Does Your Dog Smell Like… Dog?

PetMD Editorial
By PetMD Editorial on Jul. 1, 2011
Does Your Dog Smell Like… Dog?

Anyone who has lived with a dog knows that dogs smell. They smell like dogs. This is not a problem for them, of course, but for a human who is only accustomed to the scent of freshly bathed humans, the smell can be overwhelming. Add to that the scent traces your dog leaves behind on the furniture, the carpet, the back seat of the car, your clothes, and you may have a whole life that smells like dog.

You love your dog, and there are just too many benefits that come with having him around, so throwing the puppy out with the bath water is not an option. It’s the odor that has to go.

Your Dog’s Body


What is “dog smell,” anyway? Dogs don’t sweat like we do. That is, they don’t have liquid perspiration seeping form their pores and rolling off their skin in the way humans do. But they do perspire from their paws, and they do emit a light perspiration from their hair follicles, which has a chemical scent that is individual to the dog. All dogs may smell the same to some of us, but they don’t smell the same to each other. They also produce oil, an important part of healthy skin and hair, which also has its own scent marker. Along with the glands in their ears, which produce a light yeasty smell, these are all normal body odors, and can be kept to a pleasant minimum with normal, regular bathing and grooming.

Things can get unpleasant when little critters like bacteria and funguses move in, or when the body’s systems don’t function as they ought to. For example, some dogs are susceptible to ear infections. Usually this affects dogs that have a lot of hair in the ear, or dogs that have long floppy ears, but any dog can suffer from an ear infection. Ear infections can smell pungent to decaying, depending on the severity.

Then there are the anal sacs, also known as scent glands, which normally do their work quietly, in the background. Healthy anal sacs will release a small amount of secretion during defecation. They have a strong musky odor, but this odor is usually for the benefit of other dogs. Again, this scent is particular to each dog, and is part of the process they use to identify each other (and why dogs tend to sniff each other’s butts before saying hello).  Sometimes, however, the anal sacs will become blocked and unable to drain. When this happens, the glands may become swollen and painful for the dog, who may respond by biting and licking the anus excessively, exposing the glands to abscess and infection. This will require a visit to the veterinarian for draining and treatment.

Other abnormal conditions that can cause malodors are skin infections, which are often found to affect dogs with overlapping folds of skin, like Bulldogs, but can affect any dog. They can occur due to skin irritation, such as what happens when the folds of the skin are deep and retain too much moisture and microorganisms, or from excessive scratching due to skin allergies. Your dog may be making too much oil in response to skin irritation, or too little oil, especially if you have been giving your dog frequent baths to try to combat the smell or irritation.

Dental infections, which can cause a rotten, decaying smell from the infected and rotting tissue in the mouth, are also a source of bad smells. And just as humans do, dogs also have intestinal gas (or flatulence). Some gas is normal, but if you find that your dog’s gas smells unnatural, or is happening all the time, you may want to talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s intestinal health, and take a good look at what your dog is eating that could be causing the excessively smelly gas.

Making Your Dog Smell Good Again


Often, dogs that are being fed a diet that is low in fatty acids and high in starches – such as with grain and cereal based dry foods – will have overly dry skin. This can be remedied with a change in diet to one that has more fatty acids, or, with your veterinarian’s approval, fatty acid supplements. If your dog has dry skin, you will need to avoid shampoos and stick with gentler grooming methods. A thorough but soft brushing followed with rubbing some diatomaceous earth or plain, unscented baby powder into your dog’s fur can help clean the hair while neutralizing the smell. Skin allergies are a different matter, and will require some product experimenting along with your veterinarian’s advice.

To clean the ears, a cotton pad or cotton ball can be soaked in a gentle ear cleanser for dogs, or normal hydrogen peroxide, and then used to clean the inner ear of any excess wax. This can be done with your dog’s monthly bath, but you may need to do it more often if your dog has hanging, floppy ears. If your dog is one that has a lot of inner ear hair – non-shedding breeds like Poodles are a good example of hairy eared dogs – you will have to get into the habit of removing some of the hair, or having a groomer do it for you, so that wax does not build up and bacteria and mites do not make their homes in the ear hair.

If your dog has bad breath – and we’re not talking dog breath, but bad breath here – take your dog to the veterinarian right away. An infected tooth or cavity can spread to the other teeth. It is better to have one tooth removed now than to wait for it to become a mouth-wide emergency. If it is just simple dog breath you are looking to cure, that can be easily remedied with daily brushing and tooth healthy chew toys.

Sweet smelling shampoos are nice, but the fragrances used in them may be irritating to your dog, and they don’t last very long besides. A simple and gentle shampoo designed for dogs, used once a month, is the best choice. Unless your dog is the type that loves to roll around in mud and garbage and dead animals – and believe us when we say that there are a lot of dogs that will roll on dead animals – you should not do a thorough bath more than once a month. In between, you can use light perfumes or powders that are designed for dogs, brushing the coat a few times a week to get out any debris and excess hair, keeping the nails and spaces between the toes and foot pads clean, and water only showers, making sure to dry your dog so that the wet hair does not gather up more dirt and bacteria.

So there you have it. Dogs will always have a distinct smell – isn’t that one of the reasons we love them, anyway? – but it doesn’t have to be a bad smell.

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Image:  Kenta Morigami / via Flickr

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