How To Tell If Your Dog Has An Ear Infection and How to Clean Your Dog’s Ears

Does your dog smell bad?

Believe it or not, dogs in their natural healthy state smell good. The only reason dogs smell bad is if they have an ear infection, dental tartar/oral infections or skin infections or if they just rolled in something disgusting. The easiest way to tell if your dog has an ear infection is to smell their ears. In a healthy state, their ears are just like ours, with a small amount of was and no odor present. The ears should be nice and clean and the skin should be a normal color.

Q-Tips work great in creases


The Cotton Ball/Q-Tip test

Use a cotton ball or just the head of a Q-Tip to swab your dog’s ears. They should be clean.

Owners often mistake the dark brown debris that is present in infection as “normal” dirt. There is no such thing as “normal” dirt in dog’s ears. Their ears are designed to stay clean and while there are exceptions if they have been recently rolling in the mud or kept constantly in a dusty, dirty area, your cotton swab should come out clean.

Also the skin inside the ears should be normal color and texture. If the skin is bright red, thickened, scaly or otherwise abnormal, your dog has an ear infection.

Sometimes scratching is ear-specific


Is your dog scratching its ears?

It is not normal for dogs to constantly scratch their ears. They might do an occasional scratch for fleas or minor causes of irritation but if they are scratching their ears often, they have an ear infection or something stuck in their ears.

Your veterinarian will look into the ear canals with an ophthalmoscope all the way down to the tympanic membranes (ear drums) to see how bad the infection is and if there is anything stuck in the ear canal that might be contributing to the infection.

How to Clean Your Dog’s Ears

If your dog is diagnosed with an ear infection or has had them on a regular basis and you need to prevent them from recurring, you will need to know the proper way to clean your dogs ears.

Gather supplies

Ear cleaner - can be natural (1 part vinegar to 2 parts water, or see Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats) or use the cleaner recommended by your veterinarian.

Cotton Swabs or Q-Tips – (use same caution as with humans, do not stick more than the head of the Q-Tip into ears)

Towel to go around dogs neck or on floor under head, or do this outside, this is messy business!

Apply ear cleaner

Apply moderate amount of ear cleaner into one or both ears and massage ears well. Dog will shake its head like crazy after this step so watch out. Go ahead and let them shake it out, you can always put more in if needed.

Ouch! This one is too sore for you to clean without starting medication beforehand

Use cotton swabs for deeper areas and clean ALL of the debris out of ears. Do not be aggressive with this step if the ears are very red and obviously very sore, get medication from your veterinarian to reduce irritation and infection before aggressively cleaning.

Clean until no more debris shows up on your cotton swabs or Q-Tips.

Apply medication to ears if you have it. I advise medication twice daily for 14 days and a recheck with your veterinarian to make sure all debris is cleaned out all the way to the tympanic membrane or it will just come back.

Prevention

Be sure to address underlying issues such as allergies or abnormalities with ear canals or foreign objects or cleaning and treating ears will not fix the problem.

Was this helpful to you? Do you have any tips to add?

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26 Comments

  1. Posted August 3, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Great post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Very useful information specifically the last part :) I care for such info much. I was looking for this certain information for a very long time. Thank you and best of luck.

    • Posted August 10, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      Thank you so much for your comment! Best of luck to you too.

  2. Priyanka
    Posted May 19, 2013 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    Thanz a lot :)
    Gr8 help!

  3. Linda
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    My Papillon has trouble with one ear. I take him to the vet and there is no infection.
    He has allergies and takes benedryl. Last year he was on prednisone and ended up with medication induced Cushings. I’m giving him a benedryl in the a.m. and before bed. I do clean his ears with Otomax every 3 days and the ear in question is always clean. Some wax on the outer ear with q-tip but that’s all. He was scratching so much yesterday it was red and almost ready to bleed. This time I put in the ear powder to dry it and the
    moans and groans were pitiful. I’ve read about NuVet and Skin-Eze and they seem like expensive hoaxes – photos can’t be real. There is a company wo makes a formula based on allergy tests but it is administered on the gums not by an injection.
    I just want him to be comfortable and happy/playful. Can you suggest something for him.

  4. Dianne
    Posted November 2, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    I have a 8 year old pure white pommerainian. She has always been healthy and kept clean even with bathing taking care not to get water or dog wash in her ears, I have noticed the last 3 weeks or so her inner ears are bright red, crusty , doesn’t seem to be sore in any way, they don’t smell either. She isn’t kept in sun for too long either during outside play time. Any suggestions please

    • Posted November 2, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      Hi Dianne, Please take a cotton ball softened in lukewarm water and gently wipe the debris out of the ear canals. If she itches when you do this , this is likely an ear infection. Do not put anything into the ears if they are red and inflammed, only warm water soaked cotton balls. If she doesn’t itch when you remove the debris, it’s possible (though rare) that it is just a collection of dirt and that they just need to be cleaned. If she begins to itch and scratch at her ears or area around the ears after you have removed the debris please take her to your veterinarian and get medication for the ears. Otomax is a good one. You can also use a natural ear cleaning solution made of vinegar and water you can find in Dr. Pitcairns complete guide to natural health book on dog care on the internet found here: http://www.bookholders.com/search.asp?mode=query&query=0875962432&type=isbn&ref=adwords please let me know how things turn out. Take Care, Teri Byrd DVM

  5. Anita
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    Is otomax is ideal for infected ear ?

    • Posted November 20, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      Otomax ear medication for dogs has the following ingredients: Gentamicin Sulfate Veterinary, Betamethasone Valerate, USP and Clotrimazole. Gentamicin is an antibiotic and should be used in caution in ears with a ruptured tympanic membrane but otherwise has good antibacterial activity in ears. Betamethasone is a steroid (used for anti-inflammatory purposes for ears) and works well but should be used cautiously for chronic use in dogs with immune problems or Cushings disease, Clotrimazole is an antifungal and can be effective in treating ear disease that is fungal. Any ear medications should be prescribed by a veterinarian on the basis of clinical signs, ear cytology (a test where they take a sample from the ear canal and stain it and look at it under a microscope) ear culture (a test where they take a sample from the ear and put it in culture media) and the medication needs to be specific to the problem. Some ears need only bacterial meds, some need fungal meds, some need anti-inflammatories and some don’t need any of these if the problem is a foreign body or something else. Also, the quantity and time the medication used is VERY important. At the latest conference I attended a dermatological specialist let us know that we have not been prescribing enough medication to be administered every time. Increased amount equals increased cost and Otomax is pricey. I have used Otomax for many years in my practice with great success when it is used in conjunction with proper diagnostics and for at least 3 weeks plus. Make sure you have your veterinarian recheck the ears 3 weeks after you start the medication. Hope this helps. Please let me know how your experience turns out. Teri Byrd DVM

  6. Colin caddy
    Posted November 22, 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    My dog keeps crying out with her ears she as very hard wax just inside her ears I cannot get it out what can I do

    • Posted November 23, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Hi Colin, You can try putting a natural solution like vinegar and water into the ear canals. Here is a link for a couple of natural ear washes: http://www.ehow.com/way_5771124_homemade-recipe-dog_s-ear-wash.html If you can still not remove the debris, you need to take your dog to your veterinarian to remove the debris. Sometimes dogs have to go under anesthesia to have their ear canals cleaned completely. You also need to get medication from the veterinarian to treat the problem which is likely bacterial or fungal or both. Please let me know how things turn out. Take Care, Teri Byrd DVM

  7. Lisa rainey
    Posted November 29, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    what do I do to clean out my dogs ear smells there’s black hard debris in it

    • Posted December 9, 2013 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      Hi Lisa, Please see my post above to Ashley on 12/9/13. You need to take your dog to the vet, it has an ear infection and needs appropriate medication and cleaner. Take Care, Teri Byrd DVM

  8. Ashley
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Hello, my dog is a two year old black lab and has always had smelly ears really. I thought this was just a normal thing, I clean them every three weeks but his early are getting increasingly dirty and my sister was just petting his ears a minute ago and he yelped out. I went to clean his ears and he liked it at first which makes me think they were itchy (he just had that look on his face) but then he kept covering them when I tried again.

    • Posted December 9, 2013 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

      Hello Ashley, When dogs are healthy, neither their ears or their skin has any bad odor. Whenever you can smell a bad odor it is a good indication of infection. Also, clean ears on dogs and cats look just like our ears- nice and shiny clean inside, pink healthy skin with no debris present. Your dog has an ear infection and you need to take him to a veterinarian to have them thoroughly cleaned out so that you can start medication on clean ears. They will also do a cytology to determine if the infection is bacterial, fungal or both and prescribe appropriate medication. It is important to use plenty of the medication twice daily for at least 14 days and have the ears rechecked to make sure the infection is gone. You will be so much happier with the results and so will he! Please let me know how things turn out, Take Care, Teri Byrd DVM

  9. JJ
    Posted December 16, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Hello, my terrier recently developed crusty spots on the inner lining near the ear tips of both ears. The lesions don’t appear itchy to her. There are no other lesions on her face and body. Could you provide some insight on what this could be and tips on managing this? How infectious is this? I want to clean off the crusts but am afraid that it will only make matters worse. Thanks.

    • Posted December 23, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Hello JJ, So sorry to hear about his problem with your terrier. I don’t know how old she is but if she is an older white dog with pink ears there is a good chance that this might be squamous cell carcinoma- a type of skin cancer that is common on both fair skinned people and white animals- especially on the ears. It is very important that you take her to your veterinarian immediately to have this diagnosed. It can often be solved by removing the areas that are affected. It could also be a fungal or bacterial infection or something else, they will determine with tests and biopsies. Please let me know how things turn out. Take Care, Teri Byrd DVM

  10. francis dowling
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    our dog got bitten by another dog and has bite marks in his ear and it smells do i bring him to the vet?

    • Posted January 4, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Hello Francis, Yes, you absolutely need to see a veterinarian. This sounds like an infection/abscess is forming and it needs to be treated. Please let me know how things turn out. Take Care, Teri Byrd DVM

  11. Boobear27
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I have a Rat Terrier with very pointy ears:) My husband and I clean her ears about once a week or once every 2 weeks. We use the homemade vinegar and water ear cleaner. After using cotton ball to clean around and try the ears we use qtips to get into the nooks and crannies(We make sure we don’t go into deep) and every time we swipe with the qtip this dark brownish gunk always comes out yuck! We keep using new qtips until no more gunky stuff comes out.We always assumed it’s just dirt mixed with ear wax. Is it that brown gunk normal? Her ears don’t smell and she doesn’t seem to be in any pain. She scratches around that area a little sometimes because she gets allergies. She had a physical recently and the vet checked her ears and told us her physical came out normal.

    • Posted February 13, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      Hi Boobear, So sorry, found this buried in my inbox today. Ears normally to not contain any debris or discharge at all, they should be just like ours. Sometimes if you live in a very dusty area, a small amount of dirt may be present. Your veterinarian needs to do an otoscopic exam, take a sample of the material, do a cytology and propose a solution to this problem. Good luck! Teri Byrd DVM

  12. Ozzy (dogs name)
    Posted March 10, 2014 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    I noticed my dog shaking his head last night just checked his ear it is looking red inside, I bathed it with warm water, he didn’t seem in any discomfort,he is a10 yr old cocker spaniel, he’s not had problems with his ears before, I would appreciate your advice.

    • Posted March 12, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      Hello Yvonne, Thank you for your question. Sometimes there is something stuck deep in the ear canal that only a veterinarian can see with an otoscope, I recommend you take him in to have them look inside the ear canals to make sure that there isn’t a problem. Take Care, Teri Byrd DVM

  13. Posted March 21, 2014 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Hi! I have a long haired Chihuahua and his ears are red and he constantly itches them. I don’t have a job and can’t afford to take him to take him to the vet. I need an idea to see what is wrong. Can someone help me out?

  14. livo
    Posted March 23, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Hi. My 2 year old shih-tzu seems to always have smelly ears. We have used medicine in the past and it got better. Now its back. Any suggestion on what I can do to help him. He scratches them like crazy..( it is like a musty smell

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