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Why Does My Dog Smell Like Fish? The Reason is Actually Quite Gross!

If your dog is constantly smelling like fish, there's likely some Anal Gland issues happening with your pup. The good news is that some of these are easily treatable. Veterinary Technician Amber LaRock examines why your dog smells like fish, and when it might be time to call your veterinarian.

Amber LaRock

Last Updated: June 4, 2021 | 7 min read

Dog Smells Like Fish

If you have a canine friend in your life, you know they don’t smell like roses. While our pups may have a natural dog scent, they should never have an overpowering smell that knocks you off your feet. If your dog suddenly smells like fish, it can have you pinching your nose, wondering why it’s happening.

Many things can contribute to your dog’s foul smell. Some of them involve a quick fix, like a wet dog needing to dry or a dog that got into the trash and needs a bath. Other times it can be more serious, as in an ear infection, dental disease, gas, or anal glands. It’s hard to miss the strong fishy smell some dogs can put off.

So why does your dog smell like fish? In this article, we will dive into the details of anal glands in dogs and help you put an end to their fish smell for good!

Is It Normal For a Dog To Smell?

Blue-Eyed Dog Looking Up
There is a multitude of typical reasons why your dog smells, most of which are considered normal.

Most dogs have a standard body odor we grow used to. Their scent may become more pungent after playing outside, getting wet, or for a number of other reasons that may be more serious, but it should never be so overpowering that it warrants concern.

Dogs may seem a bit musty if you give them a big whiff, but you should not be able to smell them from across the room. A strong fishy odor is not typical in our canine friends and often points to some type of anal gland complication.

What Are Anal Glands in Dogs?

Tail of a White and Black Dog
Anal glands or anal sacs excrete a scent to mark territory, usually while defecating.

So, what is an anal gland in our canine friends? Also known as anal sacs, a dog’s anal glands sit on the right and left sides of the inner anus, positioned at about 5 and 7 o’clock when compared to the base of the tale. These sacs contain sweat glands that produce smelly fluid. This fluid should be naturally excreted in small amounts each time they pass stool.

Anal glands are meant to help a dog leave a unique scent behind each time they do their business. The secretions that come from the glands are meant to be a scent marker for our furry friends. This helps to let other passing dogs know that they were there.

Their glands not only express each time a dog passes stool but also when frightened or alarmed. A sudden loud noise or stressful event can cause a pup to release its anal glands. This then results in a fishy smell that fills the room. While this can be gross, it is completely normal.

Anal glands should empty slightly each time a dog poops, but this is not always the case. Some dogs struggle to empty them, causing frequent gland expressions at their veterinary office.

Signs The Anal Glands Are Full

Dog Licking Its Behind
Licking the anus is a sign that your pooch’s anal glands are full.

Anal glands hide inside a dog’s anus, making it challenging for some dog owners to know when they are becoming full. The glands can be very uncomfortable if they become too full, causing a pup to show a few signs of irritation.

Some of the most common signs of anal gland discomfort in dogs include:

  • Licking their hind end
  • Scooting their behind
  • A sudden foul odor coming from your dog
  • Leaving foul-smelling fluid behind on spots they sit or lay on
  • Swelling or redness around the anus
  • Straining to defecate

If your dog is displaying any of the above behaviors, it may be their way of telling you they need their anal glands emptied.

How Often Should Anal Glands Get Expressed?

Chihuahua at the Vet
Anal gland expression should happen naturally, but some dogs require monthly manual expressions.

Every dog will vary on how often they need their anal glands expressed. Some dogs only have them manually emptied once or twice a year, while other dogs will need this service every month. This answer varies based on how well your dog can express their glands on its own and whether or not your dog is prone to anal sac disease.

It is more common for small dogs to struggle with anal gland expression than large dogs. Because their anal sacs are emptied by the force of their bowel movements, small dogs don’t always provide enough force for them to completely empty. This is also a challenge for overweight dogs, as they cannot adequately posture the same way a fit dog can.

The best way to determine how often your dog should have their anal glands expressed is by monitoring for any signs of discomfort and maintaining a close relationship with your veterinarian. By monitoring how long it takes for your dog to display signs of discomfort between vet visits, you can better determine the best anal gland management for them.

What is Anal Sac Disease?

As we mentioned, some dogs struggle with their anal gland health more than others. Anal Gland Disease or Anal Sac Disease is a blanket term to describe any type of anal gland complications, ranging from infections to tumors. To help you better understand any potential complications, let’s discuss the many forms of anal gland disease.

Impacted Anal Glands

Vet Fixing a Concern on a Dogs Behind
The longer the fluid stays in the anal sac, the harder it becomes to excrete naturally.

If a dog can properly express their anal glands each time they pass stool, the fluid in the glands should remain slightly thin and yellow to brown in color. If a dog is unable to empty its anal sacs, this causes the leftover fluid to thicken and be more challenging to excrete. This makes it hard for the anal gland to empty, resulting in an impacted gland.

These impacted glands will need to be manually expressed and can become infected if they are not addressed quickly. This will also be extremely uncomfortable for a dog, causing them to display signs of impaction. Most dogs with an impacted anal gland will scoot constantly. They may also lick at their back end, and even experience mild redness or irritation in the area.

Anal Gland Abscess

Beagle Looking Back
Anal gland abscesses are the result of an impacted anal gland not addressed in time.

If an anal gland cannot be emptied and continues to accumulate secretions, this can quickly lead to a serious infection in the area called an anal gland abscess. This will become extremely painful for the dog and will need to be correctly drained and cleaned to avoid any damage to the area.

Most abscesses will require proper sedation to allow the vet to lance and drain the infected gland. Once the gland has been drained, your vet will often prescribe antibiotics and pain medication for the week following the procedure.

If this occurs in your furry friend, your vet will often recommend coming in once a month to make sure their glands are draining properly going forward. Dogs prone to developing infections will often need monthly draining, either from a veterinarian or at home.

Anal Gland Tumors

Behind of a Bulldog
Though they are rare, tumors of the anal glands do happen.

Anal gland tumors are not as common as impactions or abscesses, but they do occur. The most common anal gland tumors in dogs are adenocarcinomas, and often invade other tissues in the surrounding areas. These tumors are not only uncomfortable for dogs, but they can also make it challenging to pass stools as the tumor grows.

These tumors can be challenging to remove once they are detected. It’s common to see them begin to invade other tissues by the time they are diagnosed. Surgery is the best option when possible. But, is often not a cure due to the inability to take large margins in such a delicate area. Every situation will vary in severity. If your pup has a tumor, it’s best to speak with your vet about the best plan for your pup.

Fixing Fido’s Fishy Smell

Blue-Eyed Dog Covering Its Nose
Healthy anal glands that are often expressed are the best way to relieve this strong, fishy smell.

So, what do you do when your dog has a fishy smell? The best way to solve the problem is by taking your pup to the vet to have their glands expressed. All the baths in the world will not rid your pup of the stench if their glands are not emptied. This means that any other attempt will just be a temporary fix. Expressing their glands is the only way to treat the issue, and will rid your pup of any discomfort.

If your dog is constantly requiring an anal gland expression, you can speak with your vet about having them show you how to manually empty their glands at home. This is a common practice for dogs that require monthly anal gland expressions and is easily achieved once you are properly trained.

Promoting Anal Gland Health

Basset Hound Looking Back
A fiber-filled diet, plenty of water, and daily exercise are simple ways to ensure proper anal gland health.

Some dogs will always struggle with anal gland health more than others. The good news is that there are ways to help them going forward. There are a few ways to promote proper anal gland expression in your furry friend, all of which are easily attainable.

The best ways to promote anal gland health in your dog includes:

  • Offering your pup daily exercise
  • Making sure your pup maintains a healthy weight
  • Feeding your dog a diet with adequate amounts of fiber
  • Offering high-fiber snacks such as oatmeal, and sweet potato
  • Mix fruits and vegetables in with your dog’s diet, like pumpkin or zucchini
  • Making sure your dog has regular bowel movements
  • Check to make sure your pup is passing formed stools
  • Making sure your pup is drinking plenty of clean water
  • Giving your dog daily probiotic supplements that promote gut health

This can’t solve anal gland disease in every dog, but it can certainly make their lives easier going forward. Be sure to still keep an eye out for any signs of full glands in your furry friend. This way you can aim to prevent any complications going forward.

Final Thoughts

Anal gland complications are a common problem in our canine companions. It’s not something to be overly concerned about, and will generally resolve itself with the proper care. If your pup starts to smell like fish, you should now know exactly what to look for. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to consult with your veterinarian to create an action plan for your pup. This way, you can promote proper anal gland health going forward!

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