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Key takeaways

Ear discharge describes build-up of debris in the ear canals which works its way out of the external ear.

  • Ear discharge may be characterized as thick and waxy, dry and flaky, or liquid
  • A small amount of ear discharge is very common and normal in dogs
  • Abnormal ear discharge, such as a large amount, a sudden increase, foul odor, or indications of pain can signify a cause for concern
  • Discharge can be caused by a number of conditions including bacterial or yeast infection, ear mites, physical blockages/damage, and a skin/keratin disorder
  • Diagnosis is made using visualization, physical examination and cytology of the discharge
  • Treatment can vary but includes ear cleaning, ear drops, antimicrobials, pain management, surgery, and wax/blockage removal, depending on the cause
  • The majority of conditions which cause ear discharge have a good prognosis when identified and treated
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A closer look: Ear Discharge in Dogs

Ear discharge is a very common symptom in dogs. A small amount of ear discharge is normal.

Ear discharge is a cause for concern if

  • There is a large amount of discharge
  • The entrance to the ear canal appears red and irritated
  • The discharge has a foul odor
  • The discharge has suddenly increased in volume
  • The dog is showing signs of pain/discomfort (pawing at the ears, head tilt, ear scratching, head shaking)
  • The discharge is blood
  • The discharge is associated with a severe head or spinal injury, such as after falling from a great height

Ear conditions associated with ear discharge are often painful and lead to more severe issues if left untreated. Non-urgent veterinary care is warranted for abnormal cases of ear discharge. Urgent care is warranted if discharge is associated with severe injury or more serious symptoms.

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Possible causes

Risk factors

All healthy dogs are expected to have a small amount of earwax in the canals which acts as a protective barrier and medium for the body’s microbiome. Daily activities and grooming also contribute to a small amount of grit or debris in the ear.

Abnormal ear discharge can vary in appearance and severity depending on the cause. A large amount or very wet, foul-smelling ear discharge may indicate a more severe condition.

Testing and diagnosis

After a physical examination and medical history, a close visual examination of the ear canal microscopic cytologic evaluation of the discharge may be recommended to determine the cause. Depending on the case, additional diagnostics might include culture and sensitivity of the discharge, biopsy of abnormal tissue, and advanced imaging.

Treatment varies depending on the underlying cause but includes;

  • Ear cleaning
  • Medicated ear drops
  • Antimicrobials
  • Pain management
  • Anti-itch medications
  • Surgery

Similar symptoms

Ear discharge is self-evident and not likely to be confused with other symptoms. Healthy levels of discharge and ear wax may be erroneously noted as concerning by pet parents.

Associated symptoms


No Author - Writing for Dutch
Wendy C. Fries - Writing for WebMD
Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Ernest Ward, DVM - Writing for VCA Animal Hospitals
Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Amy Panning, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM - Writing for VCA Animal Hospitals
Amanda Simonson, DVM - Writing for PetMD

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