Why Does My Dog Smell Like Fish?

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  • Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.

Unusual odors can sneak up on us when we least expect it and then we suddenly realize that the odor is coming from our dog! Why are they so stinky sometimes? And why in the world do they smell like fish on occasion?

Specific odors that emanate from your pet can be a part of the normal flora that live in and on your dog, but they can also be signals for actual medical issues.

In this article, we’ll go in-depth to explore all the odors that can come from your pet that may or may not be normal.

Some dogs are smellier than others

Depending on a dog’s breed, sex, age, and conformation (how their body is formed), a dog can have more odor than another. For example, retrievers and cocker spaniels have oilier coats than Boston terriers. The more oil that is produced, the more likely there will be an accompanying smell.

If your dog has skin folds like an English bulldog or shar pei, then the skin will collect yeast and skin cells in those folds that can cause an odor. Odors that you notice from the skin are from the bacteria breaking down the oils and sweat from the glands in the skin.

There are glands called atrichial glands, in the footpads, which can have also have a stinky odor that some people think smells like corn chips (random, I know!).

You can give your dog a bath with a gentle shampoo or take them to a groomer to see if they have any recommendations. Bathing your dog too often, however, can disturb the natural flora on his or her skin and coat, so try to limit it to it to every other week.

As long as the odors you’re smelling are not related to a medical condition, this isn’t something to worry about.

My dog’s breath smells like fish

Dog smiling - how to brush your dog's teeth

Fishy odors that you notice coming from the mouth may be associated with illnesses like kidney disease, diabetes, or periodontal disease. Bad breath associated with periodontal disease is from the production of volatile sulfur compounds from the bacteria. Other bad breath sources are most often from byproducts of bacterial metabolism from the bacteria living on the gums, top of the tongue, and plaque on the teeth.

Brushing your dog’s teeth with an enzymatic toothpaste 2-3 times a week will prevent plaque formation and help curtail bad breath. Using dental treats or those that scrape off plaque and tartar, like bully sticks, will also clean your dog’s teeth naturally.

If you’re noticing a fish-like odor from your dog’s mouth it could be the following conditions:

  • Gingivitis
  • Tartar, plaque, and calculus
  • Stomach upset
  • Food caught in the teeth
  • Other: tumors, decaying teeth, tooth root abscess or infection

If your dog likes to eat stinky things like cat poop, fishy treats, or has a fishy food then this can also be the source of breath that smells like fish.

Why does my dog’s urine smell like fish?

Even though your dog may eat a slightly different diet than you, their urine should smell like your urine. If you’re noticing a strong odor that wasn’t present before, this is probably a sign of urinary tract infection, or UTI.

UTIs come from bacteria in the urine that doesn’t belong there causing the urine to smell like fish.

As soon as you notice this smell, call your veterinarian to schedule an analysis of the urine which looks for crystals, red blood cells, protein, white blood cells, and any other indicators of a urinary issue. A urine culture should also be performed where they look to see if any bacteria are present in the urine. If your veterinarian suspects a UTI, your dog will be put on a course of antibiotics to clear up the infection which will then clear up the smell.

My female dog smells like fish

Your female dog has normal bacterial flora that live in the vagina but a foul odor that smells like fish (or worse) could be a sign of a medical condition.

If you’ve ruled out anal gland issues and you’re seeing a light-colored discharge coming from the vagina, this could be a sign of infection of the vagina called vaginitis, caused by yeast and/or bacteria.

The uterus of the female dog can also get infected causing a white-yellowish discharge to exude from the vagina. An infection of the uterus is called pyometra. Pyometras are serious conditions that warrant emergency surgery and if you suspect this, please take your dog to the veterinarian immediately.

This occurs in female dogs that have not been spayed. If she’s been spayed and is still having this discharge, this is still cause for concern because the stump of the uterus, if leftover by the surgeon, can get infected. Also, the conformation of your dog’s vaginal area can predispose your female dog to get UTIs depending on how it’s shaped.

So if you’re smelling an odor coming from your female dog’s rear end, it could also be a UTI. All of these conditions require medical attention and can be determined by your veterinarian.

My dog smells like fish when they’re scared

Dogs have specialty scent glands on their anus, aptly called, anal glands. These are the gland that dogs are smelling when they happily greet one another!

Anal glands are little sacks on the sides of the anus filled with an oily smelly material that releases whenever your dog defecates. However, some dog’s anal glands can be expressed and suddenly leak out their dark oily smelly substance when they become frightened, stressed, or if they suddenly relax in certain positions.

If you notice your dog scooting around on the floor with his rear end, this is often a sign that he or she is having some irritation from full anal glands. Your veterinarian or groomer can periodically empty the anal glands manually to prevent smells from recurring and stop the scooting.

When is dog odor a medical condition?

Your veterinarian can help you investigate if the smells you’re noticing are normal or pathological. First, they’ll do a history and physical examination to see if there’s a source of the odor.

If there’s no history or signs of illness or skin disease then your vet can tell you what the natural smells are for your dog. If you’ve noticed that your dog’s smell has changed, then this could be an indication of skin disease or systemic illness.

Obvious causes of a bad odor can be from urine or fecal soiling, skunk sprays, odor from infection, physical injury, or something your pet may have rolled or stepped in.

Skin diseases that are smelly include

  • bacterial skin diseases,
  • fungal skin diseases,
  • dandruff or seborrhea,
  • and ear infections.

These all have mild odors depending on the severity and you may only notice them when you get close to your pet.

Severe body odors that also need veterinary attention include septic ear infections, combinations of ear and skin infections with parasites, and odors from autoimmune skin disease secretions. No matter what the cause, your veterinarian will help you find out what’s causing those smells and let you know whether they’re harmful or just something to be ignored.

The bottom line

We covered how many conditions can be a cause for your dog to smell like fish or have, what may be perceived as, a bad odor.

Investigating further what could be causing your dog to smell like fish could allow you to learn a lot about your dog’s habits, diet, and alert you to any health conditions.

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