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If you get close enough to your dog’s feet, you might have noticed that they smell a bit like corn chips or Fritos. Some dog owners don’t mind the aroma. Others might find the smell unpleasant and perhaps even wonder if it’s a sign of poor health. Since dogs can’t tell us what’s wrong, it’s our job to learn what smells are normal and when it might be time to intervene and seek veterinary care.

What Causes the Fritos Smell?

At any given time, dogs have some level of bacteria and fungi on their skin. “When your dog’s paws have a bacteria called Pseudomonas and Proteus, they can give off a yeasty odor that smells similar to corn chips,” says the American Kennel Club’s Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Jerry Klein, DVM.

Close-up of a dog's feet outdoors on the curb.
Tzido/Getty Images Plus

Dogs control their body temperature by panting. “Since they don’t perspire, the only place dogs have to cool down is on the bottom of their feet,” explains Dr. Amy Attas, VMD. She emphasizes that the “Fritos smell is completely normal” and doesn’t mean that your dog has a bacterial or fungal infection.

Where these odor-causing bacteria can become a problem is “if they multiply out of control,” says Dr. Dwight Alleyne, DVM. “Signs of unhealthy feet include bumps, redness, and swelling or a change in your dog’s behavior, such as limping or excessive licking.”

Should You Try to Get Rid of the Smell?

Dogs’ noses are much more sensitive compared to humans’. Depending on the breed, dogs’ senses of smell can be between 10,000 and 100,000 times stronger than ours. Accordingly, spraying perfume or shampooing them with scented products can be very unpleasant for dogs.

“Dogs want to smell like dogs,” Dr. Attas emphasizes. “You don’t want to mask the odor or add something to it.” If you don’t particularly like the Fritos smell, she recommends not putting your face close to your dog’s feet and using unscented wipes and soaps that are specially formulated for dogs.

Why Are Dog Feet Prone to Infection?

Your dog’s feet can be a magnet for dirt and grime. Along with limited airflow between their toes, the combination of fur, heat, and moisture makes an ideal breeding ground for bacteria and yeast. When there’s a buildup of these microorganisms, “dogs start licking their feet, which doesn’t clean the bacteria,” Dr. Attas says. “Instead, licking actually irritates the skin of the footpad and can lead to infection.”

German Shepherd Dog getting its paw checked by the vet.
©V&P Photo Studio - stock.adobe.com

Often, owners may only discover an infection once it has progressed to the point of causing pain or discomfort to their pets. Dr. Attas recommends getting your dog accustomed to you touching and smelling their eyes, ears, mouth, and feet. An older dog might be more resistant to you poking around, so it’s best to start when they’re puppies.

If your dog’s feet normally smell like Fritos and now they’re starting to “smell like moldy cheese, that’s when you need to contact your veterinarian,” Dr. Attas says. By examining your dog early and regularly, you’re more likely to notice a change in appearance and seek treatment earlier. Plus, your dog will feel more comfortable if you need to administer medication.

What Can You Do to Keep Your Dog’s Feet Healthy?

Since the Fritos smell isn’t a problem on its own, you only need to intervene if your dog is showing signs of infection such as redness, increased licking, hair loss around the footpad, or a change in foot smell. In order to properly clean dogs’ paws, Dr. Alleyne recommends washing their feet with an antiseptic, dog-friendly shampoo and trimming excess fur between their toes using a pet hair clipper. Make sure to spread out their toes while bathing and properly dry their feet to avoid bacterial growth.

After you go on a walk, Dr. Attas recommends wiping your dog’s feet with “alcohol-free, unscented baby wipes, because you want to get the dirt off without taking off the bacteria that are causing the Fritos smell.” It’s also a good idea to take your shoes off when you get home, especially if you live in an urban environment.

Great Pyrenees puppy sitting in the lap of a woman indoors.
artpipi via Getty Images

In general, you don’t need to wash your dog’s feet unless they’ve been digging in the mud or they’ve stepped in urine or feces, Dr. Attas says. Your dog will try to remove what’s left behind by licking their feet. Giving their feet a good wipe prevents your dog from ingesting dirt and allergens that can become trapped between their toes.

Whether you have a puppy or an older dog, it’s important to spend time learning what their anatomy looks, feels, and smells like when they’re healthy and free of infection. Knowing your dog’s normal smells can help you determine when something is wrong. Remember, you don’t need to go overboard with foot washing. Ditch the dirt and keep the Fritos smell.

Related article: How to Groom a Dog at Home
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