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What it Means if Your Dog Has Brown Ear Discharge

Developed in collaboration with Ernie Ward, DVM

Last reviewed: January 26, 2024

Have you noticed a dark or brown discharge from your dog’s ears? Is it thick and moist or dry and flaky? Does it have an odor? The answers to these questions can help you and your veterinarian determine what’s wrong and how to help.

The type and color of ear wax or ear discharge can tell you much about your dog’s health. Clean, lightly moist, and pale pink ears indicate good ear or “aural” health. But a thick brown or dark discharge could be a sign of a problem. Brown or dark-colored discharge from a dog’s ear is a common symptom of several types of ear infections.

This guide will help you identify signs of ear issues in your dog.  Knowing the signs will help you identify when your pet needs to see a vet. Learn about the fundamentals of ear health and signs of infection. This will ensure your dog gets the correct diagnosis and treatment quickly. 

Key Facts
  • It is normal for dogs to have some wax buildup and discharge. Ear wax helps keep the ears clean and protects against foreign objects and infection.
  • Inspect your dog’s ears and note any discharge's color, consistency, quantity, and smell. Anything unusual could be a sign of infection.
  • Excessive shaking of the head, itching, rubbing, and pain are signs of an ear problem.
  • Infections can occur in the outer, middle, or inner ear.
  • The color of ear wax and discharge can indicate what type of infection occurs.
  • Most ear problems can be treated with medication. In rare cases, surgery is required.
  • Keep your dog’s ears clean and dry. This can help prevent infection, especially in hot and humid summer months.

Normal Dog Ears

To know if something is wrong with your dog’s ears, you must first understand what a healthy ear should look like.  The exterior of the ear and ear canal should appear pink, clean, and healthy. They should also have a thin layer of transparent or slightly cloudy earwax, also known as cerumen. 

It is normal for dogs to have earwax (cerumen) buildup. Earwax is a naturally occurring substance secreted inside the ears to keep them clean and to protect them from foreign objects and infectious agents. When examining your dog’s earwax, it’s important to take note of the color, consistency, quantity, and smell.

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Your veterinarian may prescribe a customized, compounded medication. These medications are mixed by trained, licensed compounding pharmacists and often come in dosage forms designed to make giving or applying the medication easier and more accurate.

Normal dog earwax can be transparent, light brown, or pale yellow. The consistency should be semi-soft, pliable, and greasy. It should never be hard, crusty, oozing, or excessively wet and moist. Most dogs should have only a little bit of visible earwax. Excessive earwax is often a sign of a problem. There should be no discernable odor coming from the ear. Strong smells coming from the ears are commonly associated with bacterial or fungal infections.

Types of Ear Infections

  • Outer Ear Infection (otitis externa). Look for a waxy, yellow to reddish-brown discharge. These infections are often caused by allergies, mites, polyps, overproduction of ear wax, and trapped moisture following bathing or swimming.
  • Middle Ear Infection: (otitis media) An infection affecting the middle part of the ear canal. Otitis media is most commonly a secondary infection of an outer ear infection. Up to 50% of chronic otitis externa cases will develop a middle ear infection.
  • Inner Ear Infection (otitis interna): In addition to a yellow to reddish-brown discharge, dogs with inner ear infections are usually reluctant to open their mouths due to pain in the temporomandibular (TMJ) region. Many dogs with inner ear infections exhibit balance problems, lean to one side, walk in circles, or frequently fall over on one side. Some dogs will become nauseous, vomit, or lose their appetite.  

All types of ear infections are painful and require immediate veterinary care. Be sure to contact your veterinarian at the first sign of an infection to help ease your dog's discomfort and help prevent the spread to other, more sensitive parts of the ear canals.

Common Ear Discharge Colors and What They Mean

Dark Brown or Black
Dry, dark brown, or black ear wax that looks like brewed coffee grounds could be a sign of ear mites. Ear mites are tiny parasites (arachnids) that live on the outer part of the dog’s ear canal. They are more commonly seen in puppies and are contagious among animals but not infectious to humans. An ear mite infestation may also be accompanied by headshaking, itching, and a slight odor.

Dark Brown or Reddish-Brown
Dark brown earwax may simply be a build-up of healthy wax. Your dog’s ear may just need cleaning. Gently wipe away the dirt and debris with a warm, damp cloth and dry afterward.

Yeast infections (candida or Malassezia spp) commonly cause earwax to turn greasy, dark brown or reddish-brown. This often comes with a cheesy, musty, or sweet smell. Your veterinarian can prescribe specialized ear wipes, cleansing solutions, and prescription treatments.

Red or reddish-brown ear discharge can be a sign of blood. Blood in the ear canal can be due to many factors, such as injury, fleas, an inner ear infection, or simply aggressive itching from allergies. It is always best to contact your veterinarian if you notice reddish earwax or discharge.

Reddish Color on the Outer Ear
If your dog's earwax is normal, but the outer ear (especially the lobes, tips, and inside of the ears) is inflamed or reddish, it's usually a sign of an allergy. This is particularly true if your dog also has itchiness (pruritis). Your veterinarian can recommend allergy treatments.

Light to Pale Brown
It's normal to have a little light or pale brown earwax. But, if you notice a lot of wax, see irritation or inflammation, or detect an odd smell, it could indicate a yeast or bacterial infection. 

Dry, Flaky Brown Discharge (Coffee Grounds)
If your dog is scratching and has a dry, flaky discharge that looks like coffee grounds, it might have ear mites.  Ear mites are extremely hard to see with the naked eye. To confirm the diagnosis, your veterinarian will collect a sample from the ears. They will then examine it under a microscope (cytology) to search for adult mites and eggs. 

Yellow or Greenish Yellow
A severe infection often shows up as a disgusting yellowish or greenish-yellow discharge that oozes and smells. This kind of ear discharge typically comes from Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium that infects the middle or external ear canal. Treating Pseudomonas aeruginosa is difficult due to the severity of the infection and its frequent resistance to antibiotics. In some cases, these infections can cause extensive ear damage or even result in permanent hearing loss.  Call your veterinarian immediately if you see any yellow to greenish ear discharge.

Pale Brown Ear Wax with Yellow Pus
Pale brown ear wax with a secondary, pus-like (purulent) substance indicates an ear infection. It is likely to be a yeast infection along with a gram-positive bacterium such as Staphylococcus or a gram-negative bacterium. It is usually accompanied by a strong rotten or sickly-sweet odor, swelling, and head shaking.

Grayish
Gray discharge usually results from a common yeast infection, Malassezia pachydermatis. Yeast ear infections cause inflammation (redness), itching, and pain and typically have a strong odor.
Dark gray and even black earwax may also indicate an excess of dirt and debris that needs cleaning.

Additional Symptoms of Ear Infections in Dogs

Note not only the color, consistency, volume, and odor of your dog's earwax or discharge, but also other regular signs of ear infections, like:

  • Tilting of the head left and right.
  • Shaking its head more than usual.
  • Excessive scratching of its ears.
  • Dog rubbing its ears.
  • Hot, smelly, waxy ears.
  • Crusty, scabby, red, irritated ear skin.

Medical Treatments Dog Ear Discharge

Your veterinarian will prescribe a specific cleansing agent, medication, and dosage based on the pet’s weight, condition, and other factors, such as whether bacteria, fungi, or yeast cause the infection.

Ear Drops and Ointments

Topical medications in the form of ear drops or ointments are often used to treat animals with chronic ear infections. Many combine corticosteroid, antifungal, and antibiotic medications and are applied directly into the ear. For example, ketoconazole/enrofloxacin/triamcinolone EZ Dose Ear Pack from Wedgewood Pharmacy maximizes the contact time with the affected area for more effective results.

Oral Antibiotics

Oral antibiotics are used to treat certain bacterial infections. Based on the type of infection and other factors, your veterinarian may prescribe one of the following:

Anti-Fungal Ointments and Oral Medications

Oral antifungal medications and topical antifungal ointment or creams may be used to treat dog ear infections that are fungal and may include:

Anti-Inflammatory Medications

Corticosteroids are commonly used in combination with other ear medications. Examples of NSAIDs that are safe for dogs and available through a veterinary prescription include:

Surgery

Your vet might suggest surgery if your dog experiences persistent ear infections that don't improve with medication. One common procedure is Total Ear Canal Ablation and Bulla Osteotomy (TECA-BO). This surgery removes the ear canal and middle ear, leaving only the ear flap (outer ear). Since the surgery can result in deafness or significant hearing loss, your vet will provide detailed guidance on when it's appropriate to proceed.

How To Treat Your Dog’s Ears at Home

Include a weekly ear check in your dog care routine. While giving your furry friend their daily scratches, spend a few seconds to inspect both ears. If you spot anything unusual, such as the signs mentioned earlier, make a note and reach out to your veterinarian for advice on the next steps.

The need for regular ear cleaning depends on the dog’s ear anatomy. Certain breeds, like Poodles, Schnauzers, and Cocker Spaniels, are more prone to ear problems due to their ear shapes and sizes. If your dog has skin allergies, you may need to monitor its ears closely. 80% of dogs with food allergies and 50% with environmental allergies develop ear infections.

Many specialized medicated cleansers are available; ask your vet for a recommendation for your dog’s needs. Usually, a comprehensive weekly ear cleaning is sufficient. Follow your vet’s instructions or those on the label. Alternatively, you can use warm (not hot!) water along with a damp cloth or cotton ball to clean your dog's ears and dry them afterward. Avoid using cotton swabs or Q-Tips.

Summary

Ear infections are relatively common in dogs, particularly breeds with long ears or deep ear canals. Keeping your dog's ears clean and dry is crucial to prevent serious ear problems. If you observe anything unusual, like a different color, consistency, or an unusual amount of ear wax, or notice an unpleasant smell, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to check their ears.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

How Often Do Dogs Get Ear Infections, and What Causes Them?

Bacteria, yeast, or a combination of both typically cause ear infections. In puppies, ear mites can also be a source of infection. Moisture can create a prime growing environment for bacteria and yeast. So, keeping your dog’s ears clean and dry is essential.

Which Breeds of Dog are Prone to Ear Infections?

Ear infections may occur in any dog breed. The top three dog breeds prone to ear infections are Basset Hounds, Chinese Shar Pei, and Labradoodles. Breeds with large, floppy, or hairy ears, like Cocker Spaniels, Miniature Poodles, or Old English Sheepdogs, also appear more prone. Dogs with deep ear canals or skin allergies also have a higher incidence of ear infections.

Do Dog Ear Infections Go Away on Their Own?

In most cases, a dog's ear infection will not go away without veterinary care. Your veterinarian can prescribe antibiotics, antifungal medications (or a combination of both), and appropriate cleansing agents as treatment. Delaying treatment can make it harder to manage and resolve. If left completely untreated, ear infections can lead to chronic issues, hearing loss, and sometimes the need for expensive surgery.

How Do Indoor Dogs Get Ear Infections?

Bacteria is the leading cause of ear infections in dogs, but yeast, fungus, and ear mites can also cause ears to become infected and painful. Allergies can also cause the ears to secrete excessive earwax, creating a favorable environment for yeast and bacteria. Other causes of dog ear infections include foreign objects lodged in the ear, trauma, and tumors or polyps.

Can Water Cause Ear Infection in Dogs?

Excessive moisture or trapped water can lead to ear infections. Clean and dry your dog’s ears thoroughly after bathing or swimming. Your veterinarian can recommend safe ear cleansing agents with drying properties.

Is Hydrogen Peroxide Good for a Dog’s Ear Infection?

Using alcohol or hydrogen peroxide to clean your dog's ears is not recommended. These agents can cause pain and inflammation of the ear canal and further exacerbate infections.

How Do I Know If My Dog's Ear Is Bacterial or Yeast Infection?

The color of your dog’s ear discharge can give you a clue to the cause, but for a definitive diagnosis, see your veterinarian. They will take a culture to determine the cause of the infection and then prescribe the appropriate medication to treat it.

How Often Should You Clean a Dog’s Ears?

In general, inspect your dog’s ears once a week and clean them once per month. Breeds with long, floppy ears or dogs who are bathed or swim frequently may need to have their ears cleaned more regularly.

What Causes Yeast Ear Infections in Dogs?

Numerous factors can lead to a yeast infection. Some of the most common include:

  • Trapped moisture – particularly in dogs with long floppy ears
  • Post-antibiotic usage
  • Immunodeficiency diseases or conditions
  • Frequent bathing
  • Allergies
  • Frequent swimming or water exposure
  • Humid environments

This article is meant to provide general and not medical advice. We strongly recommend that a veterinarian be consulted for the specific medical needs of your animal.

Sources

WebMD
VCA Animal Hospitals
GreatPetCare