to humans, thank God! So if you spot the signs of ear mites, take your dog to the vet right away and don’t let them interact with other animals until they have been treated. It’s also a good idea to check any other pets in your family for signs of mites as they may have passed it on already.
How to Clean Smelly Dog Ears
Each cause has a different treatment. These are the best and most appropriate treatments for smelly dog ears.
It is best to clean your dog’s ears using a vet-approved dog ear cleaning solution. Talk to your vet about which one is right for your dog and their needs. The solutions come in the form of ear drops and can be bought over-the-counter/online at pet stores. However, your vet may be able to recommend one that they stock at your local practice.
To administer the ear cleaning solution, approach your dog when they’re calm, preferably lying down, and make sure you have a towel with you. If your dog’s ears are floppy, gently lift so that you can aim the dropper into their ear canal. (The dropper shouldn’t make contact with the ear.) Next, squeeze the dropper until the ear is almost full of solution and massage the base of their ear for about 30 seconds. This will aid the solution in loosening any excess wax, moisture, dirt, or debris and calm any itching or anxiety they may be feeling.
Then, allow your dog to shake their head so that most of the nasty stuff can fall out. Use the towel to catch it, clean him off, and shield yourself! Lastly, use a cotton ball to gently wipe away anything that’s still in there. Don’t go any further than the depth of a knuckle, and never use a cotton swab as they can push debris further into the ear. If your dog is in pain at any time, stop and take them to the vet. Be sure to give them a treat afterward!
Some medications can help treat the cause for your dog’s smelly ears. It all depends on why and which medication your dog needs though.
Topical antifungal medication is best administered when your dog is laying down, with the infected ear facing you so that you can easily put in the drops. Your vet will tell you how often and long your dog should take the treatment, but it will usually be daily for up to 6 weeks. The medication should be left inside the ears and the ears will not need wiping out afterward. If both of your dog’s ears are infected, it is best to leave at least half an hour in between treating the first and second ear so that the medication does not drip out when your dog has to switch the side he is lying on.
Antibiotics for ear infections are usually topical too. But if your dog’s infection is severe, they may come in the form of tablets. Some tablets may be chewable, but often they have to be swallowed whole. If this is the case, try hiding the tablets inside some food. If they eat the food and spit out the tablet, try gently opening their mouths, placing the tablet as close to the throat as possible, and rubbing their throats to help them swallow. Only do this if your dog is comfortable enough with you to do it.
Sometimes oral antibiotics can come in the form of drops that you can put on their food. If your dog hates tablets, ask your vet if this is available. Your vet will tell you how often and long the treatment should be taken, but usually it will need to be taken daily for 1-2 weeks. Make sure you see your dog’s treatment all the way through, as stopping too quickly may make the infection come back.
Topical antiparasitic medication is traditionally used to treat ear mites. This will need to be applied to the ears daily for a few weeks. Exactly how long will depend on the severity, but your vet will know the appropriate length of time required.
However, newer single-dose oral medications are becoming more and more popular and maybe an option for your dog. Your vet will prescribe the best option for their case of mites.
If the origin of your dog’s ear issue is less serious or you need some relief before you can get to the vets, there are some natural home remedies you can try out.
For dogs with mild wax build-up, the age-old remedy of administering olive oil to the ear is a sure-fire safe way to remove some wax. But this will only work if the case is mild. If your dog has excessive amounts of wax, a vet-approved ear cleaner is the best way to treat the problem.
To administer olive oil, get your dog to lay on his side so that the affected ear is facing upwards. Put two or three drops into the ear using a dropper/syringe and massage the base of their ear for 5-10 minutes. Wipe away any excess with a towel and do the other ear if it is also affected after half an hour. Do this once a day for 1-2 weeks and if there’s no difference, see your vet or buy a vet-approved cleaning solution.
Apple cider vinegar can be found at any health store and has natural antibiotic properties. It has been proven to help fight yeast infections. Create a 50/50 mix of apple cider vinegar and water using 5 milliliters for every 20 lbs your dog weighs. Then, follow the same steps listed for the ear cleaning solution above.
Giving your dog half a clove of garlic every day may also help with their fungal ear problem and prevent yeast issues in the future, as garlic has also been found to have natural antibiotic properties. You can also give your dog plain yogurt to put good bacteria back into their system after fighting a fungal infection. Vinegar should only be used as a one-off or occasional treatment. We do not recommend using it to regularly clean your dog’s ears as it is very harsh and could cause damage to the skin. Many sites suggest remedies involving alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, but we do not recommend this for the same reason.
Bacterial infections always require treatments prescribed by vets. But if you have a long wait before you can see one, Chamomile can soothe your dog’s ears in the meantime and may help to make the infection a bit better. Perfect for soothing sore or itchy ears, Chamomile can be found at any supermarket or health store. It has anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, calming, and pain-relieving qualities. To give this to your dog, add a teabag to hot water, let it cool, and use a dropper/syringe to administer a few drops to the ear a day until you can see a vet.
Mullein oil can be found in health stores and has anti-parasitic qualities. This means it is great for fighting off ear mites. Whilst you should always take your dog to the vet if you suspect they might have ear mites, this is a great treatment in the meantime if you have to wait. Simply use the dropper that comes with the oil to drop it into the ears and administer 5-6 drops a day to the ears until you can go to the vets.
How to Prevent Smelly Dog Ears
The best way to treat smelly dog ears is to stop them from happening in the first place! So, what can we do to prevent them?
Make sure you attend your dog’s annual vet check-ups even if you think they are perfectly healthy. Ask for the vet to give them an exam if they are a breed that is particularly at risk of ear problems. With ears, it’s not always enough for you to look inside your dog’s ears. You may be able to spot particularly abnormal signs of problems, but there is no way for you to safely look deep inside their ears. Only a vet has the right equipment to look into your dog’s ear canals safely.
Look for Symptoms
As mentioned above, watch out for bad smells emanating from the ears, excessive scratching, head shaking, droopy ears, bad balance or coordination, and a generally low mood in your dog. Any of these could indicate a problem with the ears. When you look inside their ears, check for redness, swelling, tenderness, discharge, dark brown patches, and/or white specks. If you notice a combination of any of these symptoms, consult your vet right away.
Use Ear Cleaners Infrequently
If you notice that your dog has a wax problem or your vet advises you to do so, make ear cleaning a semi-regular part of your dog’s routine. How often you need to do it will depend on how bad the problem is, so ask your vet for the necessary frequency for your dog. The typical advice is that once or twice a month is best.
Keep the Ears Clean and Dry
Ear cleaning may have to be more regular if your dog swims or plays in water routinely. Always brush off dirt when your dog is done playing outside and make sure their ears are dry when they’ve been in the water.
How to Tell When a Dog's Ears Need Cleaning?
It is important to note that dog’s ears should only be cleaned if they have any of the problems discussed, are wet or visibly dirty, or if your vet has instructed you to do so. If your dog doesn’t have a problem with their ears, leave them alone! Overcleaning can cause infection and irritation from the unnecessary chemicals being inside their ears.
Smelly Dog Ears – FAQs
If the smell is mild, it may just be wax. If you are 100% sure it is ear wax, try an ear cleaning solution. But if the smell is particularly bad, it may be infected or possibly infested with mites. If you think this could be the case, take your dog to the vet. Depending on the issue, they will either be prescribed an antifungal, antibiotic, or anti-parasitic medication to fix the problem.
Particularly bad smells accompanied by extreme itching are likely signs of infection, this could be bacterial or fungal. Neither are too serious if you get your dog to the vets right away, but don’t wait for the problem to go away on its own as ear infections can lead to hearing loss if they spread.
A rarer but possible cause of smelly, itchy ears is ear mites. If your dog has dark brown deposits inside their ears and tiny white specks, it is probably ear mites. Again, mites are easily treated if you act fast but can lead to bigger problems if you don’t.
You might be able to tell from the smell. Yeast infections create a musty smell, whereas bacterial infections and mites smell far worse. Both infections and mites cause scratching and irritation. The way to tell the difference is that ear mites leave dark-brown deposits in the ears. You may also be able to see the tiny white mites, whereas infections just look red, inflamed, and leak discharge.
If you suspect your dog’s smelly ears to be caused by any of these problems, please take them to see their vet as soon as possible!