By Matt Soniak
Dogs bring a lot of joy into our homes, but they also bring an array of odors to contend with. We’re used to many of them, from bad breath and “Frito feet” to farts and wet dog smell. But what about a funky smell coming from a dog’s ears? While not as notably or frequently smelly as their mouths and rear ends, dogs’ ears can sometimes get a little stinky. Fortunately, the typical causes of smelly ears are relatively benign, and the fixes are pretty easy.
Causes of Smelly Ears in Dogs
“Not all odors are pathologic,” says Dr. Christine Cain, the section chief of dermatology and allergy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “Dead skin cells and other things that occur naturally in the ear and ear wax can create an odor.” The scent might not be pleasant, but it’s normal and doesn’t signal any larger problems. It also usually dissipates on its own. “Dogs’ ears mostly clean themselves,” says Cain, and their self-cleaning mechanism will regularly push wax out of the canal, keeping the odor to a minimum.
However, the smell can sometimes be more noticeable in some breeds or individual dogs, due to a few different factors. Very long and/or narrow ears canals, a lot of ear hair, or exposure to water from regular swimming or bathing can all make it harder for the ears to push wax out of the ear canal, says Dr. Dunbar Gram, a veterinarian and professor of dermatology at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. In these cases, ear wax and other detritus can build up, making for a more potent smell.
If your dog’s ears look normal and don’t display any symptoms other than an odor, Cain says, then they’re probably fine and just need a little cleaning. “If the self-cleaning isn’t keeping up, dogs are less susceptible to irritation from assisted ear cleaning than cats, and vets can recommend an over-the-counter cleaning product,” Cain says. She suggests staying away from homemade cleaner recipes available on the Internet since they may contain irritating substances like alcohol or vinegar.
“Ear infections are the number one cause of bad ear odors, the vast majority from bacteria or yeast,” says Gram. “Certain types of bacteria and yeast are normal in small numbers, but they can take advantage of certain conditions and grow into an infection.”
Both Gram and Cain caution against trying to diagnose or treat an ear infection at home. Cain says that while some people claim they can tell an ear infection by a “yeasty” or “moldy” smell, going by a certain type of odor isn’t all that accurate. Instead, she recommends checking for symptoms like redness, itchiness, discharge, excess wax, and an especially “strong and stinky” odor as cues to go to the vet for an evaluation. Gram adds that most ear infections are bilateral (in both ears), and other symptoms to look for include a dog frequently shaking his head and scratching at his ears, rubbing his ears on carpets and other surfaces, and general signs of “not feeling well,” such as disinterest in food or play.
If an ear infection is present, your veterinarian has the tools and training to treat it. “The infection could be one of several kinds of bacteria—including Staphylococcus, Pseudomonas, or E. coli—with different treatment needs,” Gram says. “A vet can identify the bacteria and make sure the infection hasn’t compromised the eardrum or moved to the middle ear.”
He recommends following up with your vet after the initial treatment, too. “While things might look normal on the outside and the smell has gone away, your vet can tell you how things look internally, make sure the underlying disease is gone, and that the bacteria was not resistant to the medicine that was used,” he says. “And if ear infections are recurring, they can also determine the underlying cause and address it before repeated infections lead to other problems.”
Parasites, environmental or food allergies, and growths (polyps or cancers) in the ear canals can all cause chronic ear infections.
Sometimes, a stink that seems to be coming from the ears might actually have another source. Cain has heard from colleagues about a few cases where people brought their dogs to the hospital concerned about an ear odor, and after examination, the vets determined that the cause of the smell was just a well-worn, stinky collar. If you’re on the fence about making a vet appointment, she says the strength of an odor can help guide the decision. “The stinkiest ears are associated with bacteria,” she says. “If you can smell the ear across the room, definitely see your vet.”
Read more: 6 Common Ear Problems in Dogs