Dear Dr. Thompson,
Why are my dog’s ears cold and crusty? He is a Dachshund and has always been healthy but now his ears are always cold even when he’s indoors. There are little scabs on the tips of his ear flaps that bleed sometimes.
Thanks for writing in with your question about your pup’s ears.
In general, dogs can have cold ears when their blood vessels constrict to conserve heat. This can happen when the weather is cold or when a dog has a disease that decreases blood flow to the outer parts of the body.
First, I’m going to assume you’re not talking about your dog’s ears being cold due to exposure to a cold temperature in outdoor weather. Dogs do get cold ears when exposed to cold ambient temperatures, just like humans do.
A dog’s circulatory system includes the heart, arteries and veins. Arteries carry blood away from the heart to all the tissues of the body. These vessels branch from large arteries to very small capillaries that allow oxygen to diffuse out of the blood into the tissues. Blood vessels contain muscles and valves that can restrict blood flow as needed.
Blood flow to the outer parts of the body like the paws, ears and nose is affected by environmental temperatures. The ears help regulate a dog’s body temperature by increasing or decreasing blood flow to the ear flaps to disperse or conserve body heat. Cold temperatures cause blood vessels to constrict to conserve heat for the core organs.
Circulation to the outer parts of the body is also decreased in certain disease conditions. When a dog has abnormally cold ears that don’t match the ambient temperature or the dog’s activity level, it could be a sign of a medical problem. Anything that decreases blood flow to the ear flap can lead to a dog’s ears being cold to the touch.
Let’s talk about diseases that affect blood circulation to a dog’s ears.
Normal Dog Ear Flap Anatomy & Function
A dog’s outer ear flap is called the pinna. It is made up of fur, skin, cartilage, arteries, veins, nerves and muscles. In addition to protecting the ear canal, the pinna helps a dog by sensing temperature, pressure, wetness, etc. The ear flap also plays a role in regulating body temperature. When a dog is too hot, the blood vessels in the ears dilate so more blood flows across the broad surface of the pinna, helping cool the blood. When a dog is exposed to cold weather, the same vessels constrict so less blood flows to the area, thereby conserving body heat for the important core organs of the body.
5 Medical Causes of Cold Ears in Dogs
Now let’s get into a few of the more common medical reasons a dog has cold ears. Some are secondary to another disease but this first one is a primary cause…
Hypothyroidism is relatively common in dogs. The most common cause is immune-mediated destruction of the thyroid gland.
Due to a lack of thyroid hormone, hypothyroid dogs can’t efficiently convert stored fat into energy to stay warm. They often have cold intolerance and their paws, nose and ears may feel cold.
- Weight gain
- Fur loss
- Rough coat
- Low energy
- Skin infections
- Always feeling cold (including ears)
- Akita, Basenji, Beagle, Border Collie, Boxer, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Cocker Spaniel, Dachshund, Dalmatian, English Setter, Golden Retriever, Great Dane, Maltese Dog, Miniature Schnauzer, Old English Sheepdog, Poodle, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Shetland Sheepdog, Siberian Husky (1)
Diagnosis of hypothyroidism requires blood testing including CBC, blood chemistry, T4, free T4, TSH and thyroid auto-antibodies.
Treatment & Prevention
Treatment of canine hypothyroidism requires giving the affected dog thyroid hormone replacement drugs. The most common medication is levothyroxine pills which are given once or twice a day for life.
There is no known way to prevent hypothyroidism in dogs.
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Dehydration occurs when a dog’s body loses more water than it can replace. The water content in the blood and all the tissues of the body slowly dries up. When blood is dehydrated, it doesn’t flow efficiently and causes typical symptoms of poor circulation, including skin and ears that feel cool or cold when touched.
Vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration in a matter of hours especially if a dog isn’t eating or drinking normally. Other diseases can make a dog urinate more while also causing nausea. The classic example is kidney disease.
Dehydration from excessive loss of body water can result from vomiting, diarrhea, kidney disease, liver disease, Addison’s disease, late-stage cancer, bacterial/viral/fungal infection, excessive exposure to hot weather among other causes.
Symptoms & Diagnosis
Symptoms of dehydration in dogs are pretty general and include lethargy, increased thirst and changes in breathing patterns. Tacky gums and doughy skin are symptoms that only show up once a dog is severely dehydrated, so don’t rely on these to judge your dog’s hydration status.
Your vet will use a combination of a physical examination and blood tests to assess your dog’s hydration.
Treatment & Prevention
The treatment of dehydration requires the identification of the underlying cause in order to stop excessive water loss. Very often, that means your vet will give anti-nausea and anti-diarrhea medication. To correct existing dehydration, IV fluid administration is the gold standard but dogs with mild dehydration may get fluids under their skin as an outpatient.
Anemia is a medical term meaning a dog’s red blood cell count is low. This can happen from blood loss, red blood cell destruction or from lack of production of new red blood cells. When anemia is severe, peripheral blood circulation is decreased often causing a dog’s ears, nose and paws to feel cold.
There are many causes of anemia, ranging from injuries causing blood loss to infections that lead to red cell destruction. Here’s a partial list of canine anemia causes:
- Trauma/bleeding either internally or externally
- Toxicosis (zinc penny ingestion, rodenticide ingestion)
- Tick-borne infections like Ehrlichia canis and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
- Immune-mediated destruction of red blood cells
- Cancer-related decreased production of red blood cells
- Drug-related decreased production of red blood cells
- Chronic kidney disease
Symptoms & Diagnosis
Dogs with mild anemia often show no symptoms at all. When anemia gets to be moderate to severe, dogs may show increased respiratory rate, lethargy, weakness, pale gums and tongue, exercise intolerance, fast heart rate and cool feet and ears.
Anemia is pretty straightforward to diagnose. A couple of drops of blood can be used to check a hematocrit test or a complete blood count (CBC) can be run to evaluate red cells, white cells, platelets and blood protein.
Finding the cause of the anemia can be more challenging. A veterinarian will choose tests based on the dog’s history, breed, age and symptoms. They usually include x-rays and more specific blood tests.
Treatment & Prevention
The treatment for anemia is to stop blood loss/destruction if possible and replace red blood cells if the dog is very symptomatic. Anemic dogs may get a whole blood transfusion or a packed red blood cell transfusion depending on the details of the case.
Some causes of anemia aren’t preventable but tick-borne diseases are avoidable by practicing good tick prevention. You can also avoid toxins by not using rodenticides in your home and keeping your dog away from ingesting zinc-containing pennies.
4. Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive heart failure (CHF) happens when fluid builds up abnormally due to poor heart function. CHF also leads to decreased circulation to outer body parts. Dogs with advanced CHF often have ears that are cool to the touch.
Causes of heart failure in dogs include faulty heart valve function, congenital heart defects, heartworm disease, viral/bacterial/fungal infections and cardiomyopathy.
- Heart murmur
- Rapid breathing
- Shallow breathing
- Weakness/exercise intolerance
- Weight loss
- Muscle atrophy (prominent skull & spine)
- Abdominal swelling
- Pale tongue/gums
- Cool extremities
- Small breeds are more prone to CHF caused by heart valve abnormalities. Breeds at increased risk: Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, American Cocker Spaniel, Chihuahua, Miniature and Toy Poodle, Miniature Schnauzer and Yorkshire Terrier.
- Large breed dogs are more likely to develop cardiomyopathy and pericardial diseases. Breeds at increased risk: Boxer, English Bulldog, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever and Great Dane.
Diagnosis of CHF is usually based on physical exam findings, chest x-rays, electrocardiograms and echocardiograms. Baseline blood tests help determine the severity of heart disease as well as identify concurrent problems in other organs.
Treatment & Prevention
Treatment of CHF depends on the cause of the disease. Left-sided heart failure is common and causes a buildup of fluid in the lungs and chest. Treatment is aimed at removing this excessive fluid so the dog can breathe better. Diuretics like furosemide are the mainstay of treatment but anti-arrhythmic drugs and drugs to make the heart pump more efficiently are also used in many cases.
There is no way to prevent most types of heart disease. One exception is heartworm disease which can easily be prevented with periodic administration of an oral or injectable anti-heartworm medication.
5. Ear Margin Necrosis
Ear margin necrosis is a disease of the blood vessels in a dog’s ear flaps (pinnae). When the small vessels at the tip of the ear become diseased, blood flow to the area decreases. This can cause a dog’s ear flaps to feel cold but usually causes other symptoms, too.
Blood vessel disease (vasculitis and vasculopathy) can be initiated by many different things including infections, medication, vaccines, food hypersensitivity, secondary to cancer, insect stings and autoimmune disease. In many cases of vascular disease, no cause is ever identified.
Some cases of ear margin necrosis may be set off by exposure to cold temperatures.
- One or both ears affected
- V-shaped lesions at ear tip
- Darkly pigmented lesions
- Greasy skin/fur on ears
- Flaking skin
- Skin ulcers/sores
- Head shaking
- Miniature/Toy Poodle
- Yorkshire Terrier
Although physical examination can raise suspicion of ear margin necrosis, a biopsy of the affected area is required to make a diagnosis.
Treatment & Prevention
Treatment of any underlying causes like infection is best when a cause is identified. Other treatments include pentoxifylline, corticosteroids and even oclacitinib (2).
Prevention should focus on avoiding a dog’s known hypersensitivity triggers including medications, foods, vaccines and cold temperatures.
Summary: Why Are My Dog’s Ears Cold?
Your dog’s ears will normally feel cold when they are exposed to cool or cold environmental temperatures.
If the ears feel cold in the absence of cold weather, you should look for other symptoms. Hypothyroidism, dehydration, anemia, congestive heart failure and ear margin necrosis can all cause a dog’s ears to feel cold to the touch.
- Bell, J. S. (2003). Hereditary hypothyroidism: understanding the disease process. In Tufts’ Canine and Feline Breeding and Genetics Conference.
- Colombo, S., Cornegliani, L., Vercelli, A., & Fondati, A. (2021). Ear tip ulcerative dermatitis treated with oclacitinib in 25 dogs: a retrospective case series. Veterinary Dermatology, 32(4), 363-e100.