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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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!
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! 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.