After all your dog is a dog, not a fish. So why does your dog smell like one? Dog owners often go “nose blind” to their dog’s odors, so if you can smell it, we’ve got bad news. Everyone else can too. Let's talk about what causes that fishy odor and how to get rid of it.
A Few Quick Barks
- The odor is (very likely) coming from your dog's anal glands, the source of scent that dogs use to communicate
- The glands can become impacted and lead to scooting and other unusual behavior
- Anal gland issues are more common in small breeds and in overweight dogs
- The quickest solution is to see your veterinarian. They’ll perform a technique you’ll be happy to miss out on (trust us).
It's Probably Your Dog's Anus
Okay, that may be the most unusual headline you've ever read, but stick with us.
Having a dog means caring for it from its wet little nose to the tip of its wagging tail, and that includes the area just shy of the tail. Yes, the anus. The answer to the question "Why does my dog smell like fish?" lies with its anus.
Through all the uncomfortable giggles and gross-out moments with this topic, it's important to remember that this is ultimately about your dog's health and comfort as well as your experience as a happy pet owner. If your dog has an unpleasant medical condition going on, you're the only one who can help out. So let's get into this topic and see exactly what's going on and what's making your dog smell like a net full of carp.
So What Are Anal Glands?
Anal glands are actually specialized sweat glands that produce a strong-smelling addition to the dog's feces--even stronger than the normal odor of dog poop. Not only is this smell strong and unlike anything you've ever smelled, it is also unique to your dog.
When your pooch does his business, the anal glands (or anal sacs) secrete some of their contents to mix with the feces as they pass out of your dog's body. And while every dog's anal gland odor may smell the same to the human nose, it's much different for dogs.
The same highly skilled noses that know the odor of narcotics or a missing child can also distinguish one dog's waste from another's. We all know that a dog lifting its leg onto a tree, tire, or fire hydrant is marking its territory with urine, but dogs do the very same thing with their poop, hence their endless fascination with smelling other dogs' behinds and piles.
There's probably no more awkward behavior in dogs than their near-constant desire to smell the backsides of other dogs. It's weird, it's gross, and it's very uncomfortable if you're trying to get a date.
Of course, that's what the situation looks like from the human perspective. In the canine world, the anal glands are a very natural part of their communication process.
How Problems with Anal Glands Affect Your Dog's Behavior...and Odor
Just like any bodily system, anal glands are subject to problems. When something causes problems with your dog's anal glands, you'll begin to detect that telltale (telltail?) odor that makes your dog smell like fish.
Impacted Anal Glands
The anal glands are supposed to release a significant amount of their contents with each bowel movement, but it doesn't always happen. Dogs with a diet that creates soft stools may suffer from impacted anal glands because there is not enough pressure placed on them as the stool passes. Overweight dogs also experience impacted glands more frequently, possibly because excess fat tissue softens the pressure from the bowel movement.
Whatever the cause, when anal glands do not empty properly, their contents can start to solidify. This causes the glands to become firm and tender. Over time, the impacted glands can become abscessed, requiring greater treatment.
Impacted anal glands can be treated by a veterinarian, who will apply pressure to them and force out the thick secretions that couldn't get out the usual way. Keep in mind that this may be an ongoing problem for your dog because of dietary, digestive, or weight issues.
Abscesses and Other Infections
As we mentioned above, sometimes impacted glands become so severe that they form abscesses. Other times, something else is the cause of the abscess. Whatever the source, abscesses are serious issues for dogs. They can become so large that they force their way through the skin. Not surprisingly, this is a very painful condition for your dog, making it difficult to walk or sit. More importantly, it poses a risk to your dog's life.
A milder form of infection can cause similar problems, particularly the pain and inability to get comfortable. It's key to take action right away so that your dog can quickly get on the road to recovery.
Fortunately, it's not necessary for you to try to diagnose your dog's anal gland infections. Just head to the vet when you smell that unpleasant fishy odor. Your pup's practitioner will be able to narrow down the exact problem.
If it's any type of infection, you'll be taking home antibiotics and pain medicine for your dog, and just as it is with human medication, make sure you give every dose. Stock up on sliced cheese, ham, or whatever treats you use most effectively to trick your dog into taking medicine. Get every dose into him or her so that you can be sure you've done everything you can to clear up the infection. After that, monitor for symptoms to make sure another round of meds isn't needed.
Final Possibility: Anal Gland Tumors
One other problem that can develop in almost any body part is a tumor. Just the word is a little frightening; nobody wants to think their precious furry companion could be facing a battle with cancer.
Don't jump to conclusions. The most important thing in the short term is to have your vet check the anal glands. If a tumor is possible, your dog will probably need a biopsy and/or ultrasound to find out more. From there, you can work with the vet to make a plan for bringing your dog some short-term relief to the gland problem while looking down the road at what will be best for the tumor.
Dogs Don't Talk. Here's How They Tell Us About Anal Gland Problems
Whether it's impaction, infection, or a tumor, problems with the anal glands show up with the same basic symptoms. The most common and distinctive behavior is scooting, when the dog is in a seated position and drags his behind across the floor. This can cause some of the contents of the anal glands to come out, releasing a little more of that unwanted expired sushi smell.
Dogs may also gnaw or lick at their anal region, trying to force some of the pressure out of the glands. The swelling may make it painful for your dog to defecate. As much as dogs seem to enjoy pooping, it should raise a red flag if your dog is in pain or even whining during a bowel movement.
Without these signs, you may also notice swelling, blood, or pus around your dog's anus. If you touch the surrounding area, it may feel firm and swollen, and your dog may quickly express to you his or her dislike of your examination. In other words, you might get barked at or bitten, so use caution with your palpation.
Finally, you may be able to make a circumstantial case for anal gland issues. Small breeds, overweight dogs, and canines with food allergies, mite problems, or hypothyroidism should all be on your watch list for potential future anal gland issues.
Dealing With Anal Gland Issues
We hope that by now you have an idea of what causes your dog to get that fishy anal gland smell and how you'll know what's going on without taking a deep breath. This just leaves the big question: What can you do about it?
There are a number of ways to keep anal gland issues to a minimum. About 4% of dogs experience gland problems, but you can do a lot to improve your dog's odds even further.
Short Term Suggestions
- Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian
To every dog owner's misfortune, the problem is a bit bigger than giving your dog a bath or purchasing a topical spray or ointment. Hence, why we called this section “Short Tem Suggestions” and not “Short Term Solutions”.
Long-Term Solutions & Preventive Action
Once you get to your veterinarian, here’s a few suggestions that they’re very likely to share with you themselves.
Manage Weight & Activity
Everybody laughs at fat little dogs that lie around and snack all day, but there's nothing funny about the anal gland issues that may result from this lifestyle. Cut out table food, increase exercise, and talk to your vet about how to restore Rover's svelte figure. Even dogs at a healthy weight should also have regular exercise.
Expect Problems from Small Breeds
Some breeds are just more likely to have anal gland issues. These small dogs should be watched carefully for early symptoms and taken to the vet at the first sign of trouble. Regular intervention will help keep the glands at a manageable size so that they never become painful. You may even be able to do it yourself at home, if the smell won't bother you.
Manage Digestion Through Diet
The final step for prevention is to make sure your dog's bowels move properly. Keep an adequate level of fiber in the diet, and maintain a supply of clean, cool water. Dogs that spend time both inside and out will need a bowl in each place so that they're never more than a few steps from a nice lapping session.
Clearing the Air (...Literally)
When preventive measures haven't worked and treatment is taking place after the smelly fact, you'll still have a dog that just plain smells bad. Fortunately, there are a number of products on the market made just for this purpose. Keep your pet's skin sensitivity and allergies in mind, but beyond that, any of them should do the job.
As for your long-suffering home, you can also find products that deodorize furniture, carpets, and the air. They do a great job at restoring your home's pleasant atmosphere. Of course, the most important thing is keeping anal gland problems under control or preventing them altogether. If you follow these simple steps, you'll have very little need to deodorize.
Abraham, M. (n.d.). Anal Gland Impaction. Retrieved from The Kennel Club: https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/health-and-dog-care/health/health-and-care/a-z-of-health-and-care-issues/anal-gland-impaction/
Flowers, A. (2020, November 8). Anal Sac Disease. Retrieved from WebMD: https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/anal-sac-disease-dogs#091e9c5e803933ba-1-2
Grill, J. (n.d.). Abscess in Dogs: Care and Treatment. Retrieved from Dog Health Guide: https://www.dog-health-guide.org/abscessindogs.html
Horwitz, D., Landsberg, G., DePorter, T., & Joswich, J. (n.d.). Canine Communication - Interpreting Dog Language. Retrieved from VCA Animal Hospitals: https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/canine-communication---interpreting-dog-language
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