Dog Smell Like Fish? Here’s Why!

by Sonya | Last Updated:   March 18, 2021

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We love our furry dog friends, but sometimes, they stink. Like, they really stink. They can roll in all sorts of things, making them smell less than pleasant – not to mention if they are unfortunate enough to get skunked… yuck!

You can’t always bathe them either, because too frequent baths can cause skin irritation, their coats to be less silky and more. When they smell, it can be hard to step away from the bath, but that may not always be the right solution for your dog.

Sometimes, your dog can smell like fish, and it’s not because they have recently eaten some fish or have gone swimming. The smell of fish coming from your dog is usually because of their anal glands, and the smell is generally indicative of a problem.

It could be as simple as your dog needs their anal glands expressed, or manually emptied, or there could be something wrong that requires the attention of your veterinarian. You may just want to get it checked out just in case to make sure that nothing is wrong with your dog. Better safe than sorry!

Let’s take a look at why this fishy smell can happen with your dog, starting with understanding exactly what anal glands are, how they can impact how your dog smells and what could be causing it.

Ultimately, your vet can rule out if anything is seriously wrong with your dog, and a fishy smell could be the first indication if there is something amiss.

Woman plugging her nose while holding her dog that smells like fish

Why Your Dog Smells Like Fish

Anal glands are small sacs that are on either side of your dog’s anus, and they are filled with specialized sweat glands. These sweat glands produce an odor, often unpleasant smelling, that is your dog’s scent marker. That means it identifies your dog – similar to a name, but simply a smell instead.

Their personal smell will tell other dogs a lot about them, and that comes from either sniffing their butts or their poops – common, but another weird behavior that dogs do.

So for example, when your dog is smelling another dog’s poop, while gross, they can actually tell a lot about the other dog. It’s a form of communication – albeit a super gross one – that can tell your dogs important information like the other dogs’ age, gender, health, and more about them.

It can also help your dog to identify the other dog again if they come into contact again. Dogs can also express their anal sacs when they are scared, and this secretion is completely normal in this case.

The scent that comes from your dog’s anus is unique to them, and that is because of the anal glands or the anal sacs. It is only a problem if this secretion smells like fish. That may be an indication that something is wrong with their anal glands, and you will want to visit a vet or a groomer to help get rid of this smell.

How to Get Rid of the Fishy Smell

That fishy smell won’t go away by itself! If it is the first time, you will want to contact your vet just to do a quick wellness check. If your dog habitually smells like fish, they may just need to have their glands manually emptied. If this is the case, your vet, a groomer, or even yourself can do this with proper training!

Whoever is completing this service will need to locate the glands internally. There, they will be able to feel the obstruction. Then, they will start work on removing it, milking it out until the glands are no longer obstructed.

Once this is completed, it should resolve the fishy odor coming from your dog.

Obstructed anal glands are very common in dogs, especially in smaller dog breeds. This means that certain breeds may need their anal glands expressed more than others, but keep in mind that you will only want to do this when you notice the smell coming from your dog.

Expressing your dog’s anal glands too often could cause scar tissue to develop and cause inflammation that can cause discomfort in your dog, so you should only do it when there is a problem.

What Else Could Be Causing the Fish Smell?

In severe cases, your dog may need to see their veterinarian to help express compacted, infected, or abscessed anal sacs. Groomers and dog owners should not attempt to manually express the glands for these more severe cases as they require more complex medical assistance, including antibiotics to treat any infection or inflammation.

Your dog’s anal glands can become impacted if they do not empty them fully of fluid when they poop. This could be because your dog’s stool is too soft, and if this is the case, your dog will not be able to properly express their glands when they poop because of the soft nature of the dog’s stool.

There could also be an abnormality in the dog’s anal sacs that would cause similar problems. Over time, the leftover fluid in the glands can dry out and cause the anal sac to become impacted, which is very painful for your dog. This is why it requires immediate treatment from a veterinarian.

Impacted anal sacs may be treated with a softening agent or saline rinse prior to expressing the gland to help move the blockage, though if you leave it untreated, they may become abscessed and potentially even rupture. However, once it is treated, your dog should not face any long-term consequences and the fishy smell will no longer be there.

Impacted anal glands can happen because of your dog’s diet, and your vet may put them on a higher fibre diet to ensure this doesn’t happen again and your dog can express their anal glands naturally. Obese dogs are also at a higher risk of impacted anal glands, so making sure your dog stays at a healthy weight with plenty of exercises can help as well.

Your dog’s anal sacs may also become infected or abscessed and need medical treatment. This could happen for any number of reasons, including if you leave an impacted anal gland untreated for too long. These will be very painful for your dog, so you will want to get it treated immediately. In the most serious cases, abscesses can rupture through the skin if left untreated.

In order to treat one, your vet will clean it with an antiseptic and then give your dog an antibiotic. If the infection is severe, it may not resolve itself immediately, and the anal glands may need to be expressed more than once in order to take care of the infection.

In extreme cases, your dog may need their anal sacs removed. This could be because of anal sac disease or anal sac tumors. Anal sac tumors will feel firm and enlarged to the touch, and because of this, it will limit or completely stop your dog’s ability to express its own anal glands. You will want to keep an eye out for other symptoms that could be indicative of anal sac disease.

Your dog may scoot on the floor, bit or lick their anus, have difficulty going to the bathroom, or have blood or pus in their stool. Your dog’s anus may also be discolored, and any of these signs on top of that fishy smell could be indicative of a larger problem, so you will want to check with a vet.

If your dog does need their anal sacs removed, there are few things you will want to keep in mind. After this surgery, your dog could potentially suffer from incontinence among other potential complications, so these procedures are not done lightly. However, most procedures are successful and there are no side effects that impact your dog’s quality of life, but it is still important to understand what the side effects of the surgery are.

How to Prevent That Fishy Smell

Some dogs are predisposed to needing their anal glands expressed, but there are some things that you can do to help prevent it. You will want to make sure that your dog eats enough fiber. If their stool is too soft, they won’t be able to fully express their glands, which can cause their anal glands to be compacted.

You can give your dogs special food to make sure they have enough fiber or add additional nutrients like seeds to your dog’s food to get more fiber in their diets. Be sure that your dog stays hydrated through regular drinking of fresh, clean water. Lastly, make sure your dog gets regular exercise and stays at a healthy weight.

Of course, these may not always prevent anal sac build-up, so you will want to keep an eye out for any issues. Once you smell that fishy smell, you should try to get your dog into the vet or the groomer. They can help express the anal glands so your dog can start smelling like themselves in no time!

Sonya is a software engineer by day and recently earned her MBA degree, but she also loves spending her free time writing about her favourite passion, dogs! Click here to read more.