Fact checked by a Hello Ralphie expert veterinarian
Have you noticed a fishy smell coming from your dog recently? Don’t worry, you’re not crazy, and you’re not alone. This fishy scent is common. There are a variety of reasons why your dog could’ve developed this unpleasant odor.
In general, it’s best to speak with a veterinarian if you notice any abnormal smells.
However, we’ve outlined some of the most common causes of a dog’s fishy smell to help you narrow down where it might be coming from.
1. Dental Disease
Does your dog have bad or rotting teeth? Periodontal disease, or dental disease, is the most common cause of bad breath (halitosis) in animals. Read more about brushing your dogs teeth here.
This can happen when tarter and plaque build on the surface of a dog’s teeth. The buildup means an abnormal amount of the bacteria that naturally lives in the dog’s mouth has begun to stick to the teeth’s surface.
This, on its own, is enough to cause bad breath. But the tarter and plaque can progress to the point where the bacteria on the teeth’s surface reach the gums.
When the gums become affected, they get inflamed and irritated (otherwise known as gingivitis). Gingivitis will also contribute to the bad breath and fishy smell that can emanate from your dog’s mouth.
When the bacteria move past the gums and travel beneath the gumline, they can reproduce in the space where the root of the tooth meets the jaw bones. This can cause issues under the gumline, like abscesses or serious tooth decay, which may result in foul-smelling breath.
Lastly, any food or foreign object that can become stuck in the teeth, such as sticks or pieces of chew toys, can cause inflammation and infection, leading to bad, fishy breath.
Take the above into consideration if you consistently offer your dog hard chew toys, like bone marrow or antler pieces, which can cause of broken and infected teeth.
2. Otitis (Ear Infections)
Ear infections are another common cause of fishy smells. A veterinarian can help diagnose something called “otitis,” or inflammation of the ears, in your dog.
Otitis can be caused by bacteria or by certain species of yeast. Dogs are at a higher risk of otitis if they’re frequently wet, if they have allergies, or if they like to roll around outside and rub their face on the ground.
Bacteria or yeast can replicate, resulting in an ear infection. As you can imagine, this can be painful, causing swelling, redness, and a fishy smell. Your dog may have an ear infection if you notice their ears are dirty, sore, or hot to the touch. Other signs of an infection include your dog frequently shaking its head or rubbing its ears. They’re usually treated with ear drops or an ear wash. A telemedicine appointment may help you determine if your dog has an ear infection.
3. Anal Glands
If you don’t suspect dental disease or otitis to be the culprit of the fishy smell, it might be coming from your dog’s anal glands.
A dog’s anal gland is a small, pea-shaped secretory gland located on the inside of the rectum. It secretes natural, viscous contents that help lubricate the feces as it passes out the anus. The anal gland can become full and smelly if it’s suppressed.
When the anal gland is too full, which can be caused by allergies or if there’s not enough bowel movements to allow for natural expression, it can sometimes express all at once and let off a distinct fish-like smell.
These glands can also become impacted or infected, causing swelling around the anus and pain, as well as a fishy smell. A dog could have irritated anal glands if they’re persistently and abnormally licking their behind, or if they’re dragging their rear across the ground.
Manual expression of these glands may be needed to remove the buildup of secretion, providing instant relief. This should get rid of the fishy smell. You can also improve your dog’s gland health by adding a fiber source to their diet. Switching food to a diet high in fiber or asking your veterinarian about adding fiber supplements to their food can also benefit some dogs prone to anal gland irritation.
If you’re still unsure why your dog has a fishy smell, a telemedicine appointment with a Hello Ralphie veterinarian could narrow down the origin of the smell. Your virtual veterinarian may ask you a series of questions and will likely ask to take a look at your dog’s ears, teeth, and behind to help you determine what is going on.