Smell is a notoriously difficult sense to describe, but if you’ve noticed something fishy going on with your dog’s ears, there’s a fitting descriptor that may come to mind: bad.

There are 5 well-known culprits behind malodorous dog ears. When caught early, proper treatment and a revamped ear care regimen can eliminate the offending culprit and restore your dog’s bouquet.

In this article, we’ll discuss the 5 most common reasons why your dog’s ear smells, as well as how to deal with the underlying issues (and those unseemly top notes). 

5 Causes of Dog Ear Odor

All dogs are prone to ear-related maladies due to their anatomy. Dog ear canals are shaped like a “J” or an “L,” making it difficult to expel any buildup or pathogens that make their way into the passageway.

Let’s take a look at the 5 most likely issues occurring within your dog’s ear canal that are causing a foul smell.

Cause #1: Ear Wax

While earwax can be unsightly to look at, the substance is essential. That’s because earwax is the body’s way of keeping your pet’s ear clean and free of harmful bacteria or pathogens. However, too much earwax can lead to unpleasant ear odor. 

Without proper ear hygiene, any breed of dog can experience a build-up of earwax, but some dog breeds are predisposed to have more earwax than others, including:

  • Cocker Spaniels – Some cocker spaniels are genetically predisposed to a condition that prompts their ceruminous glands to overproduce earwax.
  • Bassets – All dogs’ ear canals are hooked, but Bassets’ exceptionally long canals make it significantly more difficult to expel excess wax, leading to internal buildup.
  • English Bulldogs – This breed’s floppy, creased ear structure leaves them with more nooks and crannies for extra earwax to accumulate.
  • Poodles – Poodles’ hair grows inside their ears, and, because they don’t shed, the earwax and hair can combine to clog the ear canals.

To help prevent earwax from building up and causing smelly ears, it’s important to make thorough ear cleanings part of your dog’s regular wellness routine. You should be cleaning your dog’s ears on a regular basis. If you don’t know which ear cleaner is best for your pup, talk to your veterinarian. 

Cause #2: Yeast Infection

Yeast infections are another common cause of smelly ears in dogs.

Candida overgrowth, a common variety of yeast, may be identified by the following symptoms:

  • Musty, even saccharine-smelling odor emanating from the ear canal
  • Ear irritation, such as swelling, redness, or discharge
  • Scratching, rubbing, or shaking of your dog’s head to alleviate itchiness and discomfort

Your vet can diagnose and treat a yeast infection in your dog by performing a cytology and administering antifungal prescription ear drops or oral medication for your pet’s ear problem. If you suspect a yeast infection is the culprit behind your dog’s stinky and dirty ears, do not clean their ears before your vet appointment, as this can make diagnosing the issue more difficult.1

Cause #3: Ear Mites

Ear mites are a type of parasite commonly found in dogs. Signs of a dog ear mite infection can include:

  • Foul ear odor
  • Ear discharge that’s thick, dark, and waxy, or resembles sand or ground coffee
  • Excessive scratching or shaking of your dog’s ears, head, and neck

While you should always take your dog to the vet if you suspect a case of ear mites, you may be able to run a preliminary check-up at home.

Take a sample of ear debris from your dog’s outer ear, and swipe it on a dark surface. Using a magnifying glass, look for any light-colored, rapidly-moving specks the size of a grain of sand.

Fortunately, ear mites are easily treatable. In fact, the newest treatment protocols can even wipe out an entire ear mite infection in a single session.2 

Brown and white short-haired mongrel dog is sitting near a tree

Cause #4: Foreign Objects

Watching your dog roll around blissfully in nature is unquestionably adorable—but the more time your dog spends outdoors, the more likely it is for a foreign object to become stuck in their ear. Materials such as grass, dirt, or leaf debris can all get stuck in the ear, leading to depressed airflow and a humid environment that yeast and bacteria can thrive in.

If you think your pup has an unwelcome guest lodged in their ear, see a vet to flush out the offending foreign body. Never insert a cotton swab or Q-tip into your dog’s ear canal—you’re likely to push the object deeper into the canal, causing more discomfort and increasing the likelihood of an ensuing infection.

Cause #5: Bacterial Infection

Of all the causes of smelly ears in dogs, symptoms of ear infections are number one.

There are three types of bacterial ear infections that can affect dogs:

  • Otitis externa – This type of bacterial ear infection is localized to the outer portion of the ear and usually agitated by the environment. These are the most treatable kinds of  ear infections in dogs.
  • Otitis media – This kind of bacterial infection occurs in the dog’s middle ear, inflaming the eardrum, causing ear odor, and leading to greater sensitivity and discomfort.
  • Otitis interna – The most severe kind of ear infection is otitis interna (or labyrinthis) which affects the innermost part of the ear, linking the ear to the brain. Otitis interna isn’t just painful—it can also compromise your dog’s sense of balance and ambulation, and result in serious, long-term damage.

Although ear infections are extraordinarily common in dogs, most conditions can be resolved by following the right protocol for immediate care and long-term prevention.

If your dog continues to develop ear infections, it’s important to talk to your vet about stepping up your at-home ear care routine. Remember, an ear problem can easily develop if you’re not careful. If you notice a foul smell coming from your dog’s ear, do not ignore this symptom. Frequently relying on antibiotics to treat recurring infections will decrease their efficacy over time and may even cause painful structural changes to your dog’s ear. 

Related Symptoms of Ear Odor in Dogs

Alongside ear odor, you may notice some other symptoms or behaviors in your pup that can signify an ear problem, such as:

  • Shaking or scratching their head 
  • Rubbing their ears or face on furniture, the floor, or other surfaces
  • Whimpering when ears are petted or scratched
  • Ears that are red, swollen, or hot to the touch
  • Excessive ear wax
  • Ear fluid or discharge 
  • Scabbing, crusting, or even bleeding from the ears
  • Apparent difficulty hearing

While ear issues can vary in type and severity, your first step in treatment should always be a veterinarian check-up. The severity of some ear conditions, like bacterial infections, can escalate rapidly if neglected, leading to extreme health concerns, such as deafness, facial paralysis, or even neurological damage.

Cute little preschool girl going for a walk with family dog in nature

Treating (and Preventing) Ear Odor

To determine the exact cause of your pup’s ear odor, your vet will likely use at least one of the following examination techniques:

  • Otoscopic exam 
  • Ear cytology 
  • Radiographs
  • CT scans
  • MRIs

After they’ve diagnosed the root cause, they’ll let you know whether the problem can be remedied in-office or through a more exhaustive protocol of at-home care.

In every case, your vet will also recommend thorough, more frequent ear cleanings to prevent future funky smells and discomfort.

How to Thoroughly Clean Your Dog’s Ears

When it’s time to clean your dog’s ears, make sure you have all the proper tools on hand, including a vet-approved ear cleaning solution, gauze or a cotton ball, a towel, and a dog treat (to keep your furry friend from getting too antsy).

Once you’re prepped, you can effectively clean your dog’s ears with the following steps:

  • Hold the ear flap gently and firmly, and pull it up to expose the ear canal so the ear cleaning solution can flow thoroughly.
  • Gradually administer the ear solution until it brims at the top of the ear canal.
  • Close the ear flap, and gingerly massage the ear for 30 seconds to dislodge any buildup. (You may hear a watery sound when you do this.)
  • Let your dog shake it off, and use the gauze or cotton ball to mop up any excess fluid on the outer ear. Do not insert the gauze or cotton into the ear canal. 
  • Use a towel to dry up any wet spots on your dog (and yourself).3

Ideally, your dog’s ears should be cleaned at least once a week, but if your pet has long ears, hair growing inside the ear canal, or spends a lot of time outdoors, you may need to increase your frequency.

It’s also important to avoid hydrogen peroxide or products that list alcohol as an ingredient. Use an ear cleaner that is recommended by your veterinarian to ensure you are using a safe product on your dog’s ear. These can be irritating or painful for your pet—especially if they have an ear-related injury—and are not sustainable ingredients to use for long-term ear hygiene.

Keep Your Dog Smelling (and Feeling) Fresh and Healthy with Vetericyn

With regular cleanings, your dog’s ears can take on more appropriate descriptors: adorable, soft, floppy—you get the idea. But to effectively clean ears, prevent odor, and remove debris without causing further irritation, it’s essential to use a non-toxic ear cleaning solution.

Vetericyn Plus® Antimicrobial Ear Rinse is designed to mitigate ear odors—and their underlying irritants—using non-toxic ingredients that won’t add pain or stress to your pet’s daily ear care routine. In fact, all of Vetericyn’s products are non-toxic, vet-approved (and vet-used), and concocted to deliver the most effective and comfortable treatment for your pet. 

For solutions to all your pet care needs, trust Vetericyn.


  1. PetMD. Why Your Dog’s Ears Smell and How to Clean Them.
  2. American Kennel Club. How to Clean a Dog’s Ears.
  3. PawTracks. Does your dog have smelly ears? Here’s what it could mean.
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