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Why Do Dogs Smell Bad?

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Layne is an animal lover and grew up in a household full of rescued critters. She is a registered veterinary technician.

Why Does My Dog Stink?

Why Does My Dog Stink?

What to Do If Your Dog Stinks

We love our best friends, and dog lovers are dog lovers for life. But it’s no doubt that our furry friends can smell pretty awful at times. Sometimes, it’s because they rolled in something gross intentionally. Other times, it might be because they have an underlying medical condition. Find out what is causing your dog to smell and how to keep them smelling fresh with these tips.

10 Reasons Why Dogs Smell

  1. Dental Issues
  2. Tear Ducts
  3. Ear Infections
  4. Dermatitis
  5. Anal Sacs
  6. Hormonal Issues
  7. Gastrointestinal Issues
  8. Atopy
  9. Parasites
  10. Obesity

How Do I Make My Dog Smell Better?

You can make your dog smell better by reading through these ten common causes of stinky dog odor below. It’s also possible that your dog is perfectly fine but is notorious for finding stinky things to roll in in the yard when you are not looking. When dogs flip over on their backs and roll side to side in a field, it’s because they found something stinky that they’d like to bathe themselves in (they are not just happy to be out). Pay attention, as the quick fix for this is a simple bath. The other reasons described below aren’t so simple but can be resolved with diligence and knowledge.

Dogs need to have their teeth brushed regularly.

Dogs need to have their teeth brushed regularly.

1. Dental Issues

Canine dental hygiene is only now starting to surface as an important part of regular care for your dog. While it does take a little effort and training to get your dog onboard with regular teeth brushing, it’s a lot less expensive of a preventative than a dental cleaning which requires anesthesia and a veterinary hospital visit. While human mouths and domestic canine mouths host a similar count of bacteria ~600 species, there is one major difference between the two: humans brush their teeth regularly and dogs do not. That means a dog goes their entire life without a single dental cleaning. No wonder their breath stinks.

Dogs are prone to gingivitis and other dental issues just as humans are. They experience gum disease, tooth decay, plaque buildup, gum irritation, gingival hyperplasia (excessive growth of skin tissue), and some even require tooth extractions due to tooth fractures and rotten teeth. You will know if your breath smells if your dog is a kisser. Smaller breeds, in particular, suffer from tooth overcrowding (Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, etc.) and often require extractions. While you might just think it’s bad breath, dental issues cause system issues and are hard on the heart and other major organs—this too, and your dog could be harboring a major chronic infection or even a dental abscess.

Your vet should be looking at your dog’s teeth regularly upon examination and making the proper recommendations. Luckily, it’s never too late to start getting your dog used to having its teeth brushed. You will need a doggy toothbrush and vet-approved dog toothpaste (do not use human toothpaste as it contains dangerous chemicals).

How to Brush Your Dog's Teeth

  1. Day 1: Start by letting your dog sniff the toothbrush; you can add a tiny dot of doggy toothpaste (it's usually flavored well). You might even put a tiny bit of peanut butter on the toothbrush to lure a stubborn dog.
  2. Day 2: Start by letting your dog sniff the toothbrush and let them lick it with a tiny bit of toothpaste on it. As you pet their head, rest the toothbrush on the side of their face and just get them used to having it near their face.
  3. Day 3: Let your dog lick the toothpaste off the toothbrush. This time, part your dog’s cheek on one side and say “Good, Jack” or “Good, Misty,” and just end there.
  4. Day 4: Have your dog sit waiting for a treat. Wet the toothbrush and add a bit of toothpaste. Lift your dog’s lip and very gently apply the toothbrush and gently brush back and forth on the premolars and molars. Your dog might try to chew the toothbrush or lick it. Let them. Praise them.
  5. Day 5: Switch sides and repeat.
  6. Day 6: Proceed as above with the sit-for-treat command. Wet the toothbrush with toothpaste, and part your dog’s front lips to brush the incisors and canines. Use a light, gentle stroke but be confident in how you handle your dog.
  7. Day 7: Repeat above and try to do the whole lower half of the jaw with the above technique.
  8. Day 8 and forward: Build your way up to more coverage in the mouth using the same technique. Even brushing once a week is great but try for once a day.

Important: Never brush so hard that your dog is uncomfortable. A light touch is better.

Brushing is a great place to start if your dog’s mouth stinks. Just think, the next step would be a vet visit and an expensive dental cleaning. Prevention is everything. There are also vet-approved water additives that you can put in your dog’s water to help with dental hygiene. Consider all of these options.

Certain breeds need their tear ducts regularly cleaned.

Certain breeds need their tear ducts regularly cleaned.

2. Tear Ducts

Some breeds are prone to tear duct discharge and the smell of the discharge can be fairly unpleasant. Tear duct drainage can smell rotten or sour. Epiphora or excessive tearing of the eyes can produce dog eye boogers as well as draining of the tear ducts onto the fur. It is caused by ulcers, allergies, and related inflammation. If your canine has issues with their eyes, you might notice clear, watery discharge which then turns brown and stains the fur. If your dog has dark fur, it might be harder to notice (on spaniel breeds, especially). If your dog suffers from this problem, your vet will likely prescribe topical treatments.

In addition, dogs are prone to bouts of conjunctivitis (pink eye) which also requires topical treatments unless it’s caused by mechanical issues (think brachycephalic breeds like French Bulldogs, Boxers, Boston Terriers) as well as dry eye, keratoconjunctivitis sica or KCS, where a dog does not produce enough tears to lubricate the eye, thus leading to eye goop and red eyes. All of these conditions require a prescription from the vet and may require daily treatment for life. Luckily, most prescriptions come in the form of eye drops and are easy to apply.

In addition, once you’ve treated the eye issue, you will want to clean the tear duct tracts regularly (down their muzzle). White dog breeds will show the tear duct staining but dark dog breeds are less likely to show it; you still need to clean them, otherwise, the sour smell will continue to exist. There are various products you can buy at the pet store to take care of this. You can also use sterile water (even sterile saline if you keep it out of the eyes) and cotton balls (from any drug store) to clean the eye as well. Do not use anything else that is not vet-approved as this can cause irreversible eye damage.

Keep your dog's ears dry.

Keep your dog's ears dry.

3. Ear Infections

Ear infections are the number one offender of bad canine odor. Ear infections give off a pungent yeasty smell (some people describe it as the smell of “Fritos,” but not in a good way, buttered popcorn, butter, or stinky gym socks). Well, the reason the ear infection smells like sour dough, old beer, or bread is because dog ear infections are most generally from yeast infections of the ear. Dogs carry yeast on their skin naturally, but when given the opportunity to overpopulate (thanks to damp, warm environments), yeast will over-proliferate and colonize the ears. You might notice greasy, red, inflamed, sensitive ears and a strong odor.

While you might think an ear infection is no big deal, ear infections in dogs are actually quite serious. If left untreated, secondary bacterial infections can develop which might even lead to permanent ear loss, hematomas, and in some extreme cases, a complete pinnectomy if the dog is really suffering (removing the flap of the ear). You need to visit your vet and get your dog on meds right away before your dog is in so much pain they refuse to be touched. It's also important that when you bathe your dog you prevent their ears from getting wet.

If your dog is prone to ear infections, develop a healthy routine of regular cleanings. Use cotton balls and a product like Virbac Epi-Otic Advanced ear cleaner for dogs. If your dog won’t let you touch their ears, that’s a sign that they need to see their vet ASAP. Here’s how to clean your dog’s ears at home:

How to Clean Dog Ears

  1. Soak a few cotton balls with the treatment and place them just outside your dog’s ear canal. Massage the cotton balls with the ear flaps down and let the fluid get mushy. Do this for about 10-15 seconds.
  2. Remove the cotton balls and discard.
  3. Back away from your dog and let your dog shake their head (this will drive the cleaner into the year). You might want to do the cleaning outside for this reason.
  4. Wipe the inside of the pinna (ear) with cotton balls and a little Epi-Otic. Dry the ears gently; pat and do not rub.
  5. Reward your dog for being tolerant of the process.
  6. Repeat on the other side.

Important: Never attempt to treat your dog’s ear infection with anything that has not been approved by a veterinarian. Never insert anything into the ear canal. This is cruel and can cause irreversible damage or perforate the ear drum and lead to deafness.

Certain breeds are prone to dermatitis.

Certain breeds are prone to dermatitis.

4. Dermatitis

Dermatitis is a broad topic because there are many causes of widespread skin issues, from flaky, oily skin, to hair loss and greasy patches. Seborrhea or seborrheic dermatitis is a fairly known issue in dogs that is caused by issues with the sebaceous glands of the skin. In seborrhea, the glands produce excessive sebum which results in flaky, itchy, red, and scaly skin. It can happen on various parts of the body. There are also two types of seborrhea which results in dryness or excessive oiliness. Odor is a main symptom of this condition. It’s also possible that dogs develop lesions and secondary bacterial infections on areas of the body.

Your dog might smell yeasty or like sour milk. In order to diagnose the issue, your doctor will need to run several tests, including a complete blood cell count and a skin cytology or biopsy. Skin scrappings or hair pluckings might also be necessary to determine the type of bacteria, yeast, or fungus that is on the skin. Some fungal infections like ringworm might not first be suspected, but can also imitate the aboved-mentioned issue. Your doctor will likely treat your dog with anti-seborrheic shampoos, steroids, omega-3 supplements, and a few other alternatives if your dog is diagnosed with seborrheic dermatitis. The condition can definitely be successfully managed and your dog's bad odor will gradually lessen over time.

Food Allergies

Food allergies can also trigger skin issues in dogs, including yeast infections and atopic dermatitis. If you have a purebred (purebreds are prone dietary indiscretions) or a specific breed that is prone to food sensitivities, putting your dog on a hypoallergenic diet per your vet’s discretion is a good starting point. You will want to transition them slowly as abrupt switching up of foods can cause vomiting and diarrhea as well as gas. You might also consider helping your dog to develop a healthy gut by offering them probiotics such as FotiFlora (a powder) which can be added onto their food and helps with healthy digestion and can aid in increased immune function.

If your dog has expressed their anal glands, they will generally act suspicious or worried.

If your dog has expressed their anal glands, they will generally act suspicious or worried.

5. Anal Sacs

Anal sacs are notorious for giving your dog a horrible fishy smell. You will notice the odor in their rear region (near their butt and tail) because the substance is being excreted from your dog’s anal sacs and this is where they are located. Dogs will scoot on the carpet to empty them or might express them from excitement, nervousness, or being startled. Generally, they will turn around and start to lick or chew them once expressed to get rid of the odor. In some dogs, the anal sacs need to be expressed regularly because they have a hard time naturally emptying them on their own (in general, healthy bowel movement leads to anal sac emptying and elimination). If your dog has soft stool and anal sac issues, a dietary change might be warranted.

If your dog expressed their anal sacs, you may or may not be able to tell but for the undeniably horrible, fishy odor (smells like something died). Anal sac fluid can be milky white or clear, brown, and poopy. Dogs do get anal sac infections and the region can be extremely painful, so always gauge severity and see your vet when in doubt.

How to Clean Dog Anal Glands

An easy way to clean your dog after they have expressed their anal sacs is with a wipe (like a diaper wipe) or sanitary wipe. Generally, go for unscented or hypoallergenic wipes. There are scented wipes that are dog-approved and will mask the odor after your dog is clean. Just keep in mind your dog might try to lick their rear to get rid of the odor themselves, so you don’t want to use anything toxic. You will probably want to wear gloves for this and you will want to dispose of the wipes in a sealed bag outside.

Some owners will learn how to express their dog's anal glands themselves, but it’s recommended that you first take your dog to the vet for an exam and for a tutorial on how to do so. The reason this is recommended is because infected anal sacs can rupture and dogs also can develop anal sac tumors, so you don’t want to try to express them without proper training and knowledge. In addition, you will need help locating where the anal glands sit and you can observed a trained professional’s technique first so that you don’t have any issues at home (angry dog or accidental anal gland expression onto your face—gross).

6. Hormonal Issues

Hormonal changes, just like in humans, can cause body odor in dogs. Hormonal changes can trigger seborrhea (as mentioned above). In addition, conditions like Cushing's can lead to oily skin. Cushing's occurs when the body produces too much cortisol, which is a chemical that drives the stress response.

Cushing's, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, often presents with thirst, hunger, lethargy, panting, hair loss, excessive infections, urinary issues, and the classic pot belly appearance in dogs. Because Cushing's leads to oily skin, your dog might smell bad even right after a bath because of chronic skin issues. Cushing's needs to be diagnosed and treated by a vet and will require oral medication and possibly surgery, depending on the cause of the issue (tumors, etc.). The goods news is this condition can be managed with medication and veterinary direction.

The wrong type of dog food can give your dog gas.

The wrong type of dog food can give your dog gas.

7. Gastrointestinal Issues

Gas in dogs can smell like all kinds of things, including rotten eggs and sulfur. If your dog smells like rotten eggs, it’s likely that they have gas from eating something they shouldn’t have (human foods, table scraps, something in the yard). You do not have to hear your dog fart to know that they have gas. It might be emitted silently, in which case, the odor is first hard to detect. In addition, your dog might look uncomfortable or bloated. If the bloating is severe and your dog is in distress, this could be a more serious problem like GDV which leads to gastric torsion in bigger, deep-chested dogs and is an emergency and can be deadly.

Some dogs do not tolerate certain types of foods well. Food allergy and intolerance will most certainly cause gas in dogs. If your dog has gas after eating certain foods, you need to exclude them from their diet. In addition, you will need to talk to your vet about a hypoallergenic diet for your dog. They will need to be transitioned on to the new diet slowly to avoid additional upset.

You might also consider offering your dog probiotics (such as FortiFlora) to help with the digestive upset. Your vet will also be able to recommend additional medications that can be offered on an as-needed basis to settle your dog’s stomach. Certain breeds are predisposed to food allergy and food intolerance. If you have a purebred, take some time to research any inheritable dietary intolerance. Luckily, if you can control your dog's diet, you can get rid of the gas.

8. Atopy

Atopic dermatitis has a lot more to do with allergies that are related to food but also those that are found in the environment. Untreated atopic dermatitis can lead to excessive licking, itching, chewing, and secondary bacterial or yeast infections. What is difficult about atopic dermatitis is that the cause can be immune-related (as in the dog has an undiagnosed condition of compromised immunity) or there is an environmental trigger.

If your dog has other issues like yeasty paws and tends to groom obsessively, you will want to look around your house for triggers. For one, you might need to clean more (both humans and dogs are sensitive to dust mites). You could invest in a HEPA filter and vacuum more regularly. You might also consider trading out carpet for hard flooring or even replace carpets and blankets and pillows if they are old. You could wash your dog’s bed and blankets more frequently as well.

Other environmental allergies at play include pollen. If your dog has a pollen allergy, it might be necessary that you keep the windows closed in certain times of the month and wipe your dog down with a disposable wipe after they’ve been outside or even bathe them in a hypoallergenic shampoo after they’ve been outside. Make sure to dry them thoroughly after a bath as moisture can get trapped in the fur and further feed infection and yeast. In addition, stop using harsh chemicals in the household (scents, sprays, and fabric softeners). Never spray your dog with any scent that is not approved for dogs and safe for pets.

Flea infestations can wreak havoc on your dog's skin.

Flea infestations can wreak havoc on your dog's skin.

9. Parasites

Parasites like mites and fleas can wreak havoc on your dog’s system. A lot of pet parents say, “My dog doesn’t have fleas, I never see them.” The hard news is that unless you are using a topical flea medication diligently, your dog likely has a flea or two. They pick them up in the backyard grass, on walks, and from other dogs. You probably aren’t getting bitten because your dog is hosting them, and you don’t have to see the fleas to confirm that they are there. Flea allergy can trigger excessive itching and skin irritation in dogs, which can lead to hot spots, bacterial infections of the skin, and all kinds of additional issues, including a gross smell. Get your dog on a topical flea medication, bathe them, and vacuum the house and wash bedding.

Skin mites, like ear mites, can also cause issues in dogs; mite-related issues also includes mange, which is responsible for extreme hair loss in dogs. The Sarcoptes scabiei mite, specifically, is responsible for causing mange in dogs and is difficult to treat. The mite enters the skin of the dog and causes itching, hair loss, and inflamed, irritated skin. This mite species will cause your dog to form crusts, scabs, and open sores on the face and body. Mite infestations greatly impact a dog’s ability to groom, compromises hygiene, and puts the dog at risk of other systemic illness. Keep in mind that there are several types of mites in addition to Sarcoptes scabiei that can be hosted on dogs; all require a trip to the vet and a proper diagnosis.

Obese dogs have a difficult time grooming.

Obese dogs have a difficult time grooming.

10. Obesity

Obesity in dogs can lead to a variety of issues including issues with grooming. Your dog might have a hard time keeping themselves clean after pooping or peeing. Dogs that suffer from obesity might have feces caked on them or even urine scalding and related urinary tract infections, which can lead to a sour, pungent odor. It is your job as your dog’s guardian to makes sure they are in good health and get proper exercise. If your dog is obese and has difficulty cleaning themselves, you need to do the grooming for them until they lose the weight.

Start by talking to your vet about proper feeding quantities and frequencies, cut out the unhealthy snacks, and talk about putting them on a higher-quality diet. Also get them on an exercise regimen. This will greatly improve their overall quality of life.

Dogs really like to roll in stinky things.

Dogs really like to roll in stinky things.

Why Does My Dog Smell Bad Even After a Bath?

Your dog might smell bad after a bath for the following reasons:

  • Secondary skin infections: If your dog has hair loss or an existing skin disorder, bathing them will only temporarily mask the problem.
  • Oral hygiene: Part of bathing your dog should also include a good tooth-brushing; in fact, you should brush your dog’s teeth more regularly.
  • Aural hygiene: When you bathe your dog, gently stuff cotton balls in their ears to prevent water from entering the ear canal. Ear infections are a huge cause of odor in dogs. You also need to clean your dog’s ears regularly if they tend to smell.
  • Puppy odor: Puppies actually tend to carry a “poopy” smell—puppy breath— and it fades with age. Some people love the puppy smell, but it can be a little stinky (though still cute).
  • Dampness: If you are not drying your dog off properly after a bath, you might be allowing moisture to get trapped in their fur. Make sure you dry them properly. Trapped moisture and dampness feeds yeast infections. Never use a hot hair dryer directly on the skin (you can burn your dog).
  • Wrong shampoo: You might be using the wrong shampoo for your dog. Never use dish soap on your dog. This can strip the skin of healthy oils and drive further oil production (the body tries to compensate). Use a dog-approved formula that is hypoallergenic (like oatmeal-based shampoos). Never use human shampoo on dogs.
  • Poop: It’s possible that your dog has coprophagia and eats poop when you aren’t looking.
Cats and dogs are two totally different species and have different grooming routines.

Cats and dogs are two totally different species and have different grooming routines.

Why Do Dogs Smell More Than Cats?

Dogs and cats carry different types of bacteria on their skin and emit different odors. In addition, cats and dogs have different diets and grooming regimens. Cats also benefit from having special papillae on their tongue that act as a specialized comb. These papillae or barbs actually hold saliva and help in the grooming process.

Unlike dogs, cats do spend a significant amount of time per day grooming themselves, which does contribute to their cleaner smell. In addition, dogs tend to rough and tumble in the mud, in ponds, get wet, and roll in gross scents. They can smell especially bad after being outside, and dogs get stinky after being wet from running around the grass or jumping through bushes or in bodies water. When a dog gets wet, the bacteria and yeast that lives in their fur get smelly and produce volatile compounds. These microorganisms are loosened from the fur, so the odor is more noticeable after they are wet.

Cats tend to be more finicky about gross smells and will avoid water and getting dirty at all costs; many also tend to be indoor-only. This is not to say that all cats are odor-free—some cats have issues with stinky body odor just the same for some of the reasons mentioned above.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2021 Laynie H

Comments

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on January 24, 2021:

Hi Liz, thanks for reading. I'm glad that you found the list comprehensive. Dental chews definitely help if you don't have a dog that has a habit of ingesting things they shouldn't. Greenies are pretty popular and generally accepted in the veterinary industry. They can help dislodge some of the plaque that builds up. The offset is that some dogs tend to grind away at things (even tennis balls, for example) and get what is called "table wearing" on the teeth. Basically, the teeth get ground down flatter and flatter over time. All in all, dental chews are great so long as they are vet-approved. They also should only be given on occasion. Do you like them?

Liz Westwood from UK on January 18, 2021:

This is a comprehensive article on the issue of dogs that smell. I appreciate the way that you list solutions as well as causes. What are your views on dental chew sticks for dogs?

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