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What Do A Dog's Smelly Ears Mean

Updated on October 22, 2015
Bob Bamberg profile image

With 30 years in the pet supply industry, Bob's newspaper column deals with animal health, nutrition, behavior, regulation, and advocacy.


Oh oh, Healthy Ears Don't Have An Odor

You're "sharing a moment" with your dog; giving a good head rub or ear scratch, cootchie-cooing him, and playing huggy bear and kissy face. But the moment is ruined by the heartbreak of ear odor.

If you're like a lot of folks, you figure it's normal for a dog's ears to smell rather unpleasant, especially for a floppy-eared breed such as a cocker spaniel, where there isn't a lot of air flow into the canal.

The fact is, though, that healthy ears don't have an offensive odor, and if your dog's ears do smell offensive, there's probably something cooking there that isn't good. And ears are something that owners shouldn't mess around with. At least a call to the vet is in order.

Veterinarians tend to see more instances of ear problems in the summer, due to a few factors. Dogs spend more time out of doors where there's plenty of low foliage and tall grass for them to romp through, insects are present, and many dogs love to swim.


Dogs are naturally adapted for a life out of doors, and their ears are constructed with that in mind.

The canal is shaped sort of like a loosely flexed arm to protect the inner ear from the conditions described in the previous paragraph.

Roaming through tall grass and brush exposes the ears to seeds and other plant debris that can enter the canal and cause problems.

The purpose of vertical and horizontal canals is to prevent the stuff from reaching the inner ear, but it doesn't always work.

Have you ever had “swimmer’s ear?” Swimming can give a dog “swimmer’s ear,” too. And once the debris, insects or water do get deep into the ear, they may not work their way out.

The result can be anything ranging from mild discomfort to a serious infection.

Or, it may not be a foreign body at all. The lining of the ear is simply an extension of your dog's skin, and a skin problem can migrate to the ear canal.

Another possibility is that an ear infection is in progress, or that ear mites are present, and a third scenario would involve a systemic problem such as hypothyroidism.

If your dog's ears smell bad you'll probably notice other symptoms, as well.

He may scratch constantly at, behind or below the ears, he may rub his ear along the ground, or he may shake his head.

He may seem off balance or disoriented and may react negatively to an ear rub or head scratch, or, conversely, he may react enthusiastically, leaning in towards the hand. If he lets you near his ears, look for a discharge. Whether or not a discharge is present, if the dog shows signs of an ear problem, don't delay in making a call to the vet.

When the vet examines the dog, he'll often use a topical anesthetic that will allow the introduction of an otoscope and other instruments into the ear without making the dog go ballistic. In some cases a general anesthetic is required.

Using the otoscope, the vet can get a good look inside the ear canal, all the way to the ear drum, to examine it for infection or foreign bodies.

If a foreign body is present, the vet may pass forceps through the cone-shaped attachment on the otoscope to grab it.

If he sees evidence of an infection, he'll probably take a swab of discharge for microscopic examination, since infections can have any of a number of origins. There are yeasts, bacteria, and even parasites such as ear mites that can cause ear infections.


In order to prescribe a course of treatment, your vet will have to determine the cause of the infection. This having been accomplished, the actual treatment will probably be administered by you.

Said treatment will likely involve flushing the ears with a special cleansing solution and instilling drops of medication. Treatment can be required for up to three weeks. During that period, your vet may have to see the dog to be sure the treatment is working.

So, if you get up close and personal with your dog, and detect an odor coming from the ears, the dog may be in some degree of discomfort and could be headed for trouble. It's time to call the vet.

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    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Thanks for checking in JThomp42, and thanks for the votes. Regards, Bob

    • profile image

      JThomp42 5 years ago

      Good to know. Voted up.