Help! My Dog Smells Bad (9 Reasons Why)

As a vet I often get dogs brought to me because they have a bad smell. Here I’m going to lead you through every common reason for a dog to stink even after a bath.

While not all are simple to fix, after reading this you should have a good idea of what to do. I’ll rank them in rough order of frequency.

Before the list though, you need to do something unpleasant: make a close inspection of your dog’s body using both your eyes and nose. Pay particular attention to the crevices like armpits, groin, feet, ears, mouth and lips. We’ll use this information in a minute.

Skin Disease

The skin of dogs with chronic dermatitis almost always has a bad smell. You might describe it as ranging from an extreme ‘doggy’ smell to old socks. This is probably due to an overgrowth of secondary yeast and bacteria taking advantage of the skin’s weakness.

Affected skin often looks thickened or wrinkly, and may have a greasy or flaky surface. It can also become red or even black in colour.

Uncomplicated dermatitis on its own does not smell, and so an odour is a sign that the condition has progressed. The solution is never as simple as using antifungal or antibacterial shampoos. You will need to address the underlying skin problem, which you can read about here.

Ear Infections

Infections inside the ear canal are a specialised form of skin disease complicated by severe yeast or bacterial overgrowth. They nearly always smell strongly, and if you put your nose right up to the canal it there’s no mistaking the origin. Sometimes the infection is so deep that the ear canal looks normal on the outside.

Never, never just put cleaner into a smelly ear without your vet checking it first. As it’s probably infected by now, cleaning alone won’t work and it will sting harshly. Once you do this, your dog won’t trust you and treating the problem properly gets a lot harder.

Ear cleaners are great for prevention, but first read about the treatment of ear infections here.

Oral Disease

If you have identified the smell as coming from inside the mouth, there are still quite a few causes. The first is advanced periodontal disease, which is inflammation and infection of the junction between the teeth and gums. This is the most common cause of bad breath and tooth loss.

Once dental disease develops, you will need it treated under anaesthetic, but it can also be effectively prevented afterwards.

Any infection or ulceration in the mouth will also smell bad, so other causes I have seen include oral tumours, foreign material caught in the teeth or mouth ulcers from kidney disease. A smell from the mouth has never in my experience been caused by any area lower down like the stomach.

The smell from bad breath is often described as ‘fishy’ or ‘metallic’, leading to confusion with the next cause. The clue is to look at the location.

Anal Glands

Anal glands are special scent glands found just inside the anus. When a dog defaecates, they release an odour onto the poop which other dogs can detect. Anal glands malfunction when they release this scent at any other time.

The classic anal gland leakage situation is your dog sleeping on your lap and suddenly you smell a horrible rotten fishy odour. You might find a drop of brown fluid. Many of these anal glands are too full and not emptying by themselves.

If so, all you need to do is get your vet or groomer to express them every 3 months and the problem goes away. However others leak when they aren’t full, and these are much harder to fix. Some have infection inside, others just seem leaky. Read about their treatment here.

Skin Folds

Fold pyoderma is a localised infection in folded skin. It’s notorious in short-faced breeds like Bulldogs, but this is easy to see because the hair is short.

The more insidious form is found in dogs like Cocker spaniels and Golden retrievers. The lower lip often droops as they age and a fold forms which traps saliva in the hair. These can get very badly infected and smell like rotten meat.

The trick to finding them is to not just look inside the mouth, but also stretch out the skin on the upper and lower lips. Treatment involves antibiotic tablets or creams, then prevention with antibacterial wash and barrier ointments. Severe cases require a small facelift!


Passing smelly gas from the bowel is a common noxious odour, but at least no-one has trouble identifying it. The solution is almost always to find a food that agrees better with your dog’s digestion. Or put up with it, as the dog is usually untroubled!

Urinary Incontinence

Around 2.5-5% of dogs will develop urinary incontinence. In some females it can start very early, and may be more common after desexing. It is also common with urinary tract infections.

The stale ammonia smell is usually quite distinctive, but I see many dogs whose owners have got used to the scent until I point it out. These dogs can almost always be cured by either fixing an infection, removing a bladder stone or medications to prevent leakage.

Faecal Soiling

Having poop stuck in the hair might seem like an excessively obvious cause of bad smells. However, I see it regularly, especially with new owners of Poodles and Poodle crosses. The hair can quickly get thick and long around the anus to hide the buildup of soft faeces.

If this isn’t addressed urgently with a gentle bath and dry, you often end up at an overnight emergency vet. The faeces end up blocking the anus, and the resulting rash can be terrible.

Prevention is of course all about having a good relationship with a trusted dog groomer, and starting as early as possible. It’s also about avoiding soft faeces by the use of high quality diets.

Normal Doggy Smells

The last cause is the hardest and saddest. Never assume this is what is causing your dog’s bad smell unless you have consulted a vet first: it’s very rare.

Every now and again I see a dog owner who is disgusted by their dog’s terrible odour. Except that I can’t smell it at all, and neither can anyone else in the clinic.

These dogs smell normal. Nearly all of us with dogs have tuned out the natural odour of dogs and can no longer detect it. However, for an unlucky few it remains thick and intense.

I have no solutions for these people, as a bad smell can’t just be hidden under cologne or other scents. Putting a dog outside is definitely not the answer.

But let’s not be negative. Eight of the nine causes of bad smells on dogs are fixable, and the ninth isn’t a problem to the dog. Good luck working it out!

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here. The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.

11 Replies to “Help! My Dog Smells Bad (9 Reasons Why)”

  1. My 8 yr old chihuahua has had problems ( a stroke like ) that causes her to knuckle sometimes but we tell her to fix her feet and she does but the last few weeks around the back of her neck smells like cow poop even after I wash her I can still smell the underlying of this, any ideal why it could be?

  2. Hi, my female Cain Corso is 3yrs old she is fixed. I noticed she is starting to lick her anus and I smell a short strong burst of Ammonia?
    Could this be kidney disease??
    Thank you for any insight,

    1. Hi Corey. Kidney disease would be unlikely. A more common explanation would be overfull anal glands.

  3. I have a chihuahua that smells so bad. She smells like a dirty bellybutton. I’ve bathed her, had her glands expressed and nothing has helped. Sometimes the odor is worse than other. I’ve even considered giving her a probiotic to see if maybe it’s her digestive system.

    1. Hi Ruth. Has the mouth been checked under anaesthetic? Chihuahuas have one of the highest rates of periodontal disease though it doesn’t smell exactly as you describe.

  4. My dog is 10 years but all of a sudden has a smell like old trainers smelly socks please can I have some tips to get rid of the smell

    1. Hi Jayne. All my own ideas are in the article above, but I’ll bet five minutes with a vet will find the answer.

  5. Hi we have recently moved from SA to the Sunshine Coast and have 2 elderly Cavaliers. The 13.5 year old female is fine but the 10 year old desexed male has developed an smell that reminds me of dynamic lifter the fertilizer. We have spent $1600 at the vet who ran every test known and nothing. We have spent over $200 on different shampoos to no avail . We have bathed in Malaseb according to the directions and still smells. They have both been to a groomer and had their coats cut very short. Their diets are very controlled because they both get the runs if we vary it. We are at our wits end as the smell fills the house and it’s awful. He has never smelt like this until we moved 6 weeks ago. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. We are fast running out of options and the alternative is well terrible. Thanks

    1. Hi Fiona. The above article represents all I can offer you about the smell, so I would go through each of those carefully. In your case, lip fold infection is very high on the list so have a close look around the mouth, stretch the skin out and sniff the area.

    2. Your pet may have anxiety related to the move, which I’ve heard can cause an odor. Take a close look at his behavior

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