What to Do If Your Dog Has Unpleasant Odors

Golden retriever dog in bath
Sometimes a bath isn't enough to stop an odor on a dog. JanuarySkyePhotography / Getty Images

Dogs aren't exempt to getting dirty and smelly but sometimes the cause of a smell on a dog isn't just because it's time for a regular bath. Various infections, dental issues, and even run-ins with wildlife can cause seemingly unexplained odors on a dog and may need more than a bath and shampoo to fix.

What Causes Us to Smell Bad Odors?

When we think about the cause of traditional body odor, it is caused by bacteria that is present on the skin which break down proteins resulting in a foul smell. Our olfactory cells are special cells inside our nose that detect these particles in the air and communicate with our brain the type and strength of the smell. But what about smells other than traditional body odor? Sometimes things that smell contain components like sulphur compounds, or the fermentation products of yeast, which emit their own distinct odors and we recognize them as offensive scents.

What Causes Foul Odors in Dogs?

There can be many reasons why a dog has a foul odor. Sometimes a bath may be all that a dog needs but other times veterinary attention is necessary to fix the source of the smell.

  • Ear infections - Some of the most common pet insurance claims are for ear infections in dogs so the ears are also likely sources of unpleasant odors. Ear infections can either contain yeast or bacteria and both types of infection are malodorous. Simple ear debris will often not have an odor to them like infected ears will have. So if you notice an unusual odor or debris in your pets ears, or they are scratching at them, it may be time to see your veterinarian.
  • Skin infections - The skin is a natural barrier to infection and when it is compromised, infection is possible. There are several reasons why a dog's skin may be compromised, resulting in a skin infection. Allergies, hormonal imbalances, fungal infections, external parasites, inflammation, wounds, bleeding tumors, and other skin issues can cause bacteria and yeast on the skin's surface to take hold and produce foul odors. Your veterinarian can perform tests to identify the type of infection or the underlying cause of the infection through blood work or directly sampling the skin. Medicated shampoos, antibiotics, and other treatments are usually required to combat these causes of odor.
  • Dental disease - Bad breath is difficult to ignore, especially in a dog that regularly licks your face. If bacteria is left to cause dental disease, foul odors will soon follow. Dental disease can also lead to infection in other organs such as the heart and kidneys. Regular teeth brushing and professional dental cleanings at your local veterinary hospital are typically necessary to keep bad breath and tooth decay away.
  • Skunk spray - This distinct smell only comes from one source. If your dog has been sprayed by a skunk it will need a special bath to get rid of the smell.
  • Rolling in something smelly - Dogs love to roll around in smelly things but it results in a smelly dog. If your dog has been having a little too much fun outside in the yard, a simple bath will undo this damage.
  • Dirty water - If your dog has recently been swimming in dirty water, an unpleasant odor might linger even after your dog has dried. If this occurs, it's time for a shampoo!
  • Gas - Dogs occasionally experience flatulence and unfortunately we have to smell it. But what causes this gas? Digestive upset from dietary changes like a new food or treat, eating something in the yard, medications, and even just stress can result in some noxious fumes coming from your dog's hind end. Bland diets, probiotics, and decreasing stress may help with this issue. Talk with your veterinarian if the the amount of gas seems abnormal or it coincides with other symptoms such as diarrhea.
  • Anal gland issues - Anal glands are two small sacs in the rectum of dogs that contain foul smelling liquid that is used in scent marking in the wild. Dogs will naturally express their glands if they are defecating or sometimes when scared. If a dog expresses its glands, a very unpleasant odor will sometimes remain. A good bath can easily clean this up, thankfully.
  • Internal organ disease - Some diseases that affect the internal organs of a dog can result in bad breath. Both kidney failure and diabetes can give your dog an unusual bad breath. These diseases often also cause your pet to feel unwell, eat less, and be less active. If these issues are noticed, contact your veterinarian right away.

How to Make the Odor Go Away

Depending on the cause of the unpleasant smell, regular or medicated baths might help. If there is an infection somewhere on the body, antibiotics, antifungals, and other medications will need to be prescribed by a veterinarian. Occasionally surgery may be necessary to remove the source of the smell, such as that which is a result of diseased teeth, an infected tumor, or infected anal glands. But for uncomplicated smells usually a gentle bath and regular teeth cleanings can help stop the problematic odor.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.