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There’s an old saying, usually said with a grin, that there’s nothing friendlier than a wet dog. Having been a recipient of soggy greetings from water-soaked canines, I can attest to its truthfulness. But why do so many dogs smell when they get wet? Here, we break down why wet dog smell happens and what you can do about it.
- Moisture amps up odor-causing microbes
- Wrinkly skin invites smelliness
- Diet can play a role
- Quick and frequent drying helps
- Natural enzyme cleaners are magic
- Grooming wipes are helpful in a pinch
- Linen bedding like these beauties or this set fights stink
- Baking soda is your friend
- Consult your vet if odor is persistent or foul
Read on for more details and expert tips to fight the funk.
All animals—including us humans—have microbes like yeast and bacteria living on our skin. These microorganisms produce waste in the form of various chemical compounds that usually aren’t noticeable when the dog is dry. When a little water is added, however, these compounds are liberated from the dog’s skin and hair and the resulting dampness accentuates the odor.
The odor of a wet dog can vary depending on a variety of things, including:
- quantity of drool and slobber
- how much time they spend outside
- what they like to roll in
- how often they’re bathed
- folds of skin
- allergies, dermatitis, or yeast infections
Sometimes diet and even a dog’s breed can factor into doggy odor and wet dog smell, too. In general, dogs have a different body chemistry and different dietary needs than humans. This produces smells that can be strange or off-putting to dog owners; when mixed with water, the effect is simply amplified.
Back when I worked for veterinarians, two breeds we saw that invariably came in smelly were basset hounds and Chinese shar peis. Basset hounds are known for having a “houndy” odor, due in part to the sebum (a lubricating substance secreted by glands under the skin to protect hair and skin) found in their naturally oilier skin.
Sebum feeds bacteria so these dogs can have a higher population of the odor-producing microbes. A grooming bath every couple of weeks can help keep those microbes under control.
Shar peis also have more sebum as well as large, moisture-trapping skin folds that are susceptible to dermatitis. It’s important with all wrinkly-skinned, and especially wrinkly-faced breeds—think bulldogs, pugs, Pekingese, and French bulldogs—to wipe the folds clean as part of a regular grooming process.
Grooming wipes work well for this and can help prevent skin issues as well as the doggy odors that come with them.
A constantly wet, slobbery mouth can also be a source of doggy odor. Drool increases the wet dog smell in general because microbes love damp environments.
Giant breeds like the English mastiff, Newfoundland, Neapolitan mastiff, and Saint Bernard, as well as hounds like bloodhounds, coonhounds, and basset hounds, are all known for excessive drooling and a generally “wet mouth.”
The grooming wipes can be helpful here, and I also recommend having a supply of “slobber rags” available to keep things from getting out of hand.
If you have a dog who can’t resist detouring through every puddle, it can be hard to keep them dry. For those water-loving dogs, swimming and wading in lakes and rivers can lead to stinkier odors such as fish and decaying vegetation.
So keep a close eye on your dog. While not technically a wet dog smell, a roll in a dead fish found on the shore (or decaying anything) can be the best part of a dog’s day and simultaneously the worst part of yours. If you manage to keep your lunch down, I applaud you. The stink of dead animals is hard to get out and requires some of the uber-strong products one would use when a dog’s been sprayed by a skunk.
It’s all about the quick dry.
My old setter won’t go past a few inches or so in water, but he loves to walk in the tiny pond in my front yard during the summer to cool his feet. Of course, it’s always right before he comes inside the house. I call him Swamp Legs and even have a little swamp ditty I sing to him as I clean up the muddy footprints on the floor and wipe his legs dry with a towel…then I give him a cookie.
If your wet dog is like mine, even though you wipe them down thoroughly when they come in from the rain or after a bath, they still like to rub along the side of your bed, the sofa, and the carpet to help dry off, thus transferring their wet doggy scent to your home. Yay!
Regular baths can go a long way in keeping your dog smelling fresh. Generally no more than every two weeks is best, and if you have a large, or heavily coated breed, once every month or two is plenty. And be sure to wash his collar frequently, too. A nylon collar can go in the wash, but get a leather cleaner if he wears a leather collar.
There are also spray-on odor neutralizers made for pets. Most are geared toward cleaning up house training accidents but all will work for doggy odor as well. Be sure that products you use are made for pets—some of the plug-in air fresheners or essential oils can be harmful to them.
If your dog sleeps with you, then investing in quality linen bedding will significantly reduce pet odors in your bedroom. Linen is sturdy, odor-repelling, but also soft. You’ll find plenty of options at online and brick-and-mortar retailers; we love these luxe organic European duvet covers and these soft linen sheets.
For your dog’s wet smell-absorbing bedding, slipcovers, and other doggy items such as fabric or nylon collars and leashes, use a good odor neutralizer detergent such as Costco’s Kirkland brand, or any “oxy” detergents, including Arm & Hammer.
In addition, it’s helpful to add a quarter cup of apple cider vinegar in with the detergent cycle, as well as the rinse cycle.
Pro tip: be sure that any product you use isn’t just masking the odor with a frilly scent. Check to see that it actually contains odor-eliminating ingredients such as enzymes or baking soda.
If you drive your dog to a place to swim, say at the local dog park, your car can begin to smell like a wet dog. Always bring a few large dog towels so you can towel him off before he jumps into the car for the ride home.
If your dog spends a lot of time going on rides in the back seat of your car, a blanket thrown over the top is easier to remove and wash than your upholstery. Along with resisting the wet dog smell, this helps to protect against permanent stains.
That said, one of the best, and safest, ways to remove doggy odors is tried and true: baking soda!
Use the baking soda by sprinkling it liberally on your fabric furniture or car upholstery, paying attention to the cracks and crevices, and use it on your carpet as well.
It’s a good idea to do this at night, or early in the day, so you can leave the baking soda on for several hours to give it a chance to absorb odors. Then vacuum thoroughly to remove the baking soda. (For vacuums for dog owners dealing with excess smells and pet hair, see our article The 20 Best Vacuums for Dog Owners That Actually Work.)
For most pet parents, wet dog smell comes with the territory.
To me, burying my nose in the scruff of my dog’s neck fur on a cold winter’s day is one of the best smells in the world. It’s a scent that evokes something from our ancient past, the wildness of nature, a little bit of my dog’s wolf ancestors, the unknowable mystery of the world around us.
It makes me grateful for my life with dogs, smells and all.