something smells fishy: conditions that cause a stink

Pug puppy scratching back | Conditions that cause pets to smell
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Mar 26 2014

It’s no secret, and nor should it be a surprise, that despite our best efforts, sometimes our pets just stink! Today we’ll address some of the common causes of funky pets – from head to toe – and how to get them back to smelling (and feeling) their best.

Ear infections

The most common type of ear infections in dogs and cats are external ear infections, which occur in the ear canal external to the ear drum. Whether they are bacterial or fungal in nature, ear infections can pack quite a punch to our nasal cavities—they are hands down one of the stinkiest problems that can plague our pets.

Ear infections can affect one or both ears and are often accompanied by increased discharge from the ear. Your pet may do a lot of head shaking in an effort to relieve discomfort, or may scratch incessantly at the affected ear or ears. Your veterinarian will take a sample of the ear discharge to determine the origin of the infection and send you and your pet packing with topical medications that will (hopefully) have your pet’s ears back to tip top shape (and smell!) quickly.

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Dental disease

Dental disease is the most common medical condition in dogs and cats. In fact, by the time your pet is three years old, he or she is likely to have evidence of it. We humans keep our pearly whites healthy by brushing twice a day, but our four legged family members don’t always have this luxury.

Bad breath is often a warning sign that your pet has dental disease, including tartar buildup, loose teeth, and dental infections. Bacteria associated with periodontal disease enters the bloodstream at the gum line and can shower major organs, leading to cardiac or kidney disease. Your pet’s stinky breath is just the tip of the iceberg. Annual dental cleanings under anesthesia and establishing regular tooth brushing habits at home will keep your pet’s mouth at its healthiest.

Skin conditions

Superficial pyoderma is another way to say skin infection, and if your dog or cat is suffering from this condition, you’ve definitely smelled better days. Dogs and cats with allergies are particularly prone to chronic skin infections, as are pets who are immunocompromised. Persistently greasy coats and crusty skin are dead giveaways, but a “yeasty” smell often accompanies these itchy pets. Antibiotics or antifungals in combination with medicated shampoos will likely have your pet smelling fresh as a daisy in no time.

Bottoms up

The south end of a pet has numerous ways to be the source of noxious smells, from excessive gas to diarrhea to anal sac leakage and impaction. Flatulence and chronic diarrhea can signal underlying gastrointestinal disease and should be addressed.

Anal sac leakage can be normal, especially when your pet is nervous or excited. These two sacs flank the rectum and produce the absolute foulest smelling substance your pet can make. When your pet’s anal sacs are expressed (either accidentally or on purpose by veterinary staff), you (and your nostrils) will know immediately! If your pet seems to be expressing her anal sacs often, there may be a problem that needs medical attention. Mention this to your vet at your next visit.


Don’t forget external factors contributing to a stinky pet! Getting sprayed by a skunk is the downfall of many a curious pet, and this stubborn smell can have you holding your nose for months (especially when your pet gets wet).

A simple solution to deskunk your pet? Mixing a quart of hydrogen peroxide (available at pharmacies) with 1/4 cup of baking soda and a teaspoon of dish detergent. Apply this (outside!) to your pet, thoroughly working it through your pet’s fur while taking care to avoid the eyes. Rinse and shampoo your pet, and you should be well on your way to a sweet smelling fur ball.

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