Why Does My Dog Smell Fishy?

All medical claims reviewed by Dr Pippa Elliott. BVMS, MRCVS.

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Fishy Smell? Think Anal Glands or Bad Breath

If your dog’s fishy odor is so bad you’re thinking of renaming him ‘Kipper’, read on.
There’s nothing endearing about a dog that smells like rancid fish. The first step to getting rid of the foul odor is working out where it’s coming from.

The Sniff Test

Troubleshoot the problem by giving your dog the ‘sniff test’.

Where does it smell bad?

Make like your best buddy and give him a bit of a sniff (cautiously – try not to take a deep breath of something super unpleasant). Start with a cautious whiff of the dog’s breath and if that is fresh as a daisy, and there’s no sign of an ear infection turn your attention to the rear end.

If you still aren’t sure, then check the dog’s bed or where he likes to lie down. Overfull anal glands have a habit of leaking, so that foul-smelling fishy secretion may make his bedding smell bad too.

Localise the problem pong to the head end or anal area and you’re set for solving the problem.

Anal Gland Problems

As the name suggests, a dog’s anal sacs (also known as anal glands) are located near the dog’s anus: on either side to be precise. These are two small sacs located at the twenty-past-eight time if the anus was a clockface.

Why Do Dogs have Anal Sacs?

A dog’s anal glands produce a mixture of oils and secretions which form the dog’s ‘scent signature’. The idea being that every bowel movement is anointed with a few drops of secretion so that the dog’s stool carries a small scent flourish that lets other dogs know who’s about.

Indeed, each scent is unique to each dog (in a fishy kind-of-a-way), and it’s this unique scent that other dogs are detecting with all that but sniffing.

dogs smelling each others unique scent - resembling the featured image of 'why does my dogs breath smell like fish?'

Uncomplicated Anal Sac Disease

Some dogs go their whole life with no anal sac issues at all. Sometimes, if the dog doesn’t eat enough fibre (which produces a bulky stool, which then naturally expresses the anal gland with each defecation) there’s a secretion build-up. This stretches the anal sac and if the pressure builds up, they then leak. This deposits a film of fishy odor on the fur of his rear end, and worse still, on things the dog sits on.

A simple explanation for anal sac problems can be soft stools due to a diet of dog food that’s low in natural roughage. To solve this anal gland issue can be as simple as giving extra fibre in the diet. Sources of fibre include vegetables, wheat-germ, bran, or canned pumpkin. The latter is sweet and most dogs love the taste of it, so it’s perfect for the picky eater.

Alternatively, ask the dog groomer if they are happy to do anal gland expression each time your poodle visits the parlour. Alternatively, the vet or vet nurse is trained to do anal gland expression in a safe and painless manner.

If your dog has never had anal gland issues but suddenly starts to smell, have a think if they’ve had any digestive issues recently. Loose stools, or diarrhoea don’t express the anal sacs fully, which can lead to a build-up of secretion and that oh-so unpleasant foul odor following him around.

How Do You Tell if the Dog has Anal Sac Issues?

Dog owners can easily spot if their pooch has a problem because the dog will scoot on their backside. You know the scenario: The mother-in-law has come to visit and the dog chooses that moment to go scooting along the carpet, bottom pressed to the floor, back paws up, front paws pulling them along.

If the dog does this regularly, it’s odds-on they have an itchy butt. This is either due to full anal glands or to migrating tapeworm segments (Yewh!) If in doubt, get the dog checked by a vet.

Should Your Dog See the Vet?

Over-flowing anal glands make a dog smell like fish. This is unpleasant but generally nothing to worry about, but there are exceptions. If the dog is scooting but is under-the-weather, seem in pain when they poop or pass, then the real reason may be a dog health problem such as infected anal sacs.

Infected anal glands are very painful, so much so the dog may limp on the back end because they have a sore rear. Take a peek under the dog’s tail: Can you see a swelling or does the skin around the anus look angry or red?

Untreated, the abscess may burst, which can be alarming to the dog owner as this is accompanied by blood and pus. Always see a vet since treatment involves giving pain-relieving medications and antibiotics.

Expressing Anal Sacs

Empty the anal sacs and the dog’s fishy odor will clear. But this is a case of ‘Don’t try this at home’…that is unless you have been taught how to do this by a vet. The anus is a delicate place and clumsy squeezing is likely to end in discomfort that won’t endear you to the dog. Instead, visit the vet or find an experienced dog groomer experienced who is confident about the correct way to empty anal sacs…not all are!

When the Dog’s Breath Smells of Fish

Heading back to the opposite end of the dog, sometimes their breath can be distinctly fishy. This is commonly down to diet and a dog food that’s high in fish meal. The latter is perfectly nutritious, but is a relatively cheap source of protein, which makes it popular with some pet food manufacturers.

If you are struggling with your dog’s breath, do two things:

1) Review their Dog Food

Read the ingredients on the pack. Avoid a diet where fishmeal (or indeed, fish) is one of the top five ingredients. Instead, opt for a food that reads like a menu. Does it name the meats heading up the list? Are there plenty of nutritious vegetables full of fibre?

2) Improve Dental Hygiene

Dirty teeth is also a common cause of foul odor (although not exclusively with a fishy odor). Have the vet give the dog a dental check and follow their advice. A top tip is to brush the dog’s teeth daily…just like we do.

Use a dog toothpaste since these are flavoured with chicken, beef, or duck, and taste like a treat to the dog, which helps them to co-operate. But NEVER use human toothpaste, since this contains flouride which is toxic to dogs when swallowed.

Alternatively, dental breath fresheners can be very effective and can easily be applied to your dogs water bowl.

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Why does my dog smell fishy? Use your nose to track the problem to the source and get it sorted, which is good news for everyone.

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