Ask the Vet: Why Do Dog Ears Smell?

Dr. Ivana Crnec

When dog ears smell, you need to put on your investigative hat and find out why. This means taking your dog to the vet to find out whether there may be an underlying medical cause to rule out or confirm. In the best case, you may be lucky and it turns out there's nothing wrong. In this article, veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec explains what may cause a dog's ears to develop a funky smell.

The dog’s ears have a naturally funky smell. However, certain issues may convert that funky and distinctive smell into an unpleasant and stinky odor. Namely, there are several ear-related health issues that lead to stinky ears in dogs. 

Ear Mites 

Ear mites (Otodectes cyanotis) are tiny parasitic insects that feed on skin debris and cause a condition called otodectic mange. They are very common in pups and cause about 10 percent of cases of ear inflammation in young dogs. 

Most of the mites remain within the ears, but a few spend short periods outside them. They are the source of frequent re-infestations. Ear mites are highly contagious to other dogs and to cats, but are not transmitted to humans.

If your pup is scratching its ears and shaking its head, and has a mahogany to black, waxy discharge, assume that it has ear mites. An unpleasant smell is often present. Mites are white, the size of a pin head, and move vigorously when you shine a light on them. If you look at an ear swab against a dark background, you will see them wriggle.

Treat the ears with an over-the-counter, pyrethrin-based ear drop solution or with a prescribed medication for at least three weeks. Most medication kill the adult mites but not their eggs, so you will have to continue treatment until all the eggs have hatched and the mites are destroyed. Flea insecticides will kill ear mites that travel outside the ears.

Ear mite problems are often complicated with secondary infections from opportunist bacteria and yeast. Your vet may prescribe an antibiotic to combat the bacteria or an antifungal to stop the yeast. If itchiness is intense, an anti0inflammatory may be given.

Ear mites spread very easily, so you need to treat all your dogs and cats. If you have any rabbits or ferrets, you will need to treat them as well. 

Otitis Externa

Infections of the outer ear may be bacterial, fungal or caused by yeast. Dogs do not catch ear infections from other dogs. External ear canal infections are caused by opportunist microorganisms already present in the dog’s ears. Given the opportunity, they will multiply in excess and displace the beneficial bacteria.

Malassezia is possibly the most common cause of otitis externa. This yeast is a prime opportunist, taking advantage of mite infestations, allergies or other causes of ear canal inflammation. Malassezia often occurs concurrently with a bacterial ear infection. 

The ear becomes smelly, inflamed, hot and painful. Affected dogs shake their heads and scratch either behind or inside their ears.

Pseudomonas is an opportunist bacterium that causes ear infection when there is chronic otitis. The dog shakes its head and scratches or rubs the ear which is painful. It may tilt the head down on the affected side. There is usually a waxy discharge with a bad smell.

A lotion that combines an antibiotic, an antifungal and an anti-inflammatory is usually dispensed. Oral ketoconazole may be used for Malassezia infection. A drying solution may be recommended for weekly or twice-weekly use to prevent the infection from recurring. 

Otitis Media and Interna

Untreated external ear infection may lead to middle and inner ear infection. Some dogs with middle and inner ear infections have intact ear drums and no sign of external problems. These conditions are far more difficult to overcome than a simple external infection.

Signs are similar to otitis externa, except that the pain is more intense and hearing can be impaired, especially if both ears are infected. Effective treatment involves puncturing the ear drum to flush out the hidden infection.

Grass Seeds and Foreign Objects 

All kinds of grass seeds and other foreign bodies can get stick in your dog’s ears. For example, bristly awns of barley, often called foxtails, can work their way down the ear canal. Your dog will usually shake its head vigorously to try to dislodge them.

Your vet can use an otoscope to identify and locate the grass seeds or foreign body.

To prevent the sharp tip of the awn from penetrating the delicate ear drum, instill about 10 drops of mineral oil in the affected ear. This action gives temporary relief while you arrange to visit the vet. Your vet will remove the foxtail with alligator forceps passed through an otoscope. 

The Ear Tick

The ear tick (Otobius megnini) is a rare tick that attaches itself to the wall of the ear canal, where is sucks blood. The tick, if present for a longer period of time may cause local inflammation followed by discharge production and unpleasant smell.

The eat tick can be removed by your vet using alligator forceps passed through an otoscope. 

Ear Discharges 

Ear discharges are not so much a condition in themselves as a symptom of any one of several problems. For example, ear mites usually produce a dry, gritty coffee-granule like substance in the ears, this is a mixture of wax and mite excrement.

Malassezia wax is usually dark brown and soft. A moist, light yellow, fruity-smelling paste indicates a bacterial infection. Itchiness and redness without discharge is often a sign of allergic otitis. 

How to Make Dog Ears Smell Less

The anatomy of the ear protects the actual organ of hearing from injury. At the same time, however, the length of the ear canal and simple gravity together encourage the accumulation of wax, debris, and foreign material, such as grass seeds, that cannot easily be shaken out of the ears.

Keep your dog’s ears in as natural condition as possible. For most dogs, this means doing nothing other than occasionally removing visible wax on the inside of the ear flap.

Always check your dog’s ears after it has been playing in tall grass. Look for grass seeds or other plant material, such as the awns of barley that might travel down the ear canals and get caught in the hair. Keeping the hair clipped directly below the ear opening will reduce the risk of grass seeds catching in it and working their way into the ear canal.

If your dog has hair in its ear canals, routinely pluck small amounts with your fingers and afterwards instill a proprietary ear cleaner. Train your dog from puppyhood to accept this as a weekly routine. If your dog has been in a fight, check the ears for injuries. Blood can trickle down the canal, predisposing it to external ear canal infection. 

About The Author

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.

She currently practices as a veterinarian in Bitola and is completing her postgraduate studies in the Pathology of Domestic Carnivores at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Zagreb, Croatia.

Ivana’s research has been published in international journals, and she regularly attends international veterinary conferences.

 

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