Photo of dog looking at camera

Key takeaway

Dirty dog ears can be caused by excessive ear wax, infections, allergies, and mites. Regular ear cleanings and checkups are essential to keeping your dog’s ears healthy.

As a pet parent, one of your most important jobs is to ensure the health and wellness of your dog. You may already check your dog's mouth or know when they're not feeling well, but many pet parents also check their dog's ears. Dog dirty ears can be caused by several things, including regular dirt and earwax, mites, or inner or outer ear infections. Knowing the causes of your dog's dirty ears can help you decide when it's time to see a vet. This article will discuss what causes dirty dog ears, how to clean your dog's ears, and when it's time to see a vet.

Graphic listing causes of dirty ears in dogs

Causes of Dirty Ears in Dogs

Dirty ears in dogs, such as brown stuff in dog's ears, can be caused by several things, including regular earwax that simply needs to be cleaned or an ear infection. Dogs have a longer ear canal than humans and can easily get dirt, wax, and small particles from outside lodged in their ears. Unfortunately, dogs can't clean their own ears, and the best way to get brown gunk in a dog's ear out without your help is for them to shake their heads or scratch their ears. However, scratching at their ears can cause irritation and may even break the skin, so if your dog is scratching vigorously, it's time to stop them and take a look at their ears.

Want to know what color your dog's earwax should be to determine whether or not it's time to see the vet? Check out our dog earwax color chart.

Dogs with floppy ears and ears laid against the head typically have more ear problems because their ears flop over the ear opening.2 While this can serve to protect the ear from debris, it also prevents the ear from getting air, which can cause moisture to build up and become a breeding ground for bacteria.

Additionally, dog allergies can cause dog ear infections because of the inflammation caused by an allergic reaction. Dogs with allergies might find relief by talking to a vet, especially if your pet has chronic ear infections. If your dog has food allergies, your vet can recommend a diet, and if they have seasonal allergies, your vet can recommend an allergy medication.

Older dogs are also more prone to dirty dog ears because their skin thickens, but other medical conditions can predispose them to infections. Below are the common causes of dirty dog ears:

Excessive earwax

Everyone has earwax, including your dog! Earwax is naturally occurring to protect your dog's ears from dust, debris, bacteria, and other particles that can damage their ear structure. Earwax can also repel water to prevent moisture in the eardrum, helping to prevent ear infections and eardrum rupture.

Infections

Ear infections are a common cause of dirty dog ears, and they can also make your dog's ear crusty inside, depending on the type of infection your dog has.

Fungal infections

One of the most common fungal infections in a dog's ears is a yeast infection. Yeast infections can cause pain and swelling, and you'll also notice red or brown earwax. When your dog has a yeast infection, their ear might feel warm to the touch and have a musty smell. Typically, the first thing pet owners notice when their dog has a fungal infection is their dog scratching and pawing at their ear or shaking their head. Fungal infections can affect one or both ears.

Inner and outer ear infections

Inner ear infections, clinically known as otitis interna, and middle ear infections, known as otitis media, can cause dirty dog ears as well. Inner ear infections may be caused by outer ear infections that go untreated and can lead to hearing loss or eardrum rupture. Signs of inner ear infection include head shaking, ear inflammation, pawing at the ear, or being unable to chew. Treatment for middle and inner ear infections will likely require antibiotics, flushing the ear, and surgery if your dog's eardrum has ruptured.

An outer ear infection is the most common ear problem in dogs.1 Outer ear infections occur when the cells in the external ear are inflamed, and symptoms can include head shaking, odor, inflammation, swelling, scratching, and scaliness of the ears.

Outer ear infections can occur suddenly; one day, your dog might be fine, and the next, they yelp in pain when you touch their ears. This type of ear infection can also be caused by different factors, including parasites, foreign objects, and allergies.

Many dogs have recurring outer ear infections based on the shape of their ear canals, which may require continued treatment. To treat ear infections, your vet will identify what type of infection your dog has and provide you with topical medication to put inside your dog's ears at home. They may also send you home with antibiotics to fight itchiness and inflammation.

Allergies

As we've stated, dogs with allergies are more prone to otitis externa, which can cause dirty dog ears and brown discharge in your dog's ears. Both food and environmental allergies can cause constant itching in dog ears, along with irritated skin from the scratching. Dogs with yeast infections are also more prone to severe itching. Ear infections are common in dogs with allergies because allergies cause inflammation, which makes it easy for pollen, dust mites, mold, and more to irritate your dog's ears.

Ear mites

Ear mites are tiny mites that affect dogs of all ages, especially young dogs. When it comes to determining dog ear mites vs. earwax, it’s not always easy to tell. Ear mites can cause dog ears to be crusty inside or have brown discharge and ear mites can cause brown or black discharge, which may look like coffee grounds. Your dog will also likely be scratching or shaking their head frequently. Ear mites in dogs are extremely rare, so an ear infection of another cause is much more likely.

If your dog has ear mites, they'll require treatment immediately to eliminate adult mites and eggs. Ear mites can survive for a long time on and off the host, so it's important to wash all bedding and pet products your dog uses to get rid of all possible mites.3

How to Clean Your Dog's Dirty Ears

Cleaning your dog's dirty ears will be difficult for pet parents who have never tried it before. Some dogs might never need their ears cleaned, while others, especially those prone to allergies or ear infections, will need their ears cleaned regularly. Cleaning your dog's ears can help prevent painful infections and ensure your pet is happy and healthy.

You should never over-clean your pet’s ears as that can cause irritation and lead to an infection. A healthy, clean dog ear is light pink and odorless.4 However, a dirty dog ear might smell musty or have brown or black earwax. If your dog starts shaking their head or scratching at their ears, you can prevent a nasty infection by cleaning them as soon as possible. However, if you look inside your dog's ears and they smell yeasty or look inflamed and irritated, it's time to call your vet. While cleaners can help prevent ear infections in dogs, they cannot treat them; your pet will require prescription medication.

How to Clean Dog Ears in 3 Easy Steps

Cleaning your dog's ears might require some training, especially if you've never done it on your own. Some dogs don't like their ears touched, so it's always best to make ear cleanings a pleasant experience. Here are steps for how to clean dog ears.

  1. Get your cleaning supplies and your pooch: You should only try to clean your dog's ears when they're calm. If they're in a playful mood, they're more likely to resist. You can also use treats to make cleaning their ears a positive experience. Once you clean one ear, give them a treat so you can clean the other. As far as cleaning supplies are concerned, you'll need a veterinarian-approved ear cleaning solution. Ask your vet about their recommendations based on your pet's needs; not all ear cleaning solutions are created equal.
  2. Squeeze the ear cleaning solution into your dog's ear canal and massage the base of the ear: You will hear the solution moving around within the ear as it dislodges debris and earwax. Never clean your dog's ear canals with a cotton swab or Q-tip, as this can damage their ear canal. Instead, an ear cleaning solution is designed to break up debris without having to scrape it out of your dog's ear.
  3. Let your dog shake their head: Shaking their heads will help remove the debris the cleaning solution just dislodged so they can get it out of their ears. You can also use a towel to protect your furniture and yourself from flying earwax and debris. Once your dog is done shaking, you can use a cotton ball to wipe down their ears and remove any excess gunk.

Don't be surprised if your dog is resistant to ear cleanings at first; it's a new experience for them and an odd sensation to have their ears filled with solution. It's always best to train your dog to have an ear cleaning as soon as possible so they can get used to it. If you notice any pain during ear cleaning, stop immediately and consult your vet.

Graphic listing signs it’s time to clean your dog’s ears

Why Is It Important to Clean My Dog's Ears?

Cleaning your dog's dirty ears can help prevent dirt and bacteria buildup that can lead to painful and harmful ear infections. Cleaning your dog's ears when needed is a necessary part of taking care of your dog's health. However, some pets might never need their ears cleaned. If your dog's ears are light pink and don't have brown discharge, they don't need to be cleaned.

Graphic explaining when to see vet for dirty dog ears

When to See a Vet for Dirty Dog Ears

You can choose to see a vet to help with ear cleaning if your dog has dirty ears, but you should always visit your vet if your dog is showing signs of infection, such as excessive scratching and even pain. Dirty dog ears can also be a sign of ear mites or allergies, so it's important to have the vet examine your pet to ensure there aren't any underlying causes to their dirty ears.

Dirty Dog Ears: Frequently Asked Questions

How does a dog's ear get dirty?

Some dogs might naturally have clean ears their entire lives, but others will get dirty ears depending on several factors, including ear infections, debris, and allergies.

Is it normal for a dog's ears to be dirty?

Earwax in dogs is normal, but it should be a yellow color. If your dog’s earwax is brown or black, it could indicate a more serious concern like infections, allergies, and ear mites.

How do I get brown gunk out of my dog's ears?

To get brown gunk out of your dog’s ears, you should clean them as soon as they get dirty with a pet-approved ear cleaning solution. You’ll put the cleaning solution in your dog’s ears and massage the base of the ear. Then, you’ll allow your dog to shake their head to remove dislodged debris. If your dog’s ears have a musty smell or experience pain or inflammation, visit your vet to find the cause.

 Photo of dog getting ears cleaned at the vet

Final Notes

Dirty dog ears are a sign your dog's ears aren't healthy. Of course, some dirt and debris are to be expected, and earwax is natural. However, if your dog's earwax goes from a normal yellow to a dark brown, it could indicate they have some type of ear infection or ear mites. If your pet yelps out in pain or no longer lets you touch their ear, talk to your vet immediately to help you find out if your dog has an infection and what you can do about it.

Dutch offers telemedicine for pets from the comfort of your own home to prevent dogs and their humans from going through stressful in-person vet visits unnecessarily. Although Dutch does not offer emergency services, their licensed veterinarians can help you learn about the signs of ear infections in dogs and provide you with treatments you can do at home to ensure your pet's ears are healthy.

References

  1. Moriello, Karen A. “Ear Infections and Otitis Externa in Dogs - Dog Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Apr. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/dog-owners/ear-disorders-of-dogs/ear-infections-and-otitis-externa-in-dogs.

  2. “What Is the Importance of Frequent Dog Ear Care?” Merryfield School of Pet Grooming, 19 Oct. 2017, https://www.merryfield.edu/importance-dog-ear-care/.

  3. Diaz, Sandra. “Mite Infestations in Animals - Ear Disorders.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Apr. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/ear-disorders/diseases-of-the-pinna/mite-infestations-in-animals.

  4. Burke, Anna. “How to Clean a Dog's Ears.” American Kennel Club, American Kennel Club, 25 June 2021, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/how-to-clean-dogs-ears/.