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Sometimes, a dog odor can go from mild to downright stinky. If you’re wondering “Why does my dog smell so bad?” there are many possible reasons
Veterinary dermatologist Dr. Ashley Bourgeois, DVM, DACVD, adds that dogs pick up scents from their environment. Dogs with yards often smell like grass. Dogs from rural homes sometimes smell like hay. “With smaller dogs, their owners hold on to them a lot,” Bourgeois says. “Sometimes they smell like their detergents or perfumes.”
According to Dr. Jackie Campbell, DVM, DACVD, many of us have misconceptions about giving dogs too many baths. She says it’s a good idea to bathe your dog monthly, but she sees canine patients who receive weekly baths or even daily showers. On a positive note, dog shampoos often contain ingredients like lipids and ceramides, which can protect the skin and stop it from drying out.
Medical Reasons Dogs May Smell
Secondary yeast or bacterial infections on the skin or inside the ears remain the most common medical reasons dogs have an unpleasant smell. Dog allergies often begin the process, which leads to scratching and licking, behaviors that can open the door for infections.
“Secondary skin infections are usually things that we normally live with happily,” Dr. Campbell says, “but something went wrong that caused overgrowth.” Malassezia yeast and staphylococcus pseudintermedius bacteria can overgrow on dogs, causing skin issues and odors. Look for:
- Signs of discomfort: When Dr. Campbell asks if dogs feel itchy, owners may initially say no. However, they often then describe itchy behaviors, including head shaking, licking, or rubbing the body or head against furniture, people, or walls.
- Changes in skin and coat: Dr. Campbell suggests looking for skin color changes, ranging from red to black (a result of chronic inflammation) and for hair loss or spots of shorter coat (which may be the result of dogs nibbling at it).
- Progression: Dr. Bourgeois recommends watching to see if the smell gets worse (or if it doesn’t). An increase in odor intensity is meaningful.
- Crust and color: Dr. Bourgeois says, “If you notice the smell, and all of a sudden you notice that there is a little bit of crusting and red on them, or their ears are bright red, then that’s going to be abnormal.”
What to Do if Your Dog Smells
If your dog smells and you notice some of the above symptoms, take them to the vet. “Too often,” Dr. Campbell says, “I hear from owners, ‘Oh, my gosh! I wish I would have found you sooner. I’ve been dealing with this for two years, and in 30 days, I have a new dog.’ ”
Stick to treatments prescribed and recommended by your vet. Avoid using home remedies, including:
- Hydrogen peroxide (especially inside dogs’ ears)
- Coal tar
“Coal tar is a really old product, and it’s sometimes thought of as being more natural,” Dr. Campbell says, “but as we became more advanced, we realized that coal tar can act as a carcinogen, and it’s also so stinky.” Dr. Bourgeois explains that veterinarians sometimes will use diluted solutions of vinegar topically to treat yeast infections in dogs. She says, “You have to be careful with the concentrations you’re using because they can be really irritating and damaging to the skin.”
Even if your dog smells bad, it’s best to let the medicine do its work. Dr. Bourgeois says that covering up dog odors with spray-on fragrances or perfumes can cause more skin irritation. Also, it’s not a good idea to assume vet-prescribed medications will cost more than store-bought ones. In many cases, vet-prescribed products are more cost-effective and clinically effective because they feature higher concentrations of key ingredients, such as:
- Chlorhexidine (an antiseptic)
- Miconazole (anti-fungal, anti-yeast)
- Phytosphingosine (which contains skin-protecting lipids)
- Pramoxine (a soothing topical anesthetic)
After more people spent more time at home with their dogs during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Bourgeois says, “It’s kind of an eye-opener for a lot of our clients to really see what a whole day for a pet with an infection or allergies looks like, and so we are getting more people seeking care because they’re noticing how big of an issue it is.”
She adds, “If it starts getting worse and worse, reach out again, because we do see things like infections where all of a sudden there are new lesions or your pet is even more uncomfortable. The severity may have increased enough that we feel like it’s valuable to come in.”