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Black Gunk in My Dog’s Ear: What Is It? What Can I Do?

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The presence of black gunk or discharge in a dog’s ear can be a sign of an ear infection or other ear-related issue. This is an extremely common reason that pet parents bring their dog to the vet. The discharge is often a combination of ear wax, dirt, and other debris that has accumulated in the ear canal. In some cases, the discharge may be dark brown or black in color due to the presence of dried blood. In this article, we will review what a normal dog’s ear should look like, top causes of black gunk or debris in a dog’s ear, and finally how you and your vet can best help your dog.

What a normal dog’s ear looks like

A normal dog’s ear will be clean and have the appearance of pink, healthy skin, as shown on the picture below:

healthy dog ear

Common causes of black gunk or debris in a dog’s ear

The most common causes of black gunk in a dog’s ear include:

1. Ear infections

Ear infections are the most likely cause of black gunk or debris in a dog’s ear. The discharge is usually accompanied by other clinical signs, including:

  • Redness or irritation of the ear canal
  • Swelling of the ear canal
  • Head shaking
  • Scratching or rubbing at the ear(s)
  • Foul odor from the ear(s)
  • Scabbing or crusting around the ear(s) 
  • Painful ear(s) when touched
  • Tilting head to the side or holding ear(s) in an abnormal way 
  • Swelling of the pinna (ear hematoma)

Below is a picture of dark debris observed in a dog’s ear as a result of an ear infection. The external ear canal also appears red and inflamed.

Ear infections require a veterinary visit to diagnose and treat. Your vet will likely diagnose an ear infection based on otoscopic exam and ear cytology (evaluating a swab from the ear under the microscope). Most simple ear infections are caused by bacteria and/or yeast, and will resolve within two weeks of treatment with topical products containing antibiotics, antifungals, and anti-inflammatories. However, ear infections are frequently caused by an underlying allergy. If your dog continues to get ear infections despite appropriate treatment, this is something that should be further evaluated. 

View our article featuring the most common ear infections in dogs (with pictures).

WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]

2. Ear mites

Most pet parents have heard of ear mites. These tiny infectious parasites known as Otodectes cynotis , live in the ear canal and cause pruritus (itching), irritation, and inflammation. However, they are less common than you might think, especially in dogs. In addition to causing clinical signs of an ear infection, ear mites lead to the accumulation of black discharge in the ear, which is often described as looking like coffee grounds.

To the naked eye ear mites may appear as tiny white dots. But to diagnose ear mites your vet will take a swab from your dog’s ear to examine under the microscope, in which the mites will be easily visible. There are several treatments available for ear mites, ranging from daily topical drops in the ears to a single use product such as Revolution or Bravecto. As ear mites are spread by direct contact between animals, all pets in your household must be treated.

Below is an example of a dark brown/black debris in a dog’s ear due to ear mites, and a picture of the culprits under the microscope:

brown discharge in dog ear from mites

3. Allergies

Dogs with allergies frequently develop chronic or recurrent skin and ear infections. This can lead to the accumulation of black discharge in the ear. There are several things dogs can be allergic to, including fleas, the protein source in their diet, or something in the environment. Allergies can be extremely frustrating for both dogs and pet parents, as even dogs with well-managed allergies may still experience flare-ups of symptoms such as itchy skin, red rash, hair loss, and secondary infections. Treatment for allergies involves medications such as oral and topical antibiotics to treat any skin and ear infections, medications such as Apoquel and Cytopoint to manage symptoms, and lifestyle changes targeted to your dog’s specific type of allergy. If your dog has a food allergy they will likely need to eat a prescription hydrolyzed protein diet.

Below is a picture of a pug’s ear that shows redness and black debris or due to allergic dermatitis:

allergy symptoms in a dog's ear, including redness and black debris

4. Something in the ear canal

Sometimes foreign objects, such as grass or foxtails, can become lodged in a dog’s ear, leading to irritation and inflammation. This will likely cause the same signs as an ear infection, and may lead to discharge or debris. Your vet may be able to examine and remove the object on otoscopic exam, or perform an ear flush under sedation or anesthesia. Additionally, some animals can develop masses within the ear canal.

Is black debris or gunk in my dog’s ear a serious issue?

The causes mentioned above will require veterinary intervention to resolve. In some cases black gunk in the ear may be a sign of a more serious underlying issue, such as a mass in the ear canal or systemic disease such as hypothyroidism. Therefore, if you notice black discharge or any other unusual symptoms in your dog’s ears, it’s important to have them examined by your veterinarian. Many times it will be something easily treatable with appropriate veterinary care.

How to help my dog

If you notice black gunk in your dog’s ears, it’s important to have them examined by a veterinarian to determine the underlying cause and receive proper treatment. The tips below are not a substitute for proper veterinary care. Here are some general steps you can take to help your dog with black gunk in their ears (while you wait for your vet appointment):

1. Keep the ears clean: Use a gentle ear cleaner recommended by your veterinarian to clean your dog’s ears. Gently wipe away any debris using a clean cloth or cotton ball. Do not use cotton swabs, as they can push debris further into the ear canal and cause injury. Learn more about ear cleaning solutions for dogs.

dog getting his ear cleaned

2. Keep the ears dry: Moisture can exacerbate ear issues, so it’s important to keep the affected ear as dry as possible. If your dog is a frequent swimmer or loves to get their ears wet in the bath, they may benefit from an ear cleaner containing a drying product.  

Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.

keeping a dog's ear clean and dry

3. Prevent scratching: Ear issues can be very uncomfortable for dogs, and they may scratch or rub their ears excessively. This can lead to further irritation and potential injury. You may need to use an Elizabethan collar (cone) to prevent your dog from scratching their ears.

cone on a dog

4. Carefully monitor for improvement: Keep an eye on your dog’s ears and monitor for any signs of improvement or worsening. If the black gunk does not improve or if your dog exhibits other concerning symptoms, such as shaking their head or whining in pain, contact your veterinarian for further evaluation.

5. Do NOT put anything else in your dog’s ear: Never put anything into your dog’s ear that has not been recommended or approved by your veterinarian. Not only do these products fail to treat ear infections, they can actually cause your dog additional pain and irritation, and lead to significant and permanent damage if your dog has a ruptured eardrum. 

When is it okay to treat my dog at home?

If you catch an ear infection in the early stages and it appears to be mild, you can try to manage it at home (read our article with home remedies for ear infections). Be aware that ear infections rarely clear up without the appropriate veterinary treatment. If the symptoms get worse or persist without signs of improvement, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.

Signs you need to see your vet ASAP

If your dog’s mild ear infection is not improving with cleaning at home after a couple days, OR you notice the following signs, it is important to see your vet as soon as possible.

  • Painful ears
  • Blood or purulent (pus) discharge in the ears
  • Change in hearing or balance
  • Ear hematoma (swelling of the ear flap) 
  • Other signs of systemic disease such as decreased appetite or lethargy

Read More:

Most Common Ear Infections in Dogs

Home Remedies for Dog Ear Infections

Dog Ear Wax Color Chart: What Do These Colors Mean?


  • Dr. Liza Cahn, Veterinarian

    Dr. Liza Cahn is a veterinarian who graduated from Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013 with a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). Dr. Cahn has five years of experience working as a veterinarian in small animal practice in Washington and California. She loved working with dogs and cats and educating owners on all aspects of veterinary medicine, especially animal behavior and dermatology. She has since transitioned to remote work to be able to spend more time at home with her husband, two young kids, and two cats, and is thrilled to be able to combine her love for veterinary medicine and passion for writing. Dr. Cahn has an active veterinary license in Washington State.

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