Veterinarians often get asked the question “Why does my dog smell so bad?” People frequently place blame for this embarrassing problem on themselves, thinking that they are not caring for their pets properly. In fact, there can be several reasons why some dogs have a distinctively bad smell.
Reasons some dogs smell
Some reasons for a dog’s foul odor are obvious. Many dogs like to roll in poop and dead stuff and, yes, play with skunks. You may not witness the event but the smell is unmistakable. Usually, giving the dog a good bath will solve the problems associated with rolling in smelly things. For dogs who have encounters with skunks, there are several skunk sprays available, but a thorough bath to rinse the oils off the coat followed by some type of acidifying wash using diluted vinegar or tomato sauce can work. Be prepared for the scent to linger for a while, though; you may not want your best friend to sleep on the bed for a few weeks.
Then, of course, there can be other issues that are not as easy to identify. The basics behind an odor from a dog’s skin or coat are pretty straightforward. There is generally some type of infection, a change in the skin’s composition or an alteration to the amount of secretions the skin produces. The difficulty is in trying to figure out exactly what the underlying disease process is that’s causing these skin changes.
Dogs with allergies
Let’s start with one of the most common culprits, allergies. Allergies typically affect pets differently from the way they affect humans. In humans, allergies cause itchy, watery eyes and sneezing, but in dogs, they often manifest themselves as problems with the skin.
Dogs can have allergies to something in their food or something in the environment. The allergens to which the dog is exposed cause an inflammatory response in the skin. A whole cascade of events leads to the dog becoming very itchy, with the primary irritant causing inflammation along with secondary scratching and, ultimately, trauma from the dog scratching himself.
The result is skin changes that, when mild or present for a short period of time, often go unnoticed or untreated. If they persist or worsen, however, they cause the skin to become inflamed. The skin gets thicker, secondary infections develop, and then the skin produces increased amounts of secretions of oils and water.
You can kind of see where this is heading. The thick skin, secretions and infection all mix together to form a pretty stinky stew. Simply bathing the dog will not help, or at least it won’t help for long. The underlying disease or diseases need to be treated. Treating allergies is beyond the scope of this discussion, but your veterinarian may prescribe things such as medicated baths, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and primary treatment for the allergies such as a special diet or allergy shots.
Canine skin infections
Yeast infections are another common underlying problem that can lead to a bad skin odor. Yeast is not a typical inhabitant of the skin, but given the right environment, they can sure flourish there. Sometimes the yeast is localized to places such as skin folds or ears — places that stay dark and moist. Often, however, the yeast can infect a dog’s skin systemically. This is seen more in dogs who have had a stress to their immune system, but any dog can develop these infections.
Once the yeast infection is diagnosed by your vet, treatment may include medicated baths and oral medication. Be patient, as this type of infection can take weeks or even months to clear up.
Seborrhea in dogs
Now let’s talk about seborrhea. Dogs with seborrhea have excessive scaling and flaking of the skin. The seborrhea may be dry and flaky or oily and greasy, and is often worse in skin folds.
There are two forms of seborrhea, primary and secondary. With primary seborrhea, which is often breed-specific and starts at a young age, there is no identifiable underlying disease. Secondary seborrhea occurs when another disease causes excessive scaling and flaking of the skin. Hormonal changes, allergies, infections (from bacteria, fungus or parasites), poor diet, obesity and environmental factors such as temperature and humidity changes can all lead to secondary seborrhea.
Both primary and secondary seborrhea are treated with medicated baths, as well as treatment for any of the underlying problems mentioned above. There are other specific medications and supplements that can help, and treatment is tailored to the individual dog by a veterinarian.
To sum up, you’ve probably noticed that bacterial and yeast infections and allergies are mentioned several times. The take-home point with skin disease and chronic odor in dogs is that many different problems may be at work all at once, throwing off the normal healthy balance in a dog’s skin. It can be time-consuming to not only diagnose but to treat successfully. A good outcome is highly dependent on working closely with your veterinarian, following her directions and, above all else, being very patient.