Dogs have ears of all shapes and sizes. Some are droopy and hang to the floor while others are perky and point to the sky. A dog’s ear flaps, or pinnae, protect the sensitive structure inside the ear canal and help regulate body temperature. But cold ears can also be a sign of trouble.
A dog can have cold ears due to blood vessels that have constricted to conserve body heat. Cold weather can cause this but so can certain diseases that decrease blood flow to the outer parts of the body.
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. Blood vessels branch from large arteries to small capillaries that allow oxygen to diffuse out of the blood and into cells. Arteries also contain muscles and valves that can restrict blood flow as needed.
Blood circulation to the outer parts of the body like the paws, ears and nose are affected by environmental temperatures. The ear flaps help regulate a dog’s body temperature by increasing or decreasing blood flow to disperse or conserve body heat. Cold temperatures cause ear flap blood vessels to constrict, conserving heat for the core organs.
Circulation to 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.
To answer the common question “Why are my dog’s ears cold?” more completely, we need to talk about diseases that affect blood circulation.
What Does it Mean When a Dog’s Ears Are Cold?
Again, a dog’s outer ear flap is called the pinna. It’s 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’s body is too hot, blood vessels in the ears open up so more blood flows across the broad surface of the pinna, helping to 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.
Diseases that Cause Cold Ears in Dogs
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
- Losing fur
- 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 of canine hypothyroidism requires giving the affected dog thyroid hormone replacement drugs. The most common medication is levothyroxine pills given once or twice a day for life.
There is no known way to prevent hypothyroidism in dogs.
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 within hours, especially if a dog isn’t eating or drinking much. 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 and excessive exposure to hot weather.
Anemia is a medical term meaning a dog’s red blood cell count is low. Low red blood cell levels result from blood loss, cell destruction or a lack of production of new red blood cells.
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
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 is 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.
Effective treatment of anemia focuses on stopping blood loss and/or blood destruction. Blood transfusions may be given if the dog is significantly symptomatic from anemia.
Some causes of anemia are not preventable but tick-borne diseases are avoidable by practicing good tick prevention. Avoid using rodenticides (like D-Con) in your home and keep your dog from ingesting zinc-containing pennies.
4. Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive heart failure (CHF) happens when poor heart function causes an abnormal buildup of fluid in the chest, lungs and/or abdomen. CHF also leads to decreased circulation to outer body parts. Dogs with advanced CHF often have cold ears.
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 spine & skull)
- Swollen belly
- Pale gums
- Cool feet and ears
- 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 of heart disease include Boxer, English Bulldog, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever and Great Dane.
In addition to a thorough physical exam, your vet may also recommend chest x-rays, electrocardiograms, and echocardiograms to diagnose your dog with CHF. Baseline blood tests help determine the severity of heart disease as well as identify concurrent problems in other organs.
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 focuses on the removal of excess fluid so the dog can breathe better. Diuretics such as furosemide are the mainstay of treatment but anti-arrhythmic drugs and drugs to make the heart pump more efficiently are also used.
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 disease of the blood vessels in a dog’s ear flaps (pinnae).
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.
Exposure to cold environmental temperatures is the cause of some cases of ear margin necrosis.
- One or both ears affected
- V-shaped area of redness/sores at ear tip
- Darkly pigmented lesions
- Greasy skin and fur
- Flaking skin
- Skin ulcers
- Scabs and crusts
- Shaking the head
- Miniature/Toy Poodle
- Yorkshire Terrier
A physical examination by a veterinarian can raise suspicion of ear margin necrosis. However, a biopsy of the affected area is required to make a diagnosis.
If an infection is identified, treatment with an appropriate antibiotic is indicated. Other treatments for ear margin necrosis include pentoxifylline, corticosteroids and Apoquel®/oclacitinib (2).
Prevention should focus on avoiding a dog’s known hypersensitivity triggers including medications, foods, vaccines and cold temperatures.
Are Your Dog’s Ears Cold After Surgery?
During a surgical procedure, a dog must be anesthetized or at least heavily sedated to avoid pain. Anesthesia affects blood pressure and circulation. Dogs can also lose body heat quickly while they are anesthetized.
Cold ears after surgery can be a symptom of hypothermia when the dog’s overall body temperature is too low. It can also indicate a circulatory problem or low blood pressure. Inadequate pain control can also lead to physical symptoms that might include cold ears.
If your dog has recently had surgery and you notice his ears are cold, first make sure the cause is not the cold temperature of his surroundings. If he is in a warm area already, contact your veterinarian immediately to report your concerns.
It’s normal for a dog’s ears to feel cold after prolonged exposure to a cold temperature environment.
If your dog’s ears feel cold in the absence of cold weather, look for other symptoms. Hypothyroidism, dehydration, anemia, congestive heart failure and ear margin necrosis can lead to cold ears.
- 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.