6 Reasons Dogs Can Have a Fishy Smell & How to Fix It

Your dog could smell like fish because they just rolled in ick, or that unpleasant odor could be caused by an underlying health issue.

Published June 15, 2023
Woman holding her pet dog

There's no getting around it. Sometimes, dogs smell. Everyone knows wet dog smell. But if you've ever caught a whiff of something coming off your dog that you just know isn't right, such as a strong fishy smell, something more could be going on with your dog. It could indicate your dog is experiencing some health issues, and you need to address the underlying cause to get rid of the odor.

What Makes a Dog Smell Like Fish?

Most of the causes of that fishy smell you're experiencing are linked to some sort of health issue. Unless your dog has rolled in dead animal or has been eating a lot of old food from the garbage, check for signs something else is wrong.

Woman cleaning dog ears
  • Anal glands: The most common reason for a dog having a fishy smell is because of the secretion from the dog's anal glands. These small glands on either side of the animal's rectum contain a smelly, oily fluid that's used to mark territory and identify other dogs. Usually, the glands empty themselves when a dog defecates, but if they become impacted or infected, they may emit a strong fishy odor that is stronger toward their rear.
  • Dental issues: Poor dental hygiene can also cause a dog to emit unpleasant odors from their mouth. While this may not always smell fishy, it can sometimes depend on what your dog has eaten. Also, some dogs who have not had proper dental care can develop infections in their gums, and these can very often give off a smell somewhat similar to stinky fish. You'll be able to tell when you catch a whiff of your dog's breath.
  • Skin infections: Bacterial or yeast infections on your dog's skin can produce a pungent, sometimes fishy, odor. Such infections might be associated with allergies or underlying health issues. The odor may be less noticeable, and you may only detect it here and there. If you're having a hard time pinpointing the smell, check your dog's skin.
  • Pyometra: This is a severe bacterial infection of the uterus in unspayed female dogs that can cause a fishy smell, among other symptoms. It usually occurs after a heat cycle, when the dog's cervix is more open, allowing bacteria to enter and infect the uterus. You might suspect pyometra if your dog is unspayed and the smell is particularly strong.
  • Ear infections: A fishy smell could also come from a dog's ears. Ear infections in dogs, often caused by bacteria, yeast, or parasites, can emit a strong, foul odor that seems to come from their ears.
  • Diet: The smell could simply be due to your dog's diet. If you're feeding your dog a fish-based diet, the smell could come from their breath or their skin as their body processes and excretes the fish oils.

Addressing Your Dog's Fishy Aroma

Eliminating a fish smell from your dog largely depends on identifying and treating the root cause of the smell. Here are some general steps to take:

  • Dietary changes: If the smell is linked to your dog's diet, consider changing their food. However, always consult with your vet before making significant dietary changes, especially if your dog has known health conditions.
  • Regular grooming: Regular bathing with dog-friendly shampoos can help manage unpleasant odors. However, avoid bathing your dog too frequently, as it could dry out their skin and coat, leading to other problems.
  • Express the anal glands: You can do this yourself, but if you take your dog to the groomer regularly, they can perform this service for you. Just be sure to wear gloves and hold a clean paper towel up to prevent discharge.
  • Dental hygiene: Regular teeth brushing with a dog-friendly toothpaste or professional dental cleanings can help prevent bad breath and related odors.
  • Ear cleaning: Regular ear cleaning with an approved canine ear cleaner can help prevent ear infections that can cause bad smells. If you suspect an ear infection, however, check with your vet first.
  • Treat infections: If your dog has a skin, ear, or urinary infection, follow your vet's recommended treatment plan. These conditions often contribute to bad smells and require specific treatments to resolve.
Quick Tip

In cases of pyometra, you will need to resolve the infection with your veterinarian's help. You might reduce the smell by giving your dog a bath, but this is only temporary.

Tips to Prevent These Smelly Problems

Keeping your dog smelling fresh is a continuous effort, especially if your dog enjoys the great outdoors. Here are some tips to help:

Man giving his pet dog a bath
  • Bathe your dog regularly: How often you bathe your dog depends on their breed, health, and lifestyle. As a general guideline, plan to bathe your pup at least once every 1 to 3 months. Use a dog-friendly shampoo that won't irritate their skin or strip away natural oils.
  • Daily brushing: Regular brushing helps remove dead hair and skin, distribute natural oils that keep your dog's fur healthy, and can help control odors. Plan to brush your dog's coat daily if they have long hair or a few times per week if they have short hair.
  • Nutrition: A high-quality diet can influence the smell of your dog. Poor-quality food can lead to skin conditions, poor coat health, and bad breath, all of which can contribute to unpleasant odors.
  • Bedding: Wash your dog's bedding regularly. Even a clean dog can start to smell if they are constantly lying on dirty bedding.
  • Check your dog's paws: Keep your dog's paws clean to avoid a buildup of bacteria and yeast, which can cause odors. Check for any debris or dirt stuck between the paw pads regularly.

Be Cautious If the Smell Persists

Sudden or strong smells can be a sign of health problems. If your dog's smell changes dramatically or is associated with other symptoms like scratching, discomfort, changes in appetite, or changes in behavior, this is cause for alarm. If your dog is consistently giving off a fishy odor, you will want to get them checked for anal gland problems, infections, and other underlying causes of the unpleasant aroma. The good news is, with proper treatment, stubborn fishy smells will go away.

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6 Reasons Dogs Can Have a Fishy Smell & How to Fix It