Why Does My Dog Smell Like Fish?

If you're like me, your dog is perfect. In fact, there is nothing NOT adorably perfect about him. So, the first time my pup started smelling like fish I naturally assumed one of two very logical things: 1. He went out and bought daily omega 3 fish oil supplements because he read that it's good for his coat and joint health; 2. He's taught himself to fish and has been at the lake all day while I was at work.

Cute French Bulldog posing on the stairs with her toy, England
credit: gollykim/iStock/GettyImages

Imagine my horror when a more seasoned dog owner broke it to me that the fish smell is a symptom of impacted anal glands.

The "fishy" smell is coming from his butt

After some initial denial and trying to negotiate that "no, I think he's just licking himself there because of a separate very cute and perfect reason that is not at all gross or butt-related," I came to terms with the fact that the smell was coming from his anal glands and anal glands are in the butt.

I panicked and immediately took him to the vet. It took a second for the poor receptionist to figure out what the problem was, as I tap-danced around why we were there out of embarrassment. Finally, the receptionist said, "ma'am, does your dog need his anal glands expressed?"

Fishing dog jack russell terrier
credit: Kira-Yan/iStock/GettyImages

Impacted anal glands

Once we got to the back office, I felt better. The vet assured me that my dog's rotten fish butt is very common (well, technically she said that "impacted anal glands" are very common) and that they are nothing to be embarrassed about. She was probably talking more to me than my dog, as my pup was happily licking his but with little to no embarrassment as we chatted.

The vet went on to explain a dog's anal glands are basically two small sacs, located on either side of the anus at the 4 o'clock and 8 o'clock positions.

Illustration of dog's anal sacs (or anal glands)
credit: Dorling Kindersley/Dorling Kindersley RF/GettyImages

These glands are under the skin and fill up with fluid that is naturally expressed when fecal matter passes. But sometimes this doesn't happen naturally. There can be a host of reasons why, but often it's because the dog's stools are soft or the breed is predisposed to have this condition. The vet manually checked my pup to see if he was dealing with impacted glands. Once she confirmed it was a common case of impacted glands, she simply gave his butt a little squeeze, some fluid came out, and voila! He was back to being perfect and adorable and not at all gross.

Emptying the Anal Glands of a Dog
credit: "Tim, Crawford; Andy, Gorton; Steve Ridley"/Dorling Kindersley/GettyImages

We walked away feeling good and smelling great! I was really proud of myself for helping my pup and conquering my embarrassment. Unfortunately, this self-adulation was short-lived because when I called my friend to brag about how well I handled the situation, she had some notes. "Wait, you went to the vet? How much did that cost?" "Well, the office visit was $60 and then the expression was $35 so, under $100." "Just go to the groomer. They'll do it for like $20." "Oh."

Dog Licking A Caught Fish By A Lake
credit: Brooklyn Bain / EyeEm/EyeEm/GettyImages

When to see a vet

If your dog smells fishy, a quick expression of the anal glands at the groomer (or vet) will most likely do the trick. But in some cases, dogs can develop infections from anal glands that went impacted for too long. See your vet if you suspect that this might be the case, or if you get your dog's anal glands expressed and he still seems to be scooting, licking or biting the area.

Since this initial visit, whenever my dog starts to smell like fish I run him over to the groomer. Five minutes and $20 later he's good as new!

However, I do want the record to show that though it turns out the smell was coming from his anal glands, I do think my dog is smart enough to teach himself to fish.