Why Does My Dog's Breath Smell Like Fish? | Herepup
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Why Does My Dog’s Breath Smell Like Fish?

“Peee-yew!” Is this a constant refrain in your house every time your dog climbs on your chest for a kiss? I mean, you love your little guy, but sometimes it can seem like while you were gone, your dog escaped, found a nearby river, and gorged itself on days-dead trout before returning home – with you none the wiser.

Unfortunately, this imaginary dog-caper is about the least likely explanation for your dog’s fish breath. While dogs do normally have bad breath, the specific fishiness of your dog’s odor is disconcerting. Read on to find out why your dog’s breath smells like fish, and how you might deal with this problem!

What Makes My Puppy's Breath Smell Like Fish?

Bad breath (which is also called halitosis) is something we’re all aware of; it happens in us when we don’t brush our teeth often enough, or when we misguidedly eat that last piece of anchovy pizza before bed. Halitosis occurs whenever bad bacteria builds up in your mouth, lungs or stomach, causing vicious odors that are not fun to get in your nostrils.

Dogs in particular are susceptible to gum disease, tartar and plaque, all of which can contribute to your dog’s bad breath, so it's important to keep teeth clean. Small dogs and breeds with flat faces and short-nosed features, like a pug or a Boston terrier, are especially prone to these ailments, mostly because their teeth are so close together.

Most of the time, a good dental chew will do the job. Brushing their teeth also does as much good for them as it does for you. However, if you think your pooch might need a more thorough cleaning, check with your vet.

Here are some more great tips for curbing "dog breath" from our friends at PetPlus.

But…Why Fish?

That’s a very good question, and it might have a more disgusting cause than you might think. (Hint: it’s butt stuff.)

Whenever your dog licks its butt – don’t deny it, we all know it happens – it can pick up a fishy smell if your dog’s anal glands are not emptied. You see, your dog has these anal sacs that excrete some anal gland fluid whenever your dog goes to the bathroom. However, if your dog’s glands are not emptying properly, that leads to them filling up and becoming infected.

This is the cause of your dog’s fishy breath: the glands fill up, the fluid gets infected and impacted inside, and your dog’s breath gets fishy when they lick their butt. Yes, gross, I know, but that’s what you signed up for – a beautiful, adorable, disgusting best friend.

While the stench of fish is repulsive, your dog is probably feeling way worse about things than you are, in a literal sense. While a mild case of impacted anal sacs won’t cause severe pain, it does cause a bit of discomfort in your pooch. That’s why he’s licking his butt in the first place.

The most famous visual symptom you’ll see when a dog has a problem with his anal sac glance is when he starts “scooting.” This is when your pooch sits down on his hindquarters and drags his butt across the ground or floor. They do this in an effort to unclog the sacs.

While “scooting” may have a certain charm as far as warning signs go, letting anal gland problems linger does not. In some cases, anal glands may get infected and abscess. When this happens, the dog will be in terrific pain, to the point where he may snap at you if you try to tuch the area around his tail.

How Dangerous Is My Dog’s Breath?

dog breath freshener

Given the plethora of possible problems that could be causing your dog’s bad breath, there are varying levels of concern you should have. If your dog’s breath is being caused by a lack of brushing or some other minor problem, that’s usually pretty easy. Even the full anal glands are not the worst problem in the world.

However, bad breath could also be caused by worms, or kidney and liver disease. With that in mind, if your dog’s bad breath persists, or gets more severe, you should definitely take him or her to the vet to see what might be done.

How Can I Fix My Dog's Bad Breath?

Focusing specifically on the problem of fishy bad breath (usually caused by the aforementioned anal gland blockage), the solution can be a bit tricky.

First, have a chat with your vet to see if your dog needs his or her anal glands expressed. The vast majority of dogs can express their glands on their own; it happens naturally when they eliminate. 

However, some dogs do get backed up, and, on occasion, glands may need to be expressed. For most dogs that do happen to get backed up, this shouldn't need to be done more than once or twice. If done too regularly, it can sometimes lead to even more clogging, so it's definitely something you should talk to your vet about and treat with caution.

However, if your pup does need her glands expressed: your veterinarian is should be able to take care of it. Once the glands are emptied, the fishy smell should go away on its own over time.

Can I Express My Dog’s Anal Glands Myself?

If you don’t mind getting up close and personal with your pooch’s backside, you can take care of most anal sac gland expressions on your own. However, before you dive in, you should know there are certain situations that should only be handled by a vet.

For instance, if your pooch is suffering from an anal gland abscess, it must be handled by a veterinarian. Your vet will end up lancing the abscess, which will be then followed up by a prescription of antibiotics for about 7 to 14 days.

If you happen to catch pus or blood around your dog’s butt, or if your dog seems overtly squirmy when you approach his backside, you should not attempt to express. In fact, you should schedule a vet visit ASAP. There could be something going on that a mere squeeze won’t fix.

How to Express Your Dog’s Anal Glands

The first step you’ll want to take when expressing your dog’s anal glands depends on the size of your pooch. If you have a large dog, you’ll want to kneel behind him. If you have a little guy, you’ll put him on a small counter or table.

Next have a friend of family member - yes, this is a two-person job - gently restrain your pooch. Put one arm under and around the dog’s neck, and put the other around his body, closely hugging him.

From there, strap on a pair of latex or latex-like gloves - never conduct an expression without them. Lubricate your index finger with either a water-based lubricant or petroleum jelly.

The next step is to carefully lift up your dog’s tail and very gently insert your index finger into your dog’s butt, about one inch forward. Gentleness is the key here, as anything remotely harsh may really startle the dog.

You’ll then want to feel around for the gland, with your index finger on the inside and your thumb on the outside. You’re looking for an object about the size of a marble or a pea, depending on the size of the dog. These should be set at roughly the five o’clock and seven o’clock positions.

After the gland has been located, put a paper towel between your hand and your dog’s anus. Gingerly “milk” the gland toward you by placing pressure on the gland’s far side and squeezing toward you. The amount of pressure to apply is roughly the same amount that you’d feel comfortable with applying to your own eye when it’s shut.

At the end of the anal squeezing, the gland itself should be empty. You’ll barely be able to feel it once it’s been unloaded. Be sure to wipe the area clean before moving on to the other gland.

Again, if you express the glands yourself, do not make it a habit to do so. Over-expression does more harm than good, such as causing even more gland back-up. This in turn causes even more discomfort for your pooch.

What if the Fish Breath Keeps Coming Back?

An expressed anal gland should spell the end of your pooch’s fishy breath. Yet if you find that if the fish odor returns sooner than later, you may have a situation in which the anal glands clog on a recurrent basis. If you’re supposed to take it easy with the gland expressions, what do you do?

If your pooch’s anal sacs are perpetually impacted, your vet may put him on a diet that’s high in fiber. The reason for the extra fiber is to make his poop bulkier, which will in turn put more pressure on the anal glands as the stool passes through. This added pressure in turn will force the glands to do their job.

If it remains a problem, your vet may recommend a surgical procedure called an anal sacculectomy. As the name may imply, this procedure is marked by the removal of the anal glands. It is a relatively simple procedure, and although the dog may experience incontinence afterward, such after-effects are rare.

Keep that Breath Clean!

Canine bad breath can be an indicator that you need to step up your pooch’s oral hygiene game. However, when you get past the putrid smell of your pooch’s breath, pay attention to the odor the breath is bringing. It could be a sign that something else is going down.

So, the next time something smells fishy about your dog, be sure to check more than just their mouth – the cause might be on the other end.



Paul is an entrepreneur and marketer for the pet industry who works out of Chicago. He teaches people how to break free of the 9-to-5 grind by blogging for a living. Currently, Paul runs the HerePup along with the team of dedicated experts – so you know he has the knowledge to help you make the right choice.

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