There are a few unspoken truths every dog owner can agree on: Dogs’ paws smell like corn chips, and dog breath smells terrible. As the owner of two Chihuahuas, I have a confession to make — I actually like the uniquely terrible way my dogs smell. After spending time with these two stinky little pups for over a decade, their corn chips-scented feet and their stale breath remind me of home.
For most dogs, smelling bad is just a way of life, but that doesn’t mean we, as pet owners, shouldn’t pay attention. In some cases, the stench of your best friend can mean there’s something wrong. A particularly pungent pet odor, especially one that grows stronger or changes over time, could be the sign of an underlying medical issue.
Here are some things a bad smell could be signaling according to experts.
1. Overgrown yeast populations
According to Dr. Katherine van Ekert, veterinarian and cofounder of VetPronto, dogs’ strong odor may be caused by the yeast Malassezia pachydermatis.
“Most dogs have a small number of these yeasts living on their skin without any issue. However, yeast populations can swell when the normal skin barrier is compromised,” says van Ekert. “This can occur when skin is exposed to prolonged wetting, e.g., ears are not dried thoroughly after washing, ear canals are narrow and do not allow moisture to escape, skin allergies (atopy, food, flea allergies), exaggerated skin folds (such as bulldogs and shar-peis) and hormone imbalances (such as thyroid disease and Cushing’s disease).”
2. Dental issues
What about those moments when you lean in for a puppy kiss and are met with dog breath so terrible it blows your hair back? Just like people, dogs need regular baths and teeth cleaning. Birgitta Lauren, dog owner and breeder of Cavalier King Charles spaniels, says she most commonly sees dogs with bad breath caused by a lack of dental care.
It’s a slippery slope — infrequent brushing can quickly lead to inflamed gums and infection, with serious dental issues in the long-term.
3. A nasty infection
Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, staff doctor at The Animal Medical Center in New York City, says she most often sees strong “doggie smells” associated with skin and ear infections caused by bacteria, fungus or parasites.
“Occasionally, the bad smell owners detect is stinky urine secondary to a bladder infection,” she adds.
And that infection your pup has contracted might be an underlying symptom of an even deeper problem: allergies.
“Most skin infections and ear infections are secondary to allergies and the resulting itchiness,” Hohenhaus says. “Appropriate medications can quickly clear up a skin infection only to have it relapse because the underlying allergic condition was not treated. Thankfully, there are many options to treat allergies in pets. Flea infestations can also be the cause of some skin infections. Treatment of fleas will be necessary to treat the secondary infection.”
5. Improper grooming
In some cases, the answer to a strong odor may lie right under your nose: Your dog may need to be groomed more often.
Dr. Patrick Mahaney, the industry’s leading veterinarian, explains, “Many dogs may smell different as a result of the frequency with which they are bathed, the type of shampoo or conditioner used in the grooming process, the needed amount of brushing or combing that is or is not being met (non-shedding dogs needing more frequency brushing/combing, etc.).”
6. An overprocessed diet
Circling back to the infamous “Frito Feet,” this general dog stink is most likely related to diet according to Dr. Laurie Coger of The Wholistic Vet.
“While the urban legend is that this odor comes from eating a corn-based diet, the real reason is bacteria and yeast that live on the skin between the toes and pads of the foot,” Coger says. “Diet may have an influence in making it easier for some microbes to thrive in the canine foot environment — grains and starches are more acidic and promote inflammation in the body, changing the pH and chemical nature of the paw. This favors yeast and certain microbes, which are actually responsible for the smell. Anecdotally, dogs fed a natural diet with few or no starches rarely have ‘Frito feet.'”
As a dog owner, never underestimate your ability to “sniff out” a problem. If your stinky dog starts smelling like roses after a bath and a teeth brushing, a regular grooming routine could be the answer you have been looking for. If your dog can still clear a room after a bath, check in with your vet. Your pup’s funky aroma could be caused by a serious health problem.
A version of this article was originally published in June 2015.