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Written by leading veterinarians to provide you with the information you need to care for your pets.

The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

What Your Pet's Body Smell Says About Its Health

Early in my veterinary career, I met a colleague in a neighboring rural practice that shared with me that he was anosmic from birth. This inability to perceive odor also meant that he could not taste most of his wife’s marvelous cooking. He was given the worst, foul smelling veterinary cases, and attended to them with little discomfort while his technical staff wretched.


Although envious on the one hand, it made me realize that smell was a very powerful diagnostic tool. I lamented his inability to use this skill in his own cases.


The Smell of Dental Disease


Unfortunately not all of our patients are happy to be at the veterinary hospital. I have many that require a muzzle for every veterinary visit. Although the muzzle protects the staff from bite injuries, it inhibits examination of the patient’s mouth. But the muzzle does not inhibit the odors from the mouth.


Severe dental disease has a very characteristic odor of infected tissue with a hint of the metallic smell of blood. Often owners do not recognize it or fail to locate the smell if they do. Because it tends to permeate the air in an exam room, it immediately alerts veterinarians to at least one medical problem that needs attention. This is particularly fortunate for muzzled pets. Owners can be alerted to the serious nature of the problem despite the inability to actually show them.


It has been very rewarding over the years to have helped relieve dental disease in pets simply because I smelled it without being able to see it.


The Smell of Infected Ears


Like dental diseases, the “musky, rancid butter” smell of ear infections quickly fills an exam room. The odor is so characteristic, my technical staff prepares for a detailed ear exam and diagnostic microscopic preparations long before I enter the exam room.


The odor is also an aid for training owners how to manage ear problems in pets. Because ear problems are closely associated with allergies they are incurable, but they are treatable and need constant management by the owner. By teaching owners to recognize the difference between normal “doggie” or “kitty” ear smell and the infected ear, they can intervene with medication earlier and ward off the painful, inflamed ears that characterize advanced cases. 


The Smell of Maggots


Everyone has experienced the smell of a rotting carcass. That characteristic odor of cadaverine and putrescine are unmistakable. The odor of these proteins in the trunk of Casey Anthony’s car was the basis for trying her for the death of her daughter.  These same odors of rotting tissue accompany pets that have sores teaming with maggots.


Pets with excessively long and dense fur coats are particularly prone to this problem. The tail, anus and genital area are the most common sites of infection. Fecal (poop) accumulation in the hair around the anus or genital area causes skin irritations and infections that result in dead tissue. Flies are attracted to the feces and dead skin. Urine scald around the vulva or penis will also create the same sores tissue death. While feasting on the feces, urine, and dying tissue, the flies lay eggs that quickly hatch into maggots to continue the feeding frenzy.


Often the hair is so long and dense it is difficult to locate the exact area of the problem, especially for the owner. Aggressive shaving of the fur is typically necessary to find the problem area, clean out the maggots, and repair the damage. The key is to keep looking because the smell does not lie.


Senses: The Forgotten Diagnostic Tools


It is easy in this age of advanced technology and testing to forget what we veterinarians can learn from our own senses. By carefully observing, listening, touching, and smelling during our exams we can use medical advances more judiciously and targeted. And yes, I have even tasted urine for the hint of sugar in the absence of laboratory confirmation. Our five senses are powerful diagnostic tools.


Has smell ever helped you detect a problem with your pet? We would like to hear about your experience in the comments.


Dr. Ken Tudor


Image: Thinkstock


Comments  6

Leave Comment
  • Aroma
    10/31/2013 09:58pm

    I've heard vets say that the "aroma" caused by draining abscesses can be more than overpowering.

    When it comes to owners not noticing odors on their pets, it might be one of those things where if you smell something for a period of time, you become immune to it. Everyone has had the experience of being around someone whole cologne is overpowering, but the person wearing it doesn't smell it at all (which is probably why they use so much).

    But I'm glad to know that a lot of dental problems can be diagnosed without unmuzzling the dog. I'll bet the same holds true for fractious kitties.

  • Ear infection
    11/01/2013 03:01am

    My Aussie had a yr long (1) ear infection/allergy, that ran copious amts of rank fluid. (Smell like rotten meat) Nothing ever seemed to clear it up, & she had to be put down @ age 20+ for other reason. Oddly enough, it never seemed to cause her any distress, only those around her.

  • Bulldog that stunk
    11/01/2013 12:10pm

    One day at the vets I while I was holding one of my Bulldogs as the vet examined her I offhandedly commented "Phew Mia you smell" and then looked up and said "she never smells, I'm so sorry". My wonderful vet stopped me in tracks and started questioning my about Mia stench. When did she start changing her smell and have I changed her diet etc...I asked her why and she told me that she had not noticed Mia had a smell that she only smelled like dog to her. I said Exactly! Mia never smells like dog. She then told me that a dog scent will change when the are unhealthy or under stress and I should pay close attention to Mia doggy smell. Mia loves going to her vet so she was not stressed and nothing had changed in her doggy world structure so she got a clean bill of health and off we went. Two days later we were back at the vets for a rather large abscess hidden up deep in her paw. I know make sure to enjoy smelling my Bulldogs and a daily basis and if either one of them smell different than usual I do a good check all over.

  • Sweet Breath an indicator
    11/05/2013 02:10pm

    I'm surprised Dr. Tudor did not include the unusually "sweet" fruity smell of breath being a possible indication of conditions such as diabetes and Cushing's Disease.

    I have had several experiences with pets that I coined
    "diabetic breath"; a sickly sweet smell. It indicated a more systemic disease process than oral infection. One of the first alarms to my dog having Cushing's was his oddly sweet exhales.

    Some describe it as a "nail polish smell" of the breath from acetone build-up that can also be due to ketoacidosis,
    which requires immediate attention.

  • Diagnosis by smell
    11/10/2013 02:01am

    I do not remember now what my dog's symptoms were, but the anosmic vet passed my dog's stool sample to the vet techs for a smell check. It practically knock them out. The stool sample was still sent to the lab, but the vet started meds based on smell.

  • Add omega oils
    11/14/2013 07:04am

    My whippets smelled bit bad and I noticed it had something to with their fur or skin. I googled this a bit and found out that our dog foods lack omega oils. From the [url=http://www.oilfordogs.com]www.oilfordogs.com[/url] expert site I found salvation to my dogs and to us humans =D their fur and skin is now shiny and best of all, they don't smell bad anymore. =D

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